Originally Published:Sunday, March 7, 2010
Las Vegas uses volcanoes, Emeril Lagasse, and spa treatments to make losing seem fun. Philadelphia's casino "experience" is shaping up to be neither entertaining nor exotic, defined instead by hot dogs, cigarettes, and convenience.
For proof, head to Bensalem, where Parx - formerly called PhiladelphiaPark Racetrack - made $400 million last year. Impressive for a not-spot plopped among strip malls.
Inside the smoke-filled slots box, much of what casino bosses took for granted has changed. Gone are the days of wooing "whales" and dissing grannies in fanny packs. Parx president Dave Jonas says his revenue comes almost exclusively from local low rollers.
"We underestimated significantly how many trips our customers were going to make," Jonas said at last month's Pennsylvania Gaming Congress in Valley Forge.
"When I was in Atlantic City, to have 12 to 15 trips out of customers, they were VIPs," Jonas said. At Parx, "it's not uncommon for us to have 150 to 200 trips."
Moderator Michael Pollock, a well-regarded casino analyst, paused to digest the statistic.
"You said 150 to 200 times a year," he repeated. "That's three to four times a week, essentially."
"Yes," Jonas confirmed, most of his players fit that profile. In fact, because Parx players tend to live within 20 miles of Street Road, many go even more frequently.
"We have customers," Jonas boasted, "who give us $25, $30 five times a week."
Besides work and the gym, there's no place I go three to five times a week. And, beyond Target and Wegmans, nowhere I drop as much cash.
Jonas should be proud of Parx's haul. But if frequency can portend problem gambling, should he - and we - worry about thousands of people who've made playing a way of daily life? It didn't take much to lure them, beyond proximity, free valet parking, and $50 comps. "If you live 15 minutes away, you really don't need a room," Jonas told the casino group. His customers "come in, grab a hot dog or maybe a chicken sandwich," gamble three hours, "then go home and sleep in their own bed."
This I had to see to believe. For expert observation, I took C.P. Mirarchi and Kevin Gregan on a field trip last week to Parx.
Mirarchi is a lawyer-turned-counselor (www.thegamblingcounselor.com) who treats fellow gambling addicts through Genesis Counseling Centers, based in Collingswood. Gregan is Mirarchi's boss, a veteran clinician who diagnosed his own addictive potential after "losing the baby's diaper money" in a poker game.
Neither man had been in a casino in years. Both did double takes at the full house we found on a Wednesday at 11 a.m.
"You can see that people who may not be doing anything are out doing something that breathes life into them," Gregan noted. "But at the same time, they're watching their money disappear. How many of these people can truly afford to be participating in this activity?"
If most Parx players go three times a week, what to make of the guy who tells me he's there twice a day? Regularity won't automatically breed depravity, but surely everyone knows the house always wins.
"Everybody in there is one pull away from a different lifestyle, one pull away from the dream," Mirarchi said from experience. "The hardest thing for any addict to do is give up that dream."
We tried to get lunch, but Parx's steak house serves only dinner, and the Foodies counter steps away from the casino floor didn't entice.
"This," Mirarchi marveled, "is the McDonald's of gambling." Fast food offers familiarity close to home. So does Parx.
Even better for that twice-a-day player I met? The casino never closes. I'll share his story Wednesday. He's having the time of his life.
Reach me at 215-854-4670 or firstname.lastname@example.org.