Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dumb ways casinos lose money

I’ve never worked in the gaming industry, so I know nothing about the operational aspects of running a casino but…and I am just speculating here…I have always been under the impression that casinos are primarily in the business of making money. I’ve been to Las Vegas, Reno, Carson City, and Lake Tahoe, I’ve been to Indian casinos, and I am a card-carrying member of four casinos here in South Africa and, until recently, nothing I have seen in any of these places has given me reason to question my assumption about their raison d’être.

Hubby and I used to go to Grand West Casino in Cape Town on occasion and, when visiting his family in Durban, stop in at Sun Coast once or twice. Hubby likes to play black jack (and is pretty good at it) while I play the slots, the lower the denomination the better. Sun Coast is a little old fashioned in that you use real money…coins…in their slot machines, and Grand West, the most profitable casino in South Africa, uses the epitome of modern technology, a “smart card,” in theirs. To use these cards, which are the size and shape of a credit card, you simply slide them into the machine’s card slot, slip any denomination of rand note into the money slot, and play: the machine credits the money to your card and then debits each bet (and credits each win) as you play. When you are done with the machine, push a button (usually labelled something like “cash out”) and the machine ejects your card from the slot. Couldn’t be easier, could it?

It can, however, be decidedly more difficult and at least three Johannesburg casinos have come up with diabolically clever ways to cheat their own bottom lines while motivating you to keep your cash in your wallet rather than donating it to them via their little money-eating machines. Emperor’s Palace, a plush paean to the almighty buck, is located entirely too conveniently to the airport. All SA casinos I have seen have grand, glitzy hotels attached, and this one is no exception. Between the locals and the visitors to Joburg who have taken shelter in hotels near the airport, the place was jam packed the night we visited.

I don’t like it when the casinos are too crowded. Not only do they not seem to have sufficient air conditioning to keep the gambling floor comfortable, there are few machines available to play. Um…I should amend that to “there are few functioning machines available to play.” We seldom spend more than a couple of hours in a casino, but this night I think we spent less than 45 minutes…if I could find an unoccupied machine, it would not accept my card. “Invalid card” the readout would say, and spit the thing back out at me. I went to the cashier and she exchanged it for a new card but the problem continued. I found one machine that accepted the card but couldn’t get others to work. I finally called an attendant over who demonstrated to me that I was inserting the card incorrectly…I watched closely as he inserted the card in what appeared to be exactly the same manner I had done, only to see it work for him. Unfortunately, the subtlety of his minor manipulation of card insertion was lost on me and the next machines I tried declared the card invalid and rudely spit it back at me. Frustrated, I hunted down Hubby at a black jack table and suggested I was ready to go. Bless his little heart, we left. Foolish, foolish Emperor’s Palace: by allowing the machine’s card readers to become worn to the degree that it took a special trick to get the card to function, they cost themselves a chunk of money on each machine that would not greedily gobble a player’s card and help itself to their money.

Monte Casino, which is near my house, has the same problem with cards plus a little twist…when you decide to cash out of a machine, it doesn’t program the card with the amount you have left, it prints out a ticket that it spits out at you. These tickets are about 2.5 inches wide by about 4 or 5 inches long, each one custom printed, and you get one each time you leave a machine. Imagine how many trees die each day just to supply Monte Casino with the paper for these tickets for their hundreds of slot machines? These tickets are as good as cash, so if you lose one, the guy who finds it can pop it into another slot machine or he can take it to a cashier and get folding money for it. And if you have played a number of machines, you can end up walking around with a fist full of these things which you must not fold, spindle or mutilate or the next slot machine you try to insert them into will choke and you’ll have to call a non-existent attendant (at Sun Coast I hit a serious jackpot and cleaned out the machine, and it still owed me hundreds of rand…to get an attendant to come to the machine and pay me out, I eventually had to call my husband on his cell phone and he had to leave his black jack game and physically hunt down an attendant to service the machine and bring me the rest of my money!). So cumbersome and inconvenient are the tickets that, when Hubby asked me recently if I’d like to go to “the casino” I asked “which one?” and when he said Monte Casino, I declined.

But nothing, so far, beats Gold Reef City for practices guaranteed to send customers fleeing from the machines and donating their money to their competitors. I’ve been there twice…most recently today…and the hoops you have to jump through to use the majority of their machines are just mind-boggling. Now, this is OK for regulars…they know all the little quirks and foibles, the tricks and the special things you have to do to get a machine to work, but for newcomers, the necessity of doing more than putting in your card and some money in order to get the machine to function can be very off-putting. In fact, a woman sat down at a machine next to me this very day, put her card in the slot and quickly ejected her card and left when the money slot failed to function. She tried a couple of other machines, got the same result, then put her card in her handbag and walked away. I am guessing that was the end of her attempts at gambling for the day, since someone looking for a new machine to play generally keeps their card in hand.

What she apparently didn’t know is that Gold Reef City’s machines require the user to program them. Yup…you gotta program the machine before you can play it…and there are no instructions on the machine to tell you A) this is necessary, or B) how to do it. It goes like this: First you insert your card and pay attention to the readout which will tell you how much money is on the card. Next, you push “0” on the keypad, then input the amount of money you want “downloaded” to the machine. Then you push the √ button on the keypad and, if you are lucky, the machine will now “unlock” itself and allow you to play. Now, if you only had a paltry sum on your card and need to add money, you may put a note in the money slot at this time…assuming the money slot is functioning which, in many machines, it is not. If it isn’t, you must find a functioning machine, load money onto your card on that machine, eject the card, return to the machine you want to play (or have been playing), put your card back in, do the download dance again, and resume play.

Now, this is stupid for two reasons…First of all, the more effort you make people exert to get a machine to work, the more likely they are to become frustrated and/or impatient and walk away with their money still in their pockets. If you want people to give you their money without qualm, you have to make it both fun and easy, something Gold Reef City seems not to have grasped. Second, if the casino wants the best chance at stripping the customers for as much of their disposable cash as possible, they should not be giving the mark…er, customer…a chance to withhold some of his winnings from the next machine. At Grand West, if you pull off a big win on a machine, the whole shebang is credited to your card and, when you move on to the next machine, that whole wad of winnings is available for you to lose. Playing Gold Reef City’s way, not only does the player have to jump through a series of hoops just to get the machine to work, the player is able to download only a portion of the amount credited to the card…thereby saving himself money by not being tempted to play everything he's got. Grand West is not the most profitable casino in South Africa for nothing!

There are still a couple of casinos we haven’t tried up here and I am now curious to discover how they have conspired to shoot themselves in the economic foot. Grand West, in Cape Town, so far seems to be the only casino around that is geared towards making it as easy as possible for the patrons to leave behind as much money as they can…just like any self-respecting gaming house should!

Post Script: Well, we tried a new casino this evening and I discovered yet another way for a casino to lose money through discouraging its patrons. Grand West is part of a group of casinos and your casino card is good in all of the casinos of that group; naturally we assumed that would be the same for other groups of casinos. We have Gold Reef City cards and tonight we went to the Silver Star casino, which is owned by the same company. At the entry gate, our Gold Reef City card got us into the parking lot for free, so it was a great surprise to find that, while the parking system honoured the card, the casino did not! Hubby, a table games player, was able to play for cash but I, a slots player, spent an hour sitting in the lounge nursing a Coke Zero while Hubby played because when I put my card in a slot machine, it indignantly spat the card back at me with the huffy notation “Foreign Casino Card!”

After I stood in a queue for a good 30 minutes, a clerk told me that my Gold Reef City card was not valid inside the casino despite the fact that they have the same “loyalty” program…the two casinos, he told me, are not linked. And, since I had not brought my ID with me, I couldn’t get one of their cards…which meant I could not play…which meant my money stayed in my wallet instead of being swallowed down by a horde of hungry Egyptian queens and pharaohs, fairies, black cats, frog princes and princesses and their ilk. Just as well, I suppose…I have a birthday party for a one-year-old to attend next Saturday and I’ll just spend it on a gift for him.


  1. Ugh! Just lost a great comment (and a long one). Was just saying that it sounds as though these machines would drive me crazy. I don't really like gambling but every time I go to Las Vegas with Les, I always play one dollar for the maximum credits in a Joker Poker slot machine. Two years ago, I won 3,000.00 and the attendant couldn't believe I left to go up to my room. I wasn't going to waste my winnings giving it back to the casino, though! I had a lot of fun shopping at Jimmy Choo's the next day!

  2. Sounds like a promo for Grand West. Personally I think they are as crooked as they come. Not only can you not get a straight answer from them what their payout percentages are but they also installed new Novomatic autowheels which are automated roulette wheels which fires the ball with compressed air. That is all fine but when the wheel suddenly changes speed in mid spin that is a worry.... I will say it out loud. Those auto wheels are gaffed. Screw GW


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