Believe it or not, I often have conversations with people who know nothing about Las Vegas or sports betting. Their initial take on the world of Las Vegas sports gambling usually sounds something like: "Ho ho! Wow, what a sleazy, slimy racket that must be!" They're wrong, of course. But incidents like this drive home that unfortunate stereotype. Any executives at Harrah's who foster an atmosphere or a mindset that encourages this sort of behavior are a disgrace to their profession.
After an investigation, Harrah's was hit with a $100,000 penalty for the illegal activity described here. I wrote about my reaction for EOG.com:
If you type my name into Google, the following column is the first thing that pops up (at the time of this writing). To quote Harold Melvin in the poker mockumentary "The Grand," this fact is "neither good nor bad. It is simply the present reality."
For some reason, I had always been a defender of the Las Vegas sports betting scene.
Sure, there was room for improvement in some areas. But I figured everyone except the highest rollers had a decent number of betting options in town with just a modicum of hassles.
In a recent interview with talk-show host John Kelly on Fox Sports Radio 920-AM, I described my outlook as “generally bullish, with some reservations.”
I’ve since become a bear.
The pivotal moment came in a disgraceful incident Saturday night at Harrah’s sports book, when I tried to place wagers on three Sunday NBA games.
What transpired is really beyond words.
But I’ll try.
And, as I sputtered to the supervisor on duty Saturday night as my inner thesaurus was running on empty, “really bad.”
After I made the bets, the clerk printed out the three tickets. I examined them to make sure they were correct. They were. I handed over my money. He took it. He put it in the drawer.
Before the clerk handed them to me, a supervisor grabbed the tickets and walked off with them. Not a word to me. I stood there for at least two or three minutes. This is a long time when you’re just standing there with no money and no tickets to show for it. Still no explanation.
Finally, the supervisor returned and announced he was voiding all three tickets because he “didn’t like the lines” I had bet into.
This was flat-out unethical behavior by Harrah’s.
The casino was in effect dealing a “double line,” or a “one-way line.” In other words, casino officials were giving themselves the option of refusing bets on one side of the game while accepting bets on the other side.
This is not illegal, because state gaming regulations afford casinos the right to void any wager at any time for any reason whatsoever or no reason at all.
Upon further questioning, the supervisor, Travis Strege, said he was voiding the wagers because “it’s near the end of the NBA season.”
I left Harrah’s without any betting tickets, once again thwarted in my quixotic quest to actually wager money in a Las Vegas sports book. (Boy, I’ve got a lot of nerve! Who do I think I am, trying to pull something like that?)
Strege did not directly address my contention that this was unethical behavior. (How could he possibly challenge it?)
He did agree that it was not illegal. He even explained, ever so helpfully, that the transaction does not become official until the customer is actually holding the tickets in his hand.
So this is the kind of treatment you can expect if you bet at Harrah’s sports book and you know anything about sports or gambling.
If you’re a clueless sucker, don’t worry. Your action remains welcome at Harrah’s.
The next part of the exchange could have been taken verbatim from an episode of “The Twilight Zone:”
Strege said wagering on NBA games the night before they take place is “limited.”
OK, how limited?
Well, one-half of the usual game-day limits.
OK, what are the usual game-day limits on NBA over/unders?
Well, they are $2,000 per game.
OK, great. Since each of my wagers was below $1,000, there’s no problem, right?
Wrong. In short, I’ll get nothing and like it.
But ... but ... but ...
If you were in the vicinity of the center of the Strip Saturday night, the sharp report you might have heard was the sound of my head exploding.
It was all my fault, of course, and a mistake I’ve made many times in the past: I was acting like a logical, sentient human being in a conversation with a rank-and-file casino employee. I’ll just never learn.
Although his decision to void the wagers was wrongheaded, Strege maintained a professional demeanor even as the discussion became more pointed (it never reached the “heated” stage). It’s also to his credit he agreed to speak on the record.
This led me to believe he was likely heeding a call — directly or indirectly — from on high, from empty suits in plush offices who couldn’t “book their way out of a paper bag,” in the immortal phrase of an old friend of mine.
Just last week, a news release went out stating the company that owns Harrah’s, Caesars Palace and a bunch of other casinos will henceforth be known as “Caesars Entertainment Corp.”
Once upon a time, you see, Caesars was the most formidable name in organized gambling.
Yet as long as Harrah’s, and by extension, Caesars, run their sports book in an unethical manner, I will consider them embarrassments to Las Vegas and to the institution of legal, regulated gambling.
And for fearing the sports-betting action of a low-rolling sportswriter, I consider them embarrassments to the once-great Caesars brand.
The only problem, I suppose, is a prerequisite to being embarrassed is that you actually have to care.
Las Vegas Sun, April 14, 2008