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STICKMAN'S STANCE: THE HISTORY OF THE TUNICA CASINOS-Part 3

by Jerry "Stickman"

Jerry "Stickman" is an expert in craps, blackjack, video poker and advantage slot machine play. Frank Scoblete's and Jerry "Stickman's" book "Everything Casino Poker: Get the Edge at Video Poker, Texas Hold'em, Omaha Hi-Lo and Pai Gow Poker" presents dozens of video poker games and strategies for maximum returns. He is a regular contributor to top gaming magazines. You can contact Jerry "Stickman" at stickmanjerry@aol.com.

This series of articles contains a look at current casino conditions in Tunica County against the backdrop of the history of casinos in the area. This article covers Tunica from 2005 until the devastating flood of 2011. During this period, as happened in various degrees throughout the gaming industry, Tunica casinos reacted to the growth of gaming throughout the United States.

Tunica had grown from one casino in 1992 into what many considered (myself included) the best gaming destination in the country. The games offered had decent rules, reasonable minimums, and the crews were genuinely friendly to customers. Comps were the best anywhere in the country. Most casinos had weekly giveaways that included small appliances, knick-knacks, and other logo collectable. These were available basically by simply showing up (assuming you also had a casino player's club card and played a little in the casino). Free buffets were abundant and free rooms were easy to be had. Bounce-back cash and free play offers were among the best in the nation.

The craps games at almost all of the Tunica casinos offered 20-times odds. Table minimums of five dollars were the norm. You could "buy" the 4 and 10 in 50 cent increments - meaning a higher return for lower buy amounts. You could also buy the 5 and 9 (also in 50 cent increments) - something almost non-existent elsewhere. The commission was only collected on a winning bet. This was unheard of elsewhere in the gambling world.

However, there were a few clouds forming on the horizon. As you may recall from last month's article, Jack Binion - the owner of Horseshoe casino in Tunica - sold the property to Harrah's. Jack was the son of Las Vegas Horseshoe owner Benny Binion, and he learned the business from his father. Benny realized that what gamblers (not gamers) wanted was friendly surroundings and a fair game. That is exactly how Jack ran the Tunica Horseshoe Casino. When it came to table games in Tunica, Horseshoe was the gold standard. Naturally, having some big casino- owning company purchase the Tunica Horseshoe caused waves of anxiety among their customers.

A little history of Harrah's (currently named Caesar's Entertainment Corporation) is in order. Back in 1995 when there was only one Harrah's casino in Tunica, the company that owned it was called the Promus Companies. Headquartered in Memphis, they owned several big-name hotels and several casinos throughout the country. In 1995 they spun off their non-gaming hotels. At this time, the renamed Promus Hotel Group retained the non-gaming hotels with the casino hotels falling under the Harrah's name.

In 1991, Gary Loveman, a professor at Harvard Business School with a Ph.D. in economics, did some consulting for the company, and after he contacted Harrah's in 1997, did some more consulting. Ultimately, he developed the company's Total Gold (currently called Total Rewards) loyalty program. This program changed the landscape for casinos. No longer were comps determined at the table. Instead everything was tracked. While the Total Gold program lay the groundwork for the rapid expansion of Harrah's stable of casinos, the demand for more and more profit for the casino made management become stingier in granting comps. This also affected the dealers and other pit personnel. No longer was their primary goal to offer a fair game. Instead the new charge was to increase profits.

With the Gary Loveman model of casino management taking over the Tunica Horseshoe Casino, could they maintain their shiny image?

An omen as to what was coming could have been an incident on the 23rd of January 2006. A Georgia man drove his car through the glass doors of Tunica's Gold Strike Casino and did donuts with his car in the lobby. Not a happy and fun time in Tunica.

For the first one to two years of Harrah's ownership, not a lot changed at the Tunica Horseshoe. My friends and I continued to play craps and blackjack with great results. At craps our group used a very distinctive throw, and though we did not always win, we won a lot more than we lost. In blackjack, we used a unique strategy and also ended up winning more than we lost. We were able to do this at several Tunica casinos without incident.

Starting in about 2004, the group with which I was affiliated started teaching seminars in Tunica. These seminars taught advantage craps and blackjack playing strategies. Many instructors and students would play on the days before and after the seminars. Some would even play during the evenings after the classes ended. There were occasional comments about the unique craps throw, but never any heat. Sure, there were some casinos that did not like what they saw and sent some heat our way, but most Tunica casinos remained as they always were - fun places to play.

But the corporate influence on the Tunica casinos began showing itself. Starting in about 2005 Tunica casinos began reducing their comps. Bounce-back cash amounts were becoming less for the same or greater play. Buffets were not offered as often in appreciation for table-game play. Things were still good in Tunica. They were still better than the rest of the gambling landscape because most other casinos were also reducing comps for players.

Unfortunately, things slowly got worse. Not only were comps reduced, casinos started actively generating heat directed at players that they determined they did not want. Included in this collection was the group of players with which I was involved. At the Tunica Horseshoe casino, many dealers we had come to know and like were no longer there. In their place were new and unknown dealers who would do what they could to disrupt our playing routine. Not only that, but comps slowly became non-existent. What I once heard described as the power of the pen was being used to discourage us from playing at this casino.

So, we started frequenting other casinos where our favorite dealers had landed. Two casinos in particular provided great games - Fitzgerald's and Grand Casino. These two places became our standard haunts. Horseshoe, since coming under the domain of Harrah's, did not welcome us and we did not care.

We would periodically play at all Tunica casinos just to see what had changed. At times, things would change for the better. We would spend the majority of our play time at the casinos that provided the friendliest playing environment.

Then a strange thing happened - actually not so strange considering the direction of the casino industry - whenever we would have weekend seminars in on craps and/or blackjack in Tunica, our favorite casinos would throw heat at the players. After the seminar weekends (and the few days preceding and following) were over, things would return to normal. The crews would revert back to their normal player-friendly behavior.

I believe it was at our 2009 craps seminar in Tunica that we were notified by gaming officials in the early morning hours of our first day of the seminar that we would be arrested if we followed through on having the seminar in Tunica. The casinos had notified gaming officials of our class. The officials used a misinterpretation of a Mississippi law to claim that we would be in violation and subject to arrest. The seminar was still held that weekend - but in Memphis. The lawyer for the group running the seminar managed to easily get the case thrown out, but we suffered some for the audacity of trying to teach gamblers how to best play the casino games.

The next year we once again held the seminar in Tunica without any threats of arrest. There was still the usual heat if we played during or around that seminar, but no legal threats.

A few days before our April, 2011 seminar, we were again informed that if we followed through with it, we would be arrested. This time a different arcane law was used as justification. We decided to abandon Tunica as a site for any future seminars and staring holding them in Memphis instead.

Throughout the years 2005 through 2011, Tunica casinos tightened comps, and tightened rules for their games as a method to help increase profits. They used heat at the tables and slashed comps to discourage anyone who they felt might have an edge from playing. They did not see what Jack Binion saw. He new that if you give gamblers a fair game, there will sometimes be winners. Winning players at the tables may cost the casino a few dollars at that moment, but the tables fill up with players who will spend the rest of the night losing every dollar they brought with them (and even hit the ATM for more) in order to try to recapture the feeling of that first win. Jack knew that winning players do not hurt the casinos in the long run, they only help. Not only do winning table-game players fill the tables with other non-winning players, who end up losing much more than the winners, winning table-game players are usually accompanied to the casino by others who lose many, many times more than the table players win.

I consider it extremely fitting and ironic that after being forced out of Tunica with the craps and blackjack seminars in April, 2011, Tunica casinos themselves were forced to close in May, 2011 by a monstrous flood. Casinos remained closed for several weeks before they could be made inhabitable once again.

What will be the results of this devastating flood?

The final article in this series will cover the time of the flood in 2011 until the present. So, until next time;

All the best in your casino and life endeavors.

Jerry "Stickman"

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