THE CASINO — Phat Duc, that inscrutable Asian hiding behind his dark glasses, takes another drag on his cigarette, and puts down five. Lubbock Slim (he didn’t quite make it to Amarillo) smiles his trademark smile and tosses in 10. The crowd gasps. Lucky Bunny makes it 15. I make it 25. Why not? Fortunately, I am down the aisle at the penny slots, so I can blow a quarter. Eh? You think I’m in that poker league? Maybe if I were union plumber, but I am only a mere casino critic, here to check out the latest vacuum cleaner into Texans’ pockets. It’s a huge new casino called the Golden Nugget, next to the L’Auberge. Both overlook the scenic refineries and barge traffic of Lake Charles.
This place is not quite finished. The swimming pools, so many they look like a well-scrubbed Venice, have yet to get wet. My room is very new and nice, but no chairs. Elsewhere, workmen and workwomen wearing belts loaded with pliers and tape, walk about carrying stepladders. When the workers were hired here, I think each one was issued a stepladder. They all smile and say for me to have a good morning or nice day or just hi. When done, the Golden Nugget will cover 1.3 million-square-feet, cost $700 million with 740 hotel rooms and suites, an 18-hole golf course, shops, an 18,000 square-foot ballroom, 30,000 square feet of meeting space. 1,600 slots, a poker room, 70 game tables, a bunch of restaurants, a private beach front and marina (I think they haven’t quite finished the Gulf). In the marina floats Tilman J. Fertitta’s yacht with helicopter. The boat could easily be mistaken for the USS George H.W. Bush except the yacht probably has a better bar.
The casino’s parent company is Landry’s, owned by Houstonian Fertitta (whom I always call Fajita). His empire already has more than 500 restaurants in the U.S. and abroad, plus this Golden Nugget and four more elsewhere. The company is now bidding to take over operation of San Antonio’s River Walk party barges. Maybe he’ll load them with slot machines. That’s the only way we’ll ever get them in Texas. But this is a gutsy time to open a huge casino. The Caesar’s Palace operation is in the midst of bankruptcy. Atlantic City has had casinos for four decades and they never really took off. Four of that town’s 12 casinos closed last year, putting 9,000 workers out of a job, and Trump Taj Mahal just avoided closure.
Texas is currently only one of 10 states that does not allow casino-style gambling. That brings us to HJR (House Jiganic Resolution) 47, a bill introduced in the new session of our Texas Legislature that would start the dice rolling on casinos in Texas. Yawn, because we see this sort of movement every session of the Texas Legislature since it was the Texas Congress. Rep. Carol Alvarado of Houston wants to set up a “gaming” – never gambling — commission that would allow casinos in or in conjunction with race tracks in areas with a population of at least 675,000. That leaves out Fredericksburg.
Texans love to gamble and do it daily – Lotto, scratch-offs, bingo, horse racing (do we still have dog racing?) and the biggest gamble of all, a Texas freeway at rush hour. And, of course, we go out of state to lose money to pay for other states’ teachers and roads. Polls show those Texans opposed to casino gambling are mostly of the conservative nature, so perhaps they should look to Louisiana which says it has 14,061 of its citizens working in the gambling biz. Of these, 11 percent got off welfare due to their employment, 20 percent are no longer receiving unemployment benefits and 13 percent got off food stamps. I guess this means a lot of them are still are on the rolls.
All these big promises of the loot that casinos will be brought to the state’s treasury must be viewed with suspicion. Remember the same story about horse racing? At its peak horse racing brought $5.5 billion to the Texas economy (economy, not taxes) per year, but now the horses have mostly been rustled off to neighboring states offering higher purses and large, casino-style gambling. According to the Texas Racing Commission, horse racing attendance in the state dropped 12 percent and wagers dropped 23 percent in 2011, the latest figures available. Meanwhile, up in Oklahoma the racetrack game has greatly expanded in recent years, bringing the state $3.6 billion in revenue during 2012 alone. So the Texas horse racing industry, which promised so much and is delivering a dwindling coin, wants to hook up with casinos under the grandstands or at least next door.
Now back to my critique of this newest entry. The restaurants are excellent and the staff, like the stepladder carries, couldn’t be nicer, although some operations need a bit more experience. We made dinner reservations at Landry’s the day before for 7 pm. Went by the next afternoon just to check. They had no record my upcoming red snapper. Finally found me under Hashby. We were told to arrive 10 minutes early to make sure we got a good table. We did. At 7:10, while waiting at the restaurant’s entrance, we noted a table by the wall opened. Perfect. Just then another couple came up, walked in and sat down there. Huh? I was told they were members of the High Rollers Club or some name. This is bad business. Whales, as we big losers are called, get preferential treatment. OK, that goes in most businesses, but slip them in the side entrance, don’t march them past the great unwashed. Fajita should know better.
Back at the tables, Phat Duc and the others are cleaning up. With my poker skills, the Golden Nugget is the Lead Lump. Still, when I left everyone wished me a nice day.
Hashby wins at firstname.lastname@example.org