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Bellagio, Mirage Poker Rooms Going Smokeless

30 May 2001

by David Strow

LAS VEGAS, Nevada – May 30, 2001 -- Perhaps few things are more associated with poker than the hazy, smoke-filled card room.

But that image is coming to an end at two of Las Vegas' busiest poker rooms, in the Mirage and Bellagio megaresorts. On Friday, parent company MGM MIRAGE will permanently ban smoking in both rooms, the only two operated by the company in Las Vegas.

Non-smoking gaming areas have been catching on elsewhere -- Atlantic City's famed Taj Mahal poker room has gone smokeless, as has the card room at Foxwoods in Connecticut. And several more casinos, including Trump Plaza and the Tropicana in Atlantic City, as well as MotorCity in Detroit, have set up separate non-smoking gaming areas.

But while smokeless gaming areas have caught on elsewhere, they haven't been much of a success in Las Vegas in the past, and the best that non-smokers could hope for until now are non-smoking table games scattered across casino floors and non-smoking seats that many casinos place next to poker dealers.

A third of all Nevada adults smoke -- more than any other state in the country.

Because of this statistic, the Nevada Resort Association and its constituents have fought efforts to curtail casino smoking, including a bill introduced in the Nevada Legislature earlier this year that would have required state casinos to set aside non-smoking areas.

But the influence of California, where smoking is banned in all public indoor areas, is making itself felt at the Bellagio and the Mirage. MGM MIRAGE officials said they've been hearing a growing number of complaints from Californians used to playing in smokeless poker rooms, and decided to 86 cigarettes rather than alienate an important group of customers.

"Our poker managers have been talking with customers regularly, and there hasn't been any negative feedback from anybody (on the move to no smoking)," said Jenn Michaels, spokeswoman for MGM MIRAGE. "We have had a lot of requests to make the poker room non-smoking."

Still, Michaels said, MGM MIRAGE isn't about to extend the ban to the rest of the casino floor at either property.

"In other areas, there are non-smoking tables, so people can make choices," Michaels said. "With poker players, they're sitting in one seat for hours on end. (The environment) is much more concentrated."

It's a move that could be risky, said Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno. Generally, non-smoking gaming areas have underperformed areas of the casino that allowed smoking, Eadington said.

"Casinos that have tried this in the past have met with limited success, and sometimes with significant failure," Eadington said. "There's a limited number of prime (poker) games in Las Vegas, so one risk is they might lose players, and someone else could grab the brass ring."

Other major poker rooms don't appear interested in moving in the same direction at the moment, though Binion's Horseshoe is considering banning smoking at next year's World Series of Poker. Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter, said many poker tournaments nationally have been putting no-smoking policies in place.

Mandalay Resort Group is the largest operator of poker rooms on the Strip, with card rooms at each of its five Strip properties -- Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Excalibur, Circus Circus and 50-percent owned Monte Carlo. All five rooms allow smoking, and none plan to ban it any time soon, though half of the seats in the Monte Carlo's poker room are designated as non-smoking.

"We have the benefit of having a relatively new property ... (the casino floor and poker room) do not have any problem with smoke because of its modern (ventilation) equipment," said Gordon Absher, spokesman for Mandalay Bay.

Smoking also isn't on the way out at Station Casinos Inc.'s four Las Vegas poker rooms. The rooms at Palace, Texas, Boulder and Sunset are popular among Las Vegas locals.

"Historically, our customers have preferred to smoke as part of the entertainment experience," said Station Casinos spokesman Jack Taylor.

Still, Eadington believes MGM MIRAGE wouldn't take such a step alone without research.

"They could very well be tapping into something that within two or three years could be very strong," Eadington said. "It's a battle between smokers and non-smokers, and who's less tolerant. The biggest problem casinos have with the prohibition of smoking is that the gambler has to leave the casino to smoke, and they may not come back.

"Poker players tend to have very strong opinions as a group, and this (opinion) may have very well swung in favor of non-smokers."

Curtis said he knows poker pros who have thought about quitting the game because they couldn't stand the smoke.

Though poker rooms in Las Vegas have generally been immune to smoking bans in the past, Curtis doesn't believe the change will be enough to drive smokers from the tables at the Mirage or Bellagio.

"People will play anyway ... they'll just take cigarette breaks," Curtis said. "I think players will go where the games are, whether they can smoke or not."

And ultimately, Eadington said, smokers may discover not lighting up can be as beneficial to their wallets as their lungs. For many players, cigarette smoking can be a "tell" -- a subconscious signal that expert players use to decipher the strength of an opponent's hand.

"It may turn out that even players who smoke might say that non-smoking tables are a necessary evil," Eadington said.

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