Indiana's riverboat gamble pays off

By JOE BOB BRIGGS  |  Aug. 26, 2003 at 2:17 PM
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HAMMOND, Ind., Aug. 26 (UPI) -- At the Horseshoe Casino, where the big boys play, General Manager Rick Mazer had to make a scary phone call one recent night to casino owner Jack Binion.

A blackjack player had shown up and taken the casino up on its offer to accept the highest bet limit anywhere in the Midwest -- $20,000 per hand. He was playing three hands at a time, so he always had at least $60,000 on the table, and on some hands -- when he had splits and double-downs -- there could be as much as $120,000 riding on the single flip of a card.

That wasn't what made the phone call scary. After four hours of play, Mazer told Binion, the player was up $2 million and still winning.

"Well," said Binion, in his soft Texas drawl, "just make sure he's treated well and taken care of."

It got worse. Four hours later the blackjack player cashed out. He had walked away with $4.3 million of the casino's money in one shift, which is something that happens occasionally in Las Vegas but virtually never at the riverboat casinos of the Midwest. Not sure how Binion would react to the followup call, Mazer read off the final numbers tentatively.

"Did he leave happy?" said Binion.

Yes, he did, Mazer assured him.

"Did anybody spill a drink on him? Did the valet parker lose his keys or anything?"

No, said Mazer, everything went smoothly.

"Then that's all I care about," said Binion.

"That's Jack Binion," says Mazer. "The reason we're able to dominate the high-end business in this market is that Jack is not afraid of those days. He's not afraid to take the action. It's classic Binion philosophy -- give em good food and a good gamble. The last two years here [since Binion bought the casino] have been VERY good. It's truly proof that what Jack says really works: A philosophy that appeals to the serious gambler will appeal to every gambler."

Chicagoland, as they call this part of the country, is a nine-casino $2 billion gambling market, and the Horseshoe constantly leads every other contender. "We have people from the other casinos in here all the time," says Jim Klimesh, vice president of table games, "and they try to copy our marketing methods, but they never QUITE do it. We have very high limits -- we'll take a $100,000 bet on baccarat. We have 100-times odds on craps. They're just not willing to go that far."

(For those non-craps players reading this, that means you can bet $500 on the come-out roll, then, after a number is established, you can put down $50,000 betting that the number will repeat before a 7 is rolled. Since the odds bet is the only bet in the casino that has no house advantage, it's essentially a straight-up $50,000 gamble between you and Jack Binion. Your chances of winning are precisely 50/50. Among Chicago-area casinos, only the Horseshoe offers this bet.)

Binion, one of the last true characters in the world of regional casinos, is the son, of course, of the late legend Benny Binion, who controlled the gambling world in Dallas before opening the Horseshoe in downtown Vegas in the early fifties, founded the World Series of Poker, and was generally known for running the purest gambling joint in the city. (He hated entertainment, once remarking "Why should I pay some guy to blow a horn? I'm a gambler and my place is for gamblers.")

Jack Binion is no longer associated with the original Vegas Horseshoe -- it's owned by his sister Becky -- but he has three Horseshoes in the riverboat states. The other two are in Bossier City, La., and Tunica, Miss.. And if you drive the highways approaching either city, his smiling face and bald head greet you from giant billboards that say, "If You Think You Can Find Better Odds, Then You Don't Know Jack."

At least this once, the advertising is true. At a time when most casinos are gradually getting rid of table games and counting on the sure-thing percentages of the slot machine, Binion's casinos are old-style to the core, boisterous as the Wild West, with crowds jammed around the dice tables and players backed up three deep for the available seats in the card games. Both of Binion's other casinos are bigger than the one in Hammond, mainly because Indiana requires that all gambling take place on a boat and he already has the biggest boat that will fit into the Lake Michigan marina -- so every square inch is taken.

On weekend nights the place is absolutely packed, despite the fact that it's located in an aging industrial wasteland next to an unsightly water plant. The Horseshoe's advantage is that it's the closest casino to Chicago, just a mile from the Illinois border and, they claim, 20 minutes from downtown. (I would say 35 minutes is more accurate.)

The casino has actually been here since 1992, when it opened as the Empress, the sister property of the Empress in Joliet, Ill. Binion bought both Empresses, but was forced to sell the Joliet property when the state of Illinois denied him a gaming license -- the only time he's ever been denied, and still somewhat of a mystery. The case involved Binion's alleged friendliness with an ex-con who gambled at the Vegas casino when Binion was still associated with it.

The first thing Binion did after taking over the Hammond casino was get rid of the hokey nautical theme and put up a glimmering white facade. Everything on the outside of the property is white, including the boat, and everything inside has the usual Binion touches. "Jack is VERY particular about his food," says Mazer. That's why JB's Steakhouse, the casino's high-end restaurant, is consistently rated one of the best places to eat in northern Indiana, and even his buffet is gourmet level. This is old-school Vegas thinking -- great food, lots of food, and cheap food, as the way to keep gamblers happy and gambling.

There's no showroom or entertainment facility -- not too surprising given Binion's father's theories -- but the reason has more to do with logistics than theory. "We're limited on what we can do on entertainment," says Mazer. "We have no facility at all, because we're landlocked here. We've got the water department on one side, the railroad tracks on the other side, and then the lake."

So all available land at this point is being used for parking -- including a recent renovation that gives the Horseshoe 3,000 parking spaces (more cars than the number of humans who can physically get onto the boat). Oddly enough, the renovation has resulted in the loss of the Horseshoe's poker room -- a windfall for the nearby Harrah's in East Chicago, the only place to play poker on the lake. The property also lacks a hotel, which means the high-roller hosts have to limo gamblers back and forth from the Ramada or the Residence Inn.

None of these limitations seem to matter, though, as the Horseshoe consistently ranks first in Chicagoland and second in Indiana in terms of revenues and margins. (The top-performing Indiana casino is the Argosy in Lawrenceburg, which dominates the Cincinnati market and has far less competition.) The Hammond Horseshoe is also the volume leader among the three Binion casinos -- "and the most heavily taxed," adds Mazer.

The big winner is the city of Hammond itself, which was in sad shape before the casino opened. At that time the Rust Belt city had a $35 million annual budget. Now annual revenues to the city from gambling alone are $40 million. ("That money has rebuilt 60 percent of the city streets," says Mazer.) The payroll for the casino's 2,376 employees pumps another $55 million into the local economy. And there are the usual array of community-support programs. Besides its tax contribution, the Horseshoe is building a 33-home subdivision, supporting Calumet College of St. Joseph's, and paying a flat $1 million a year to the Hammond Police Department.

If you haven't played in a Binion casino -- and I've been in all of them -- it's hard to explain the mystique, but it's definitely there. You don't feel like there are any tourists around. The gambling buzz is razor-sharp. The energy level is overwhelming, like kickoff time at the Super Bowl every night. You don't get the antiseptic feel of a slots joint, where people come not so much to gamble as to pass the time.

Of course, running the hottest casino in the Midwest results in some roller-coaster nights for the management. Mazer, a casino veteran who started at Caesars Atlantic City when it opened in 1978, worked nine years at a casino in St. Maarten, then opened the very successful Par-a-Dice riverboat in Peoria, has been at this casino since it opened, but things didn't get interesting until Binion showed up. "You'll never find a better casino operator than Jack Binion," says Mazer. "Casinos are his life."

And that kind of experience comes in handy on a night like the one a few months back when a customer started actually PLAYING the hundred-times-odds at the craps table in a four-hour session. He would play the pass line and the odds bet, and at the end of his session he walked off with $1 million. Mazer made the obligatory phone call, of course, but he didn't worry about the reaction. Because Mazer knows Jack.


E-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's Web site at www.joebobbriggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.


HORSESHOE CASINO

777 Casino Center Dr., Hammond, Ind.

Theme: Elegance

Opened: 1996

Total investment: $255 million

Known for: Good odds, high limits, big bets

Marketing niche: Chicago high rollers, pure gamblers

Gambler's Intensity: High

Cocktail speed: Rapid

Dealers: Fast and efficient

Bosses: Personable

Tables: 47

Rare games: Play4 Poker. (A Horseshoe pit boss owns the patent.)

Slots: 1,500

Rooms: None, but agreements with two nearby hotels

Surrounding area: A Lake Michigan yacht marina on one side,

the railroad on the other.

Web site: horseshoe.com

Overall rating: 90

Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $87 after an hour of craps: total

to date, -14

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