Casinos drawing customers despite tough times

Published 1:35 pm Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Gambling your money might appear to be risky during today’s difficult economic times, but casino connoisseur Teresa Snow isn’t folding — yet.

“No, the economy hasn’t slowed me down so far,” said Snow of McIntosh, Ala., who patronizes the slot machines at the Imperial Palace in Biloxi, about 100 miles from her home. “It’s the possibility of winning a big amount of money, and it’s also the courtesy, the way you’re treated there, as if you’re very well off,” said Snow, explaining the lure of gambling palaces.

Just how well off are the casinos, considering that some regulars, like Terry and Anthony Molinari of Brandon, are, more and more, balking at betting?

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“We don’t go to the casino very much anymore because of the economy,” said Terry Molinari, a patron of Rainbow Casino in Vicksburg. “We like to go. It’s hard to fight it. But you can’t go with scared money.”

Whether Mississippi’s casinos are, or should be, running scared may be open to debate. Gross revenue is up for some months this year — casinos pay state taxes on the gross — while, apparently, net revenue is down, at least for some casinos.

“Gaming economists will tell you that, historically, casinos do well in down economic times, said Dan McDaniel Jr., a Jackson gaming attorney. “But I don’t think you’ve seen down economic times like this, at least not in my lifetime.”

The state’s Gulf Coast casinos shut down starting Aug. 31 for the Labor Day weekend as Hurricane Gustav threatened. Yet, for August, gross revenues for those 11 gaming houses were up, from $108.6 million to $112.1 million, compared to August 2007.

For five of the first eight months of this year, revenues rose for the Coast casinos, compared to the same months for the previous year. The state’s 18 river casinos haven’t fared so well, showing a decline for each month except February, compared to corresponding months for 2007.

Still, their gross revenues topped $1 billion.

Obviously, a lot of people are still “going to the boats,” not only in spite of the economy, but also, possibly, because of it, said Ann Homer Cook of Ridgeland, a life coach and a nationally certified gambling counselor.

“Casinos are very welcoming places,” she said. “They’re nice to you there. They give you free drinks, and it’s bright. One of the reasons people continue to gamble is it is an escape. Some prefer the slots because they can become one with the machine. That way, it blocks out all of their thoughts about their problems.”

Those hurt by gambling, especially during bad financial times, are not the “recreational gamblers, who, instead of, say, going to the movies, they go to the casinos,” Cook said.

“Not everyone who gambles is addicted, by any means,” Cook said. “But when the economy goes bad, if you are prone to addiction and have family problems, even if you are in the recreational or social stage, you could be pushed toward that problem stage.”

Snow, the slot player from Alabama, said, “You have to have discipline with your money. If you don’t, it really sucks you in.”

Molinari knows the feeling.

“When you win, it’s almost like a drug,” she said. “It’s an adrenaline rush. Anything you can do to escape the reality, you’ll do it again.”

During terrorist attacks, disastrous weather and a foundering economy, “More people will flock to casinos and gamble,” said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills, Calif., psychiatrist whose areas of expertise include compulsive spending.

“They are so desperate, they feel they have nothing left to lose,” Lieberman said. “They are frightened and fantasize about protecting themselves by winning a lot of money and running away from their problems.”

Sam Begley, a Jackson lawyer whose clients include casino operators, doesn’t buy the correlation between people going to the casinos and times being bad. “People want to be entertained, as always. Some rent DVDs, some take trips. Some like to play slot machines,” Begley said.

There are patrons who frequent casinos just for the meals and headline entertainers, said Denise von Herrmann, a gaming expert at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“If you do gamble, it’s a form of entertainment that allows you to scale back: You can switch from dollar slots to quarter slots. It’s not like the movies, where if you’re paying for two people, you’re always going to spend, what, $18, no matter what,” Herrmann said.

At any rate, Begley said, in spite of the Gulf Coast’s figures for August, gross revenues do not accurately reflect how well casinos are doing there, or anywhere.

Echoing that view, McDaniel said, “That’s not net revenue. You can’t tell from gross revenue how much the casinos are giving away comps and other incentives to get people in the door. Also, one of those months may have an extra weekend, compared to the year before, and that will tilt the numbers as well.”