The Trop and the truth; Crock of Vegas

By David McKee ~ April 5th, 2012 @ 10:49 am

Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden has penned a gripping account of how veteran racetrack executive Don Johnson (no, not that one) cleaned the clocks of the Tropicana Atlantic City, Borgata and Caesars Palace Atlantic City, to the tune of $15 million. He did it, at least in the Trop’s case, by not bringing Tropicana Entertainment his play until he’d negotiated the house edge on blackjack down to 0.25%, plus a 20% rebate on losses. His terms with Borgata and Caesars are undisclosed but, knowing something of how casinos operate, they would have been similarly “george.” These were desperate times and casinos are wont to see your desperate measure and raise it. Considering the swath Johnson cut through Atlantic City, many seem convinced he used untoward methods to beat the house. Not so, says our own Anthony Curtis. He describes Johnson as a solid 21 player who used basic strategy and “got shit lucky.” In order to hit his rebate threshold, Johnson bet large, literally cleaning out the chip trays.

While there’s no indication of how Borgata reacted, the Trop and Caesars took very different steps. According to Bowden, Caesars Entertainment has made Johnson persona non grata at all its properties. This is typical Gary Loveman Era stuff: The only players they want (whether at blackjack or humble video poker) are those who lose, preferably if they’re — as in the case of sad-sack millionaire Terrence K. Watanabe — drunk off their ass, too.

TropEnt, however, placed blame where it belonged … at the feet of CEO Mark Giannantonio (), who paid for Johnson’s $6 million run with his job. Enter Anthony Rodio, the only casino exec who had the grace to give Bowden an interview. Keeping Giannantonio, a hatchet man from the Columbia Sussex regime, put in place to minimize costs and staffing, was a mistake on Carl Icahn‘s part and now it’s a quantifiable one. I said so then but …

… putting two and two together, I got five and blamed Giannantonio’s departure on his riskily confrontational policies toward Unite-Here. However, Rodio has continued that game of chicken, which could ultimately force the union to picket the Trop, lest it look weak when labor talks with Boyd Gaming take place in September. Also, I mistakenly conflated Johnson’s April 2011 pillage of the Trop’s coffers with a more recent debacle which drove Trop table revenues down 118% and spoiled February for the entire Boardwalk.

(Update: Unite-Here starts picketing the Trop tonight. Rodio asked for trouble — and now he’s got it.)

Rodio is basically wagering that strong slot winnings will underwrite his policy of continuing to indulge high-limit bettors like Johnson. So far, it’s not working too well. Johnson took $2 million off the felt in October, repeating the feat in February. An unidentified punter clocked the Trop for an additional $4 million, a wound only partially cauterized by a third player’s $2 million loss. I wouldn’t call this a “sustainable” business strategy.

Since Johnson learned his not-so-mad gambling skillz at Philadelphia Park raceway, now Parx Casino, this whole affair is highly symbolic of how Pennsylvania has eaten Atlantic City’s breakfast, lunch and dinner. Also, I see that Johnson was wearing a hoodie when he played at the Trop. Gee, why didn’t Giannantonio just shoot him in the back and call it “self defense”?

If you are sufficiently bored to bet on the “veepstakes,” Paddy Power will take your action. Its odds-on favorite, ironically, is anti-gambling Sen. “Mark” [sic] Rubio (R-FL, right) at 2:1, which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie weighs in at 5:1. However, if you’re like Sheldon Adelson and like to put your money on hopeless long shots, Newt Gingrich is starting at 40:1.

Class Acts. From May 26 to September 1, Fremont Street Experience will be presenting its fourth annual “Rock of Vegas” concert series … if standing in a crowded space, in broiling heat, is your bag. Has-been headliners include former Donald Trump lackey Bret Michaels and girlfriend-abusing, drunk-driving local lout-about-town Vince Neil. Who says we don’t have standards?

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