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Best of John Grochowski

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Changes in the Chicago Area

25 October 2000

Those of us who have been playing on riverboat casinos in the Chicago area since Empress Joliet opened in 1992 have seen big changes in the marketplace.

Remember when we used to have to pay admission--as much as $18--to board and gamble? Remember when there were no permanent pavilions, when we reached the boarding ramps through tents and other temporary facilities? Remember when there were no local slot clubs, and rewards programs did not include cash back?

The biggest change of all has been the advent of dockside gaming. Now that we can come and go at will, Illinois riverboats seem that much more like real casinos than the "little putt-putt boats" that Mayor Daley mocked when he urged that Chicago be excluded from the original legislation legalizing casinos.

The next wave of change will come as operators replace their riverboats with barge facilities. Barges will enable operators to put all their slots and table games on one level, instead of sending customers upstairs and down as on the boats.

Harrah's Joliet has become the first to break ground, with a $70 million project to open in Fall 2001. It includes a five-story parking garage with 980 spaces, 4,000 square feet of retail space and two barges to be enclosed by a wall separating them from the Des Plaines River. From the outside, you'll not be able to tell they're in the water.

At groundbreaking ceremonies Sept. 13, Harrah's Joliet general manager Tom O'Donnell promised a Las Vegas-style facility, one that will show everyone what Harrah's can do.

It's a busy time for Harrah's. A day after the Joliet announcement, Harrah's East Chicago had groundbreaking ceremonies for a 15-story luxury hotel, also to open in Fall 2001.

The $47 million hotel, which will be adjacent to Harrah's bus pavilion, will have 292 rooms. On the 15th floor, there will be seven super suites measuring 1,000 square feet each. Standard suites will be 504 square feet, which Harrah's says is 50 percent larger than at most hotels in the area.

Harrah's East Chicago will become the fourth casino operation in the Chicago area to add hotel facilities, joining Harrah's Joliet, Empress Joliet and Trump in Gary.

SLOT CLUB CHANGE: Local analyst Howard Stern, Queen of Comps Jean Scott and more than a dozen other readers jammed my e-mailbox last week to make sure I knew that Empress Joliet had cut slot club cash back to video poker players.

At the base rate, $400 in play at the slots still brings $1 in cash back, but it takes $800 in video poker play to earn $1 in cash back. That's a 0.25 percent return on slot play, but only a 0.125 percent return on video poker. On Triple Point Tuesdays, slot players get a 0.75 percent return, while video poker players get 0.375 percent.

Many Nevada casinos give video poker players a lower cash-back rate than they give slot players. In the Chicago area, Hollywood tried doing it a few years ago, but abandoned the idea in a few months. The reasoning is that video poker yields a higher payback percentage than reel slots, so that players already are getting their "bonus" on the machines.

It's an odd coincidence of timing that Empress has made the move at a time other casinos are moving toward doing more to attract video poker players. The arrival of multihand games such as Triple Play Poker have made video poker more profitable for the casinos, and several casinos--notably Hollywood, Trump and Majestic Star--have responded with better games without cutting slot club returns.

PROMOTIONS: Each month, all of the casinos in the Chicago area have drawings, giveaways and other promotions that target slot club members. In addition to attracting play with a glitzy promotion, operators want to expand their data bases by getting players to sign up for club cards.

Earlier this month, I received newsletters from Grand Victoria and Majestic Star, each touting drawings. At Grand Victoria, winners of $1,000 drawings may also pick another envelope for an extra prize ranging from a snack bar certificate to a $55,000 Corvette. At Majestic Star, the big prize is a trip for two to Hollywood to attend a Jeopardy! taping.

Both newsletters included coupons for extra entries. (Actually, I receive two versions of each newsletter. The copies addressed to me as a Sun-Times columnist do not include the extra entries; those addressed to me as a club member do.)

The key is to sign up for cards, and use them as you play. Don't play extra for the sake of drawing tickets, meal comps or any other promotion. That can be far more costly than anything you're likely to get in return. Just play your normal amount, then take any perks that come.

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski