The 50-cent slots are out of action. Rumors are spreading. Tempers are short.
We're on the Crystal Casino level of the Shreve Star riverboat, where a bank of slot machines has been taken out of service and cordoned off with a velvet rope. In Vegas this would look like routine maintenance, but a lanky guy in a bib shirt is not having any of that.
"I'll tell you why they did that," he says with a painful twisted grin. "They know those machines were fixin' to hit."
In fact he's talking to the right guy. He happens to have collared Robert Livingston, the personable Director of Slot Operations, while I'm taking a tour of Harrah's casino. "There were three of 'em fixin' to hit," he tells Livingston, "and you cut 'em off."
Livingston gets one of those wry "let me deal with this" expressions on his face and gently tells the man that the casino doesn't know when or where the machines are fixin' to hit. The machines are simply being serviced. But he's dealing with a slots fanatic, and all slots fanatics know, in their soul, when a jackpot is looming on his astrological chart.
I ask Livingston if he intends to explain the Random Number Generator electronic software to the man, but he says, "No, probably not," and we move off into the crowd of low-rollers who are flinging coins like crazy among the maze of chirruping video games. In Shreveport, like most cities beyond Vegas, slots are the cash cow that drives all casino gambling, and nobody wants the 50-cent machines out of service, least of all Harrah's.
(For the record: All modern slot machines are actually mini- computers. There are no longer any actual spinning reels. If you see reels at all, they're pre-programmed and are just for show. The RNG, or Random Number Generator, constantly cycles through thousands of combinations per second, in accordance with odds that are chosen by the casino but limited by the laws of the state--generally anywhere from a 10 per cent casino "hold," called "tight" slots, to 1 per cent, or "loose" slots. The looser the slots, the more chances you have to win. But when you pull the arm, or press the "spin" button, the computer chip stops the "virtual" reels at whatever combination of symbols the RNG has picked at that millisecond. The flashing lights, spinning and pinging are just a little entertainment before the machine reveals on the screen what has already happened. That doesn't mean the machine is fixed. There are jackpot combinations programmed into the millions of possible scenarios, but most of the combinations are losers. This ensures that, over the course of millions of spins, the RNG will cause the casino to earn the exact profit it has selected--anywhere from 1 per cent to 15 per cent of the player's money. And the casino will never tell you just exactly what those odds are on any given machine. You could be playing on a machine that returns only 85 per cent on average, and the player right next to you could be on a 99 per cent machine, but because of the RNG you could still be the person who hits the big jackpot.)
Okay, end of slots lesson. Shreveport is booming and that's why I'm here. Anyone in downtown Shreveport ten years ago was either a homeless drunk or a banker who, forced to work at headquarters, had an alarm on his Mercedes and a parking place watched by a guy named Paco. Riverboat gambling has changed all that. Not that there's much of a river here. The Red River is muddy and narrow and filled with so much silt that you can't actually navigate it. They probably call it the Red River because the real color of it would be too gross to put on a map.
Sandy Jackson, Captain of the Shreve Star riverboat where Harrah's has its casino, has the most boring job in the universe. Several times a day he checks the weather and enters data into the ship's log explaining why river conditions don't allow him to sail. The Shreve Star hasn't actually moved since it was moored on the riverfront in February of 1995, but to comply with state law the captain has to be ready to sail in the event it ever becomes safe to sail. (Okay, Sandy, you rascal--we get it.)
This makes Shreveport a prime casino location. In Louisiana cities where the rivers are healthy, the ships are forced to actually leave the dock, cutting down on customer traffic and forcing people to time their arrivals and departures. When the new Hollywood Casino opened in December, they built a boat basin and jammed their riverboat right up against the shore so they would never have to deal with planks and ramps that had to be adjusted as the water level rose and fell. Everybody's hoping that no one dredges the channel anytime soon.
Harrah's, with 21 casinos in 17 markets, is regarded as the McDonald's of gambling, the place you go when you want quick-and- dirty action. But in Shreveport they've been forced to upgrade their act to compete with the aggressive Horseshoe, across the river in Bossier City, and the lavish Hollywood next door. The Horseshoe and the Hollywood have started taking high-roller-level bets, and that means high-roller-level amenities. The result is Harrah's brand spanking new 23-story hotel, built for a cool $210 million, with high-roller suites in the penthouse, concierge service, a spa, and other amenities demanded by the Dallas-Fort Worth clientele. (About a third of its business comes from Dallas, and those are the big players.)
More importantly, the hotel now disguises the riverboat. The six so-called "riverboat states" that got into gaming in the early nineties have found that people don't really like boats. The gaming areas are cramped, with low ceilings, and you have to go up and down staircases to get to the various playing areas. The new generation of boats are built to look like anything other than a riverboat, and part of the marketing philosophy is to put up a giant hotel on the mainland so that you appear to be entering a land-based casino. If they could figure out a way to hide the water entirely, they would.
The other advantage of a big hotel is that it keeps the mice in the cage. Of course, there aren't that many attractions in Shreveport to lure players away anyway.
"No, there are lots of things to do here," says Susan Madigan, Harrah's Director Marketing, taking mild offense at my ill-timed remark. She names the American Rose Center. The Sci- Port Discovery Center downtown, with its IMAX theater. And after that the list kind of dwindles.
Harrah's does have an advantage when it comes to harnessing footloose players, though, because they can send valuable gamblers out to the airport and whisk them to another Harrah's in virtually any part of the country. They own the snazzy Rio in Vegas, an upscale joint at Lake Tahoe, and a money-losing (but still fabulous) casino in the heart of New Orleans. "And then we're all over this part of the country," Susan tells me. "We're in Lake Charles, Tunica, Vicksburg."
Harrah's is, in fact, everywhere you find a nickel-slot player. They're not too big on entertainment, although they do book one-nighters and the occasional boxing match into their convention-style ballroom. Their clientele would dictate country- music acts, but that world is virtually "owned" by the Horseshoe, and they readily admit it.
Still, the bottom line is that Harrah's Shreveport has increased its profitability every year since it opened--the very first casino in the area--in 1994. And that makes it a valued corporate citizen to the city fathers. There was a time, toward the beginning, when it looked like the tinier, more working-class town of Bossier City would steal all the gambling business. Harrah's opened first, but the next three casinos--the Isle of Capri, Casino Magic and the Horseshoe--all chose the Bossier City side, where there was abundant condemnable land for parking. Shreveport hung in there, but didn't really take off until the Dallas-based Hollywood Casinos--already successful in Aurora, Ill., and Tunica, Miss.--decided to build its most glamorous building yet, right next door to Harrah's.
And Harrah's welcomed it. Just as a Burger King makes more money when it's located right next door to a McDonald's, business at Harrah's got better when Hollywood showed up. And now both casinos stand to benefit from a major downtown revitalization project that will create so much tourism that the Horseshoe is getting scared. Jack Binion, the owner, recently applied for a license to build a second Horseshoe on the Shreveport side.
Besides the aforementioned Sci-Port Discovery Center, a $19 million science and technology museum, all the old downtown buildings are being refurbished into lofts, art galleries, antiques stores and shops. And soon there will be a new $30 million "urban entertainment development" on the riverfront, designed by John Ellington, who turned downtown Memphis around when he revitalized Beale Street.
But the best sign that downtown is back is that the N.O. Thomas Building recently opened and 300 workers were moved there. Those would be the workers employed by the city of Shreveport and the government of the parish. They had moved out of downtown a while back. It had just gotten too tacky down there.
Downtown Shreveport is fixin' to hit.
Riverfront, Shreveport, La.
Theme: Officially "Casual Elegance," which means "None."
Total Investment: $255 million
Known For: First casino in Shreveport/Bossier City (4/18/94); wild craps tables.
Marketing niche: Rural East Texans, Dallas-Fort Worth
Gambler's Intensity: High
Cocktail speed: Medium
Surrounding area: Threadbare but starting-to-come-alive downtown Shreveport. A few blocks from Interstate 20, next door to the upscale Hollywood Casino, across the street from the new "urban entertainment project" (shops, bars, restaurants) and a small convention center.
Overall rating: 73
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $27 after an hour of Caribbean Stud: total to date: +$29