I think there’s still a perception that in Vegas you get all kinds of stuff free if you’re a player. This is reinforced by films like The Hangover. ‘Comp’ is an evocative word, short for complimentary = free. There’s an expectation of comps in Vegas that doesn’t exist anywhere else. You wouldn’t expect to hear someone go into a petrol station and say ‘I always buy my petrol here, I want a free tank’.
I’m sorry to be the one to burst your bubble but it’s really not like that anymore in Vegas unless you’re a true high roller. Since my first visit in 2000 I’ve noticed how little free stuff I get now compared with then and, if anything, I spend and gamble more now than I did in the early days. One theory is that this is due to the corporate domination of Vegas and the consequent emphasis on the bottom line. I think this is partly to blame but I think it’s also down to the economy being more difficult than it used to be. Let me give you two insights.
I have two good friends who are dealers in a prominent poker room. They have worked there since the 90s. They earn less now than they did then. Tips are far less than they used to be. The amount of time they are productively dealing and earning tips is a little less but the real issue is the huge decrease in the number of players who tip more than the minimum. ‘Lots of guys used to tip $5 or even more when they won a decent pot, now it is rarely more than $1’, they say. $5 in the 90s was also worth a lot more then than it is today. Times are so comparatively bad that they are selling up and leaving Vegas.
When I played a cash game of poker ten or twelve years ago I used to find that every ten seat table comprised roughly five or six ‘good timers’; usually young to middle-aged men in Vegas for three or four days with $5,000 or $10,000 to spend, often drunk and determined to have a good time above all else. A couple of players at the table would be steady and competent and there would be two professionals who would gradually carve up the good time money between them over the course of a session. I’m not telling you which category I fall into.
When I play the same game now, in the same room the table usually comprises the two steady players but the other participants are reversed – there will now only be two or three people giving their money away and up to six professionals trying to divide it up between them. This reflects the change in the economy that took place over the last seven years or so – a whole section of gamblers has been wiped out. Just as it’s much harder now for the professional poker player, so it is for the casinos and this permeates down into them reducing the amount of free stuff.
If I’m going to play table games I like to do it late at night when most of the crowds have gone to bed. 3 or 4am is a good time to start as you often have the table to yourself, less noise and less drunks. Many a time I’d play a decent session and at 7am the supervisor would write me out a comp for breakfast, usually without me asking. I’d take the slip to my eatery of choice and it would all be on the house. Now the same supervisor at the same game isn’t allowed to do so.
Before you get too depressed we’d better see what we can do about this situation. The floorman can’t write you a comp now because the whole system has become computerised. Instead you have your own loyalty card or Player’s Card. What little they’re going to give you is now added to your card which you present to get your free stuff. Different casinos have different schemes but Vegas is dominated by two corporate giants: MGM Resorts International (MGM) and Caesar’s Entertainment Corporation, formerly Harrahs until 2010 (Caesars or Harrahs when I forget it’s supposed to be Caesars). We therefore need to concentrate on these two.
In terms of Strip properties, as of 1/16 MGM own:
- MGM Grand
- Mandalay Bay
- Monte Carlo
- New York – New York
- Luxor and Excalibur
Caesars, at the same time, own:
- Nobu Hotel
- Planet Hollywood,
- The Cromwell and
- The Linq
Chances therefore are that your hotel may well be owned by one of these two and their player’s card scheme operates across the whole group. This can be an advantage as you earn points in all their facilities and can spend them similarly from the same card.
The latest incarnation of the MGM scheme is called M Life. You’re issued with a free card when you join (by producing your driver’s license or passport at an M Life desk in any group casino). You start with a Sapphire card then, as you earn Tier Credits, you progress up the ranks through Pearl, Gold, Platinum and ultimately to Noir. They give you a new card as you reach each level. It’s safe to say that if you hold a Noir card you have spent a very great deal of money in MGM casinos.
The basic rule is the higher ranking your card the more benefits you get and you also earn points and credits quicker to get you to the next tier. Here’s the link to the website where you can learn a lot more.
To earn points you must put your card into the appropriate slot on the slot or video poker machine you’re playing before you start. It will then keep a record of your play and you’ll earn points. Obviously, the higher your stake and the longer you play the more points you’ll earn. At the same time you earn Express Comps. Remember my breakfast example? These are what you use to buy yourself food and other free stuff. Don’t get carried away though – it’ll take you a good while to earn a breakfast!
Note I didn’t advise you to produce your card before you start playing a table game. Until December 15th 2015 you used to earn points playing these games too. For financial reasons, no doubt, MGM have now discontinued this practice. See December 15 changes on the website. I find it particularly ironic that they start with the words ‘Thank you for your continued loyalty!’ then tell you how table games players in Vegas are being shafted by the removal of the ability to earn Points and Express Comps by playing these games. Not everyone wants to play slots you know (although they are more profitable to the house)!
This change is not going to prove popular with players. Let’s see whether they vote with their feet. Another example of the squeeze on free stuff. Every now and then MGM do strange things like this. I remember when they started to deal Three Card Poker face up instead of face down because they could deal more hands per hour. That daft idea didn’t last long because the players didn’t like it and went elsewhere.
Assuming you still play with MGM after the December 15 changes and you have managed to earn enough points on your card you can present it, at say, the buffet in an MGM property to pay for or towards your food. Similarly produce it at other restaurants, towards the cost of shows or you can have your balance set off against your room bill.
Do I have to sign up, you ask? No! There are a couple of properties where you must present a player’s club card to enter a poker competition but, if the idea of having your every casino movement tracked, offends you then just decline every time you’re offered an M Life card. Would I advise you to sign up? Certainly. Because you had to produce your driver’s licence or passport to get your card it can also be used as ID. If you’re lucky enough to look like you might be under 21 you will be repeatedly ‘carded’ in Vegas – asked for your ID and you can produce your M Life card in an MGM property instead.
Also, if you present your card whenever you play or buy something at an in-casino shop you’ll slowly earn some credits. Some is better than none right? If you do became a repeat visitor these will mount up (subject to the balance being reset annually – see the M Life website). If you do manage to get up the tiers above Sapphire level you’ll also find that you may start to get some offers for slightly cheaper room deals. If you enter your M Life details online then search for deals these will be shown. I’ve enjoyed many free or reduced cost stays at MGM properties in the past by attaining Gold and Platinum status.
In a Caesar’s property the player’s card scheme is called Total Rewards. There are effectively three levels you can attain: Gold, Platinum and Diamond. I say ‘effectively three’ because there is a category called Seven Stars but, like Noir at MGM, that is barely reachable for us mere mortals! You get a Gold card when you sign up, which immediately sounds better than Sapphire, and again you can progress up the ranks by gaming and accruing points. Tier Credits and Rewards Credits are earned simultaneously. Tier Credits are just to get you up to the next tier (if you earn enough in a calendar year) whereas Rewards Credits are what you spend for food, entertainment etc just as you spent Express Comps at MGM properties.
Unlike M Life, you can earn credits at Total Rewards properties by playing table games. Just hand your card to the dealer with your money and your details will be logged. You earn depending on your average bet and the time you play for which is why you’ll see the supervisor watching how you play so he/she can program the computer to record your spend. I tell you more about this and the strategies to employ in the section of this blog called Gaming. Don’t expect to earn many credits by playing $5 Blackjack for half an hour! Here’s the link to the Total Rewards website so you can fill your boots with further information.
Again, I advise you to subscribe although you don’t have to (unless you want to play a poker competition at Caesar’s Palace). I always book my accommodation either through the TR website or by telephoning them and quoting my card number (there is a limit to the number of consecutive nights you can reserve online, eleven I think) but no limit if you telephone. I always get substantial price reductions because of my Diamond TR card so I make sure I earn enough points each calendar year to maintain my status.
Beware: you’ll lose your Rewards Credits if you don’t use them so get into the habit of wiping your card at the end of every stay by setting them against your room bill if you haven’t already spent them on food or the like.
Although a great many are, not all casinos are owned by MGM or Caesars and the others will always have a player’s club card scheme. Examples include Grazie at the Venetian / Palazzo, Insider at Wynn / Encore and Trop Plus at the Tropicana. All work on a similar basis. If you’re going to spend a lot or all of your time in one such property then joining the scheme is a must.
Strangely, none of the Downtown casinos are owned by MGM or Caesars so you can’t earn points on The Strip and spend them Downtown. If you’re staying Downtown you must join a player’s club there.
I can think of a few additional freebies. If you manage to find your way to Diamond Status at Total Rewards you can claim a free dinner annually (currently up to $100) and you’re entitled to two free selected show tickets each month. You apply at any TR desk. If you’re a slot player you will periodically find free slot tournaments, some with reasonable prize pools – ask at your casino.
Some poker rooms also periodically run promotions where you can play for free in a tournament based on the number of hours of live cash game play you’ve accrued within a given period. As a visitor this isn’t likely to be of much interest to you as not only does the tournament have to take place during your stay, you are unlikely to be in town long enough to accrue enough playing time.
You do however stand to benefit from schemes that operate in most prominent poker rooms. I’ll cite the Venetian Poker Room as an example as I think that is still the best room in town. For every hour you play in a cash game they give you a Dollar on your Grazie card. You don’t have to hold one but then you don’t get your Dollar! Yes, I know it is only $1 (it used to be $2 – another example of the squeeze on free stuff) but you’re sitting there anyway so why not let them give you something? I’ve been known to play for up to 24 hours in a session so that’s $24 which will pay for a very decent meal at the table. It does add up.
You can also get free food if you achieve a sufficient player’s club status by visiting one of the designated lounges at most Strip casinos. For example at Harrah’s there’s a Diamond Lounge on the second floor opposite Toby Keith’s Bar & Grill where you can eat and drink without charge and a similar lounge can be found at the Venetian for Gold and Platinum players (located within the High Limit Slots area).
The free stuff most of you will encounter however is free drinks. I told you about this under Tipping. When you’re gaming in Vegas – it doesn’t matter whether it’s slots , table games or poker, you’re entitled to free drinks including alcohol. A cocktail waitress should visit you on a regular basis, just tell her what you want and, on her next rotation, she’ll bring it to you. Please don’t ‘stiff the waitress’ – tip her. Apart from this voluntary gratuity the drink is free.
Some rooms operate limited restrictions on the availability of certain drinks. If they don’t stock something you can’t have it. An example is cider which is rarely available on the casino floor in Vegas because it simply hasn’t caught on like it has at home. Some of the more expensive brands might also not be available unless you’re a high ranking player’s club card holder but this really only applies to particularly select brandies and whiskies and you don’t come across this often.
Also there’s no limit to the number of drinks you can have consecutively – unless you’re obviously falling down drunk, when you’ll be cut off (contrary to film and TV myths) but don’t ask for more than one drink at a time as you’ll be refused. An exception to this is if you are playing and accompanied by a wife/girlfriend/husband etc who is watching. The waitress should technically not also bring a drink for your partner but, if you’re reasonable and nice to them and tip them appropriately, then most of them will (a minimum of $2, I suggest). This certainly qualifies as free stuff. Note: if you buy a drink at a bar within a Vegas hotel it may well cost you in excess of $10 so free drinks really is a significant concession even though it doesn’t cost them that much.