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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Looking In On: Gaming

18 July 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Harrah's Entertainment isn't saying much about its plans to redevelop its center Strip properties. Details are expected this fall.

In the meantime, Strip watchers have some free advice.

For starters: Don't mess with Caesars Palace, arguably the world's best-known casino. It makes sense for Harrah's to tear down its time-warped, low-rent Imperial Palace, but elegantly middle-aged Caesars still is the opulent flagship and will stand up admirably to a new wave of ultrahip Strip developments.

While access to the mazelike property could be improved and its old-fashioned Strip frontage better exploited, Caesars doesn't need a makeover a la MGM Mirage's $7 billion Project CityCenter.

"Caesars is probably going to have its best year in the last 10 years," said Andrew Zarnett, a bond analyst with Deutsche Bank Securities. "Every day they wake up and think, 'How can we make this property better.' And the incremental cost of making it better is a lot more profitable than building a new resort from scratch.' "

The property has tumbled through various owners and has grown topsy-turvy but it "will always have a place in Las Vegas at the mid to high end" as long as the company continues to pump money into the property, Zarnett said. "People just love that brand."

Second piece of advice: Don't mess too much with cash cows Harrah's or Flamingo, either. Yes, they could use some cosmetic surgery but, based on the legions of slot players who flock to the hotels, the two properties are still alluring and there's no need to go under the knife - ahem, wrecking ball - to seduce young hipsters.

Harrah's base "is Middle America," Zarnett said. "It isn't the elite top 20 percent or the bottom 20 percent. They have a wide base in the middle."

Jeffrey Compton, a Las Vegas casino consultant, gives Harrah's a bit more credit than that. "Harrah's is very comfortable catering to the upper-middle class," he said. "They're not after whales, but they are moving up. They're good at upgrading their properties. They're not ones to buy a property and let it rot."

With dramatic developments up and down the Strip, it's time for Harrah's to look into the mirror and prepare for its next close-up.

• • •

Just when you think the argument about whether poker is a legitimate sport has played itself out, the tedious debate has resurfaced. A Washington man is waging an uphill battle with Nevada regulators to legalize pari-mutuel betting on poker and, for that matter, billiard tournaments.

The discussion turned downright silly at the board's July meeting.

Attorney Louis Czoka, representing Washington lawyer Harry Platis, struggled to explain before the board why poker is different from, say, chess, backgammon and bridge. Poker, he explained, is more similar to target shooting and curling because it involves controlled body movements. And still, poker is not a far cry from traditional sports, either, because it requires stamina.

"You're not just playing your cards, you're playing your opponent," Czoka said.

True enough, though any poker pro knows an amateur with lucky cards is tough to beat, just as the odds of winning have gotten a lot longer as tournaments attract the masses.

Czoka also didn't win any points with former Las Vegas FBI boss and state Gaming Control Board member Bobby Siller, who said he didn't see many similarities between shooting guns and playing poker.

Control Board Chairman Dennis Neilander acknowledged that the sports betting regulation is vague and should be tightened up. If read broadly, casinos could offer betting lines on just about anything, he said.

And what's so wrong with that? Where there's a hobby, there's a fan and a bet to be made, which means more tax money, right?

"I was in a local establishment, and they had these hermit crabs on a table," Neilander said, implying that betting was in process. "They put helmets on them or something like that."

Board member Mark Clayton suggested that his biggest fear would be watching grown men bet on dominoes, video-game tournaments and even Candyland board games.

"Where do you draw the line, Mr. Czoka?" Clayton said.

Hopefully not between Candyland and the hermit crabs.

• • •

What's old is new again on the Strip, where developers are trying to snap up the last remaining parcels for luxury development.

At a recent Gaming Control Board meeting, the general manager of the Barbary Coast half-jokingly referred to the 200-room property as a "boutique" hotel.

It may not look anything like the tony Mondrian in Los Angeles or the swank Delano in Miami Beach, Fla. But the property - which sits on the busy intersection at Flamingo Road and the Strip - is nevertheless sitting on a redevelopment gold mine.

The Barbary Coast opened in 1979 and looks its age, with a cavelike interior and plenty of worn carpet.

But that doesn't matter to Harrah's Entertainment, which is vying to purchase the old dame as part of a master-planned redevelopment of its center Strip properties next door.

If Harrah's decides it doesn't need the Barbary Coast to complete its project, Boyd Gaming Corp. can maintain the property's status as one of the Strip's smallest - uh, make that boutique - hotels.

Looking In On: Gaming is republished from