Complimentary Validation System Featured in the Wall Street Journal
In Las Vegas, Drinks Flow a Little Less Freely
Casinos are introducing technology to signal when a person has played enough poker to get a complimentary pour; the green light
By Chris Kirkham
April 18, 2017 1:33 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS—On a recent trip here, Phil Fletcher and his friends were at a video poker bar at Bally’s casino when they noticed a series of red and green lights on the back of the machines.
He had heard about the lights, but as a longtime visitor to Vegas, he was shocked upon seeing them in person: The lights signal when a person has played enough poker to deserve a free drink, upending decades of tradition. Typically, guests got a complimentary pour at the bar regardless of how much they bet, without being tracked.
“It’s become very frustrating with all the nickel-and-diming,” said Mr. Fletcher, of Winnipeg, Canada, who visits Las Vegas at least three times a year. “As a customer, it throws you way off.”
As Las Vegas has transformed into one of the world’s most-visited tourist destinations, casino operators are re-examining the perks that historically lured gamblers.
Over the past year, casinos have started charging for parking at resorts on the Strip, eliciting criticism from locals and longtime visitors who view free casino parking as a sacred tradition.
Now operators have started scrutinizing complimentary drinks, introducing new technology at bars that track how much someone has gambled—and rewards them accordingly with alcohol. It’s a shift from decades of more-informal interplay between bartenders and gamblers.
Sports books have capitalized on big events, too. During March Madness, a five-person booth at the Harrah’s Las Vegas sports book cost $375 per person, which included five Miller Lite or Coors Light beers a person. In the past, seating at most sports books was free and first-come, first-served, even during big events. Placing a small bet or two could get you free drinks.
“The number-crunchers, the bean-counters have ruined Las Vegas,” said Brad Johnson, who lives in North Carolina and has come to Las Vegas almost every year since the early 1970s. “There’s no value to it; there’s no benefit.”
Casinos on the Strip now derive a smaller share of revenue from gambling. In 1996, more than half of annual casino revenue on the Strip came from gambling. Last year, the share was down to about a third, according to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. More of the revenue comes from hotels, restaurants and bars.
MGM Resorts International is piloting a program at the MGM Grand on the Strip that prints a voucher when someone has spent enough at a video-poker machine at the bar.
Alan Feldman, executive vice president at MGM Resorts, said the goal was to free up bar staff from having to account for who was and wasn’t playing. “Instead of trying to keep track of someone’s play, you have a chance to say ‘Where are you from?’” he said.
On a recent night at a bar inside the Paris Las Vegas casino, Jamie Balazs and her father were getting used to the new drink-monitoring system. They had just been instructed on how much they needed to put into the machine to allow booze to flow. A bartender told her to push the “max bet” button four times, she said.
She said she understood the desire to weed out freeloaders who aren’t gambling but found the instructions off-putting.
“I said ‘Don’t you worry, honey, I’m going to get there,’ ” Ms. Balazs said. “As an honest gambler, you feel like ‘Come on, trust me.’ ”
Her father, Jim Fletcher, was in town with a group to celebrate his 70th birthday. As a top-tier member in Caesars Entertainment Corp.’s rewards program, he felt the new system was “insulting.”
“That’s why you come to Vegas, for the cheap deals,” he said. He paused to sip his free vodka tonic and put another $20 into the machine: “But I love coming here. That’ll never change.”
Richard Broome, executive vice president of public affairs at Caesars, which owns Paris Las Vegas and Bally’s, said the system is intended to better reward players and distinguish them from those who aren’t gambling.
“The only one who doesn’t like it,” he said, “is the person who wants to milk the system, get free drinks and not spend any money.”
So far the system applies only to machines at casino bars. Players at slot machines on the floor can still wave down cocktail servers for free drinks.
Bartender James Tanner said the system has made his job easier because he can avoid awkward debates with customers who were lingering at machines but not really playing.
“Our conscience is clear,” he said.
Wesley Angell, a bartender at Sully’s inside Bally’s, grew up in Las Vegas. He said the light system aims to end the time-honored tradition known as “the Vegas hustle”: Putting $20 into a machine, soliciting a free drink, pretending to play and cashing out early.
The light system, rolled out by Caesars over the past year at bars at all nine of its Las Vegas resorts, monitors the money gambled and the duration of play.
Mr. Angell explained that a blue light indicates the player has put enough money—$20 at the start of play—into the system. The green light signals the player has gambled the money.
If the player continues to put in money and gamble, the green light will remain on. The red light means the gambler has slowed down and signals time to serve the last free drink.
How “free” the drinks are depends on your point of view.
“I had a $200 drink the other day,” said Lily Paradise, who was visiting Las Vegas from Long Island, recalling a particularly unlucky streak.
Some gamblers say they have started playing at casinos off the Strip, in Downtown Las Vegas or the suburbs, which haven’t instituted the same kind of systems.
“They wouldn’t dare stiff you,” said Armand Dodsworth, a New Jersey native who now lives in Henderson, Nev. “The bartenders know you enough that they don’t have to hassle you.”
For novices, the systems can be confusing. Paul Howard, part of the birthday crew, said he put $20 into a machine at a Bally’s bar, started playing and asked for a beer. The bartender told him he wasn’t playing fast enough, that the green light wasn’t yet illuminated.
Mr. Howard was just learning the game, but he tried to pick up the pace. “Am I catching up? Is my light green?” he said. The bartender told him it only came on sporadically.
She did serve him a beer, he said.
Write to Chris Kirkham at firstname.lastname@example.org
Comments are closed