LasVegas longs for bad old days

Kids and casinos are a poor mix, finds Tim Cornwell

A SCENE from the old Vegas is unfolding in a baccarat room at Binion's Horseshoe. The player looks like a drunken old rancher in a cowboy hat and string tie; among the small crowd of people craning their heads for a better look, it is whispered that those are $1,000 chips, and he's laying them down 20 at a time.

The gambler scratches out markers on scraps of paper between bets. He was winning heavily, but is now losing his shirt. A younger man with a moody stare, said to be his son, has walked away. The casino manager is making phone calls with every play.

The Horseshoe remains an outpost of the high-rolling Las Vegas mystique, perpetuated in gangster films like Casino, where the Mob breaks fingers and blows up cars and Robert de Niro utters the immortal words: "The longer they play, the more they lose. In the end, we get it all."

But elsewhere the reality can be depressingly mundane. As the British writer and poker player, Al Alvarez, concluded recently in the New York Review of Books: "Modern Vegas has been redesigned for the benefit of children... it has become just another Disneyland, a family theme park with gambling on the side to keep the adults happy."

In the early 1990s, as legal gambling exploded across the US, Las Vegas embarked on a curious piece of image-making: it draped itself in the candy floss of family values, in part a nervous effort to ensure that rooms at three huge new hotels were filled to capacity. With the Mafia mostly run out of town, slot machines rapidly replaced more risky table games. Gambling, the sin, became gaming, the family entertainment. The new casinos were places like Treasure Island, where every hour or so two full-size pirate ships do battle with guns and smoke. They came equipped with nurseries, video arcades and sideshows where prizes are fluffy tigers rather than cash.

Through a child's eyes, Las Vegas is a brightly lit wonderland. At Circus Circus, small children gaze open-mouthed at the acrobats swinging from the ceiling by their teeth; mothers curse as dad disappears for one last flutter. But children and gambling are a prickly combination - the state gaming board has begun cracking down on teen gambling and children loitering in casinos. Some establishments have been fined heavily after parents complained that teenagers had been allowed to lose thousands of dollars at card tables.

Partly as a result, the Vegas establishment is calling a discreet retreat on family values. Fathers taking pushchairs down the Strip at sunset are all very well, but Mom and Pop are suspected of scrimping on gambling, and the wisdom of the family strategy is questioned. Several casinos are openly discouraging children. "We don't really think Las Vegas is a family destination. We just think that's a misnomer," says Bill Westerman, manager of the Riviera. "I find it distasteful to see children, especially young children, watching their parents play."

The Riviera, which runs topless reviews, sells itself as Vegas for adults; it went so far as to remove the children's menu from its coffee shop, and now charges full price for them in rooms. Surveys show customers want to get away from children, and feel it is wrong to have them around.

The Price family from Michigan were on their way to the casino this week: Mark plays blackjack, Sue plays the slot machines, and Tina, Lindsey, Chelsea and Mark are loving it. They were dropping by on the way back from visiting Grandma in Tucson, Arizona.

"It's cool," says Tina, 16, oldest of four bright-eyed children. "It's a party place. I just want to be old enough to gamble." Mark, a General Motors worker, has no scruples about bringing his family. "I'm not here to expose my kids to gambling," he said. "I'm here to do the sights and the sounds."

The McIlwain family have done the dolphin show and the tiger show and loved the Three Stooges. "They are going to the arcade. We are going to the casino," says Kate McIlwain, arranging a rendezvous with Willie, 15, and Jennifer, 12. She plays slot machines with her husband Jim, and they're down on their luck. "No, it's not a cheap vacation," she said.

In a place that has long prided itself on low-priced accommodation and meals to pull the punters in, room rates are rising. The next generation of casinos have a decidedly upscale flavour, with rooms in some cases at several hundred dollars a night. The Bellagio, the latest effort of casino king Steve Wynn, is shunning the family market.

"Las Vegas is family-friendly, but what they really want is the gamblers," says Phil Hevener, publisher of Las Vegas Style magazine. "People with kids are not the most desirable people to fill your rooms with. You want those who spend the most money."

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