The Unvarnished Truth About Vegas: Seven Reasons Why It’s Easier Than You Might Think to Lose It All
What is it about Las Vegas that prompts otherwise rational people to make rash decisions they wouldn’t dream of at home? Jay Rankin, author of Under the Neon Sky, explores the seductive culture of a city that makes people lose their minds—and their fortunes.
Los Angeles, CA (January 2010)—We all know that Las Vegas is a town where you can make—or break—a fortune in a single game. And while millions each year decide to gamble there regardless, most of us like to think that we’d stop before our losses left the triple digits. That’s why we’re scandalized, horrified, and fascinated when we hear stories like that of Terrance Watanabe.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Watanabe, who built up a fortune while running his family’s party-favor import business, has found himself in the hole to the tune of $127 million—an astronomical sum by any measure. How could this have happened? we ask ourselves. Why didn’t he stop? I certainly wouldn’t have let myself go that far, even if I did have a fortune to lose.
How, indeed, did this highly successful and presumably intelligent person manage to fall prey to one of the biggest individual losing streaks in Las Vegas history? The answer, says Jay Rankin, is much more complex than you might initially guess—and it says just as much about Vegas as it does about Watanabe.
“It’s tempting to blame Watanabe’s loss on his own bad judgment,” concedes Rankin, author of the new non-fiction book Under the Neon Sky: A Las Vegas Doorman’s Story (Jay Rankin Publishing, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-9842109-1-6, $14.99). “And it’s true: He chose to stay in an environment that was clearly destroying him. However—and this is a big however—the truth is that Las Vegas is constructed to lure in people who are susceptible to destructive behavior, and to nurture those behaviors once they’ve started. Especially if those people are high rollers.”
Rankin knows what he’s talking about. A former probation officer, family and addiction counselor, and television host who holds an advanced degree in psychology, Rankin worked the graveyard shift as a doorman at the 5,000-room MGM Grand hotel for six years. A memoir of sorts, his book tells the true story of this turbulent period in his life.
In his position as a doorman, Rankin found himself at the intersection of two worlds: the flashy, electric exterior of the Las Vegas strip, and its gritty hidden infrastructure. Surrounded by hordes of visitors whose singular goal was often to cross lines, Rankin faced a nightly fight for his sanity and his safety. And during that time, he got an insider’s view of how the city works.
“Watanabe’s case seems sensational because of the amount of money involved,” says Rankin. “But really, this is old news. It happens all the time. If you step back and look at the marketing, it’s brilliant: the lights, the shows, the food, the entertainment, the rooms, and the views…the possibility of winning big, of getting laid, of doing drugs, and on and on. Even the rush of anticipation you get when you plan a trip to Vegas is addicting.
“The whole atmosphere has been carefully constructed to address all groups and ages and cultures,” he adds. “And you don’t have to be as rich as Mr. Watanabe to get in over your head.”
Read on as Rankin explains the strategy behind Sin City’s allure.
The sheer excitement draws you in. If you’ve ever been to Vegas, you know that it is, quite simply, intense. The colors are vivid, sounds constantly bombard you, and you’re always surrounded by a diverse mass of people. You might be sitting near a group of beautiful women having a “ladies’ night” out on the town, or you might be mingling with a celebrity at a bar. The level of excitement is always very high. It’s impossible to be bored in the midst of all of the spectacle and pageantry, and The Best is right at your fingertips: the best restaurants, the best shows, the best parties.
“Las Vegas is alive with action and anticipation, and you can’t help but want to be part of it,” Rankin acknowledges. “The atmosphere very much lends itself to making visitors want to be part of the ‘in crowd.’ They’ll do whatever they think will land them in the V.I.P. room or in the winner’s circle.”
There are no boundaries. Think about it: In your hometown, you have to act a certain way, and you have to abide by certain rules. Your place in society, whatever it might be, is accompanied by a set of obligations—to your family, your employer, your friends, etc. Not so in Las Vegas. It’s a city where the impossible…isn’t anymore.
“The primary allure of Vegas is that there are no boundaries,” Rankin says. “There is no clock, no last call, no line in the sand. You can do what you want, whenever you want, with whom you want. You’re free to stay out all night and bet it all. Your fantasies are right in front of you…and when you can indulge in them without repercussions, it’s almost impossible to say no. Vegas has been designed that way for a reason, and it’s true—what happens in Vegas really does stay there. Unfortunately, the consequences of indulging in your wildest desires stick around long after the thrill is gone, and Mr. Watanabe is a prime example.”
The city is alive, 24/7. Las Vegas doesn’t sleep the way other cities do. It is, literally, a 24/7 town, and there’s just as much to do and see at 4 a.m. as at 10 p.m. Indeed, as the night wears on, casinos and clubs raise their glitz factors. Beautiful people and high rollers continue to make spectacular appearances and place outrageous bets. And of course, the neon lights glow even more brightly at night.
“The spectacle alone is enough to make you want to stay up and take it all in,” Rankin says. “And if you’re enjoying yourself, if you’re flirting with a beautiful woman, if you’re convinced that the next hand is yours, then there’s no reason to stop. No one is going to make you leave; no bartender is going to put out a last call. You can stay out until you’ve dropped from exhaustion or blown through every last cent you have.”
Vegas builds the hype that anyone can win. It’s true; anyone can win. No one is prohibited from coming out on top at roulette, poker, slots, or any number of games. The possibility is always there. And often, that’s a problem. There’s an impetus to keep going, no matter how well or how badly the game is going. To compound the compulsion to keep playing, Vegas is also good at hyping the “almost” factor. “You almost won that time! So close! You should play just one more game.” Often, this encouragement comes from fellow guests, not from casino employees. Everyone is waiting on the next big win.
“Go to a table that’s hot and look into the eyes of the players,” Rankin suggests. “Most of them will not be coolly calculating whether they should stay or walk away. They’ll rush into the next hand, dazzled by what they could win. After all, when will they feel this way again? Study the people playing slot machines. Many will sit for hours and hours. If they win a jackpot, many will give it all back. The hotels know all about this, and they are continually improving and updating their casinos to make them more exciting, modern, and consumer-friendly—a place where you can see yourself making it big.”
The comps are spectacular. Vegas, says Rankin, invented the comp. So it’s no surprise that Harrah’s offered Terrance Watanabe V.I.P. perks, such as free stays in a three-bedroom suite at Caesars, seven-course meals while he gambled, and tickets to see the likes of the Rolling Stones.
“If a player of this caliber is not happy, he will simply walk across the street and keep playing at another casino,” Rankin points out. “So it’s well worth a hotel’s investment to make him feel like a king by offering him comps. Hotels answer to shareholders, and they actively compete for high rollers like Mr. Watanabe. It’s well worth the cost of a $1,000 bottle of champagne to keep someone who’s betting many times that in his chair.
“Some establishments even have a ‘secondary marketing’ department whose sole job it is to keep the wives, children, and friends of high rollers happy so that they don’t influence the primary target to leave. That might mean showing them around town, taking them out to dinner, or surprising them with tickets to a show.”
Everyone could be a V.I.P. To a lesser extent, everyone in Vegas is wooed by the V.I.P. treatment, or at least the possibility of receiving V.I.P. treatment. Sure, all guests are treated well, but if you bet enough or win enough, you’ll be waited on hand and foot. Think about it: You see a postman or an administrative assistant or a bank teller win the jackpot. Suddenly, that person—who is an average joe at home—is being treated like royalty. And you think to yourself, That could be me. What’s next? Well, says Rankin, your compulsion to win will grow. And you’ll keep playing.
“Again, it all goes back to putting the forbidden within the customer’s reach,” explains Rankin. “Hotels will go to great lengths to make customers call their casinos home, and they’ll do anything for you so that you will come back and bring your money with you. If that means giving you a free drink or even a personal handler, so be it. Everyone wants to feel important.
“As a hotel employee, I saw just how pervasive this please-the-guest culture is,” he adds. “When I was a doorman working the 2 a.m. cab line, I was expected to keep my mouth shut even when faced with verbal abuse and physical violence. And in Vegas, both of those things are commonplace. No matter what, though, it was always my position on the line—the guests themselves would not be thrown out for anything but the very worst behavior.” Note: See attached tipsheet for more details on how casinos attract and keep guests.
The booze is always flowing. Yes, alcohol is available just about everywhere in Vegas. No matter where you go, it seems, a cocktail waitress is at your elbow, offering you a drink, or refilling the one you already have. And it’s not just booze, either: Drugs are there for the taking as well. Obtaining them might not be legal, but in most cases, all you need to do is ask the right people.
“The effects of drugs and alcohol on your decision making are obvious,” Rankin points out. “But casinos will keep serving you as long as you’re coherent, as long as you seem to know what you’re doing. It’s up to you to know when to stop once you’ve started, and most people find it hard to tap into that sort of self-discipline in the strip’s addictive environment. The bottom line is, unless you’re clearly not in control of yourself, hotels and casinos are not responsible for unwise decisions you make while you’re under the influence.”
“Ultimately,” says Rankin, “Las Vegas is not a city that’s about being smart. It’s not a city that’s about making good decisions, or knowing when to stop. And it’s not meant to be. Most of Vegas’s attractions—gambling, sex, drinking, getting high—are very slippery slopes. One step over the line leads to another, and then another, and then another. And pretty soon, the only thing that can obscure the guilt and panic you feel is to seek out those thrills again. It happened to Mr. Watanabe, and to a lesser but no less devastating extent, it happens to hundreds of average joes every day.”
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The Science Behind Sin City: Six “Lucky”
(for the House, That Is!) Tips and Tricks That Keep Las Vegas Lit Up
From Jay Rankin, author of Under the Neon Sky: A Las Vegas Doorman’s Story
(Jay Rankin Publishing, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-9842109-1-6, $14.99)
Millions of people from around the world come to Las Vegas to experience the city’s one-of-a-kind attractions and atmosphere. And they keep coming back, time after time. It’s not just because Vegas has that special je ne sais quoi—in Sin City, attracting visitors and keeping them there has been honed to a veritable art form. Here, author Jay Rankin reveals some common strategies Vegas hotels and casinos use to maximize profit and guests’ goodwill.
That “casino cachet” is calculated—right down to the carpet color. Nothing about a casino—its layout, its color scheme, its music, the placement of its staff—is left to chance. The patterned carpets, alluring noises, and lighting are designed to keep the senses stimulated. And heaven forbid that “unlucky number 13” makes an appearance! You won’t find it anywhere—not on room numbers, and certainly not a 13th floor.
“Hotels especially are experts in the science of human behavior,” notes Rankin. “They are masterful at playing into the ego, at making each guest feel as though he or she is special and different from everyone else. While a bellman might say, ‘I know you’re new in town; let me recommend a restaurant,’ what he’s really communicating is, ‘Tip me!'”
Big Brother is watching you play blackjack. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. In Vegas, you’re always being watched, whether you’re on camera, being tracked electronically, or being monitored by a dealer in a live game. Casinos’ surveillance cameras are very high-tech—so much so that they can count your eyelashes. So if there is sleight of hand going on in a game, it will be noticed.
Also, when you gamble, you are given a player’s club card. This enables casinos to see how long you gamble, what your games of choice are, and how much you’re betting. If you’re a high enough roller, you’ll be targeted for special treatment—after all, the last thing the casino wants is for you to walk out the door! You might also be researched by other casinos who are hoping to woo you to a new “home” on the strip. It’s a constantly evolving science of how to keep players at each hotel. The more you play, the more they pay. You probably know high rollers get the royal treatment. But the truth is, more moderate gambling is rewarded.Casinos track guests through their player’s club cards, and if you play enough, you can earn a free meal, or even a free room for the night! If you’re winning, you’ll be approached with these offers. If you’re losing, though, it’s your responsibility to go to the office and ask whether or not you qualify for any perks.
“Incidentally, casinos would rather you play a $1 slot machine for four hours than a $100 slot machine for five minutes,” notes Rankin. “You have to realize that 40 to 50 percent of their revenue doesn’t come from gambling but from shopping, dining, lodging, and so forth. The name of the game is to keep you on the premises as long as possible.”
Slot machines are meant to mesmerize. In high-end casinos, you can be sure that you’re using a state-of-the-art slot machine. Casino managers work to make sure that their establishments’ machines are as enticing as possible, with moving images and unique sounds. Some slot machines even talk to you! What you might not know is that these flashiest machines probably don’t pay as well. Regardless, casinos are betting you’ll be drawn to them because you like what they do.
“People truly get addicted to the lights and the noise,” says Rankin. “They will sit there for hours feeding money into a machine. It’s kind of like watching a movie.
“Casinos also watch the traffic patterns of their guests, and relocate their most lucrative machines accordingly,” adds Rankin. “It’s just like a retail setting: It pays to move the merchandise. The highest-payout machines are placed near walkways and registration areas, closest to the highest concentrations of guests. So some machines really do pay better than others—but if you’re looking to win, you might want to avoid the strip altogether. Machines in local casinos aren’t as tight.”
As the sun goes down, the bets go up. Although most visitors never notice, the minimum bet at the same blackjack table isn’t the same during the day as it is at night. The table might start at $1 while the strip is sunny, but that amount will rise to $5 as the afternoon wears on, and then to $10 at night. Casinos know that their clientele is changing—families are going to shows and eventually to bed, while more serious gamblers are just coming out.
Once your butt’s in a seat, they’ll do anything to keep it there. Once you’re sitting down, the casino wants you to stay there, and so do individual employees! Cocktail waitresses vie for certain areas of the floor, and they’ll bring you drinks as long as you’re sitting at a machine. And not only that—they’ll give you “hints” to keep you there, drinking and tipping.
“A waitress might say, ‘This machine has hit the jackpot twice in two weeks; it’s been so long it’s gotta be due again,'” says Rankin. “Never mind the fact that—scientifically—there’s no way to predict when a machine will or won’t hit.”
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About the Author:
Jay Rankin didn’t research Las Vegas; he lived it. His six years as an MGM Grand doorman gave him the insider’s view of real Vegas life, the grit behind the glitz. Jay reveals a Vegas few people know exists. Jay hosted a weekly television show, Las Vegas Business Week. That media experience and his connections won him the ambassador’s job out of 1,500 applicants. Jay holds an advanced degree in psychology. He began writing in 1993 and is currently working on his second book, about his life after escaping Vegas. He resides in Los Angeles, California.
For more information or to read Chapter 1 of Under the Neon Sky, visit www.jayslasvegas.com.
About the Book:
Under the Neon Sky: A Las Vegas Doorman’s Story (Jay Rankin Publishing, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-9842109-1-6, $14.99) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.