In Atlantic City, complimentary programs a nice payoff for poker players

ON GAMBLING

March 21, 2006|By BILL ORDINE

In poker, as with most things, there's no free lunch. Whatever a player hopes to gain from the game, there's a price to be paid - in study, time and often, cash.

But occasionally, you really might get lunch paid for, or dinner, or more. At some Atlantic City casinos, poker rooms have developed loyalty programs - roughly patterned after airline frequent flier clubs - to reward customers.

Many casino-goers are already familiar with the player cards that are used by slot machine patrons. Inserted in slot or video poker machines, the cards record how much and how long a customer plays. Based on that information, the player receives complimentary food, rooms and even merchandise. Players at table games such as blackjack and roulette are also rated and comped.

Casinos make very little off poker compared with just about everything else on the casino floor, and that's why poker rooms were disappearing before the television Texas Hold 'em craze revived the once-moribund game. It's also why casinos weren't encouraged to give as much in comps to poker players.

But with so many casinos opening, reopening or expanding their poker rooms, competition for players is more heated and comp programs are now more common and sometimes more generous.

In Atlantic City, there are 11 poker rooms, more than double the amount just a few years ago, and most offer comp programs.

One of the first was the Tropicana, a casino that stayed with poker even during the lean years, and players there can both earn comps and qualify for discounted room rates.

Poker players are comped based on both the betting levels of the games they play and, of course, on the time they spend at the table. The Tropicana follows the standard range in Atlantic City - 50 cents to $2 an hour - depending on how rich the game is.

A rule of thumb is 50 cents an hour earned for $2 to $4 and $3 to $6 limit games, also known as structured games; $1 an hour for $1 to $2 no-limit and $5 to $10 structured games, and $2 an hour for $2 to $5 no-limit and $10 to $20 and higher structured games.

To qualify for a poker room rate at the Tropicana and most other casinos, the minimum required playing time is four hours. The discounted rates range from $39 to $59 midweek and from $89 to $150 Friday and Saturday, based on season, availability and demand.

The Tropicana, which expanded to 48 poker tables, is introducing another perk - admission to the casino's Diamond Jim's VIP lounge - for players who accumulate the equivalent of $150 in comps a month.

The Atlantic City Hilton contends it offers the most generous comp returns in town. The casino at the far south end of the Boardwalk opened its 22-table poker room in December with a rare amenity - a window with a view.

The Hilton's advertised comp rates go as high as $3 an hour. As is the case elsewhere, the lowest limit tables yield 50 cents an hour in comps. But $3 to $6 structured hold 'em games and $1 to $2 no-limit games earn $2 an hour, and $5 to $10 structured hold 'em and $2 to $5 no-limit is credited with $3 an hour.

A spokeswoman said a limited number of hotel rooms are available at discounted rates, but the prices and play requirements aren't advertised.

The Borgata, perhaps Atlantic City's most upscale casino, does publicize its poker room rates. As usual, minimum playing time is four hours and currently, the rates start at $100 midweek and can be discounted to $59 for longer play. The Friday-Saturday poker rate is $125. The room rates are based on season and availability, so circumstances can change as the weather gets warmer. To qualify for the room rates and the hourly comp accumulation, which is in line with the normal 50 cents to $2 an hour formula, players are required to get a Borgata players card. The Borgata, with 36 tables now, has a major rollout planned for the spring to 85 tables.

The Harrah's Entertainment casinos, which now include Harrah's, Showboat, Caesars and Bally's along with the Wild Wild West and Claridge in Atlantic City, have five poker rooms among them; the Claridge is the one without.

Those casinos generally follow the 50 cents to $2 an hour model, and the comps earned are integrated with the casino corporation's Total Rewards loyalty program. Dollars earned in the poker room can be combined with comps earned elsewhere in the casino and used at the company's many properties around the country. Caesars still operates under the old Caesars Connection comp system but should be part of Total Rewards by April.

The Trump Taj Mahal, with 79 tables, also comps at a rate of 50 cents to $2 an hour and offers poker hotel rates, with a minimum of four hours of play, at $65 midweek and $85 for Friday, Saturday and holidays.

Players interested in earning comps for their play should alert poker room personnel before sitting down because frequently, a player card is necessary. bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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