Game On

Harrah's 20 Years in Tunica.

photographs courtesy Harrah’s Tunica

A “good steady player” is a casino insider’s description of a cool customer at the blackjack tables who knows when to hold, fold, draw, let it ride, double down, and walk away.

In the 20 years since it opened its first casino in Tunica, Harrah’s has been such a player and then some. Now part of Caesar’s Entertainment Inc., Harrah’s — an offshoot of Memphis-based Holiday Inns back in the day — has amassed the biggest collection of casinos in Mississippi, the best locations, and the biggest share of the $822 million-a-year Tunica market. Harrah’s hand includes its flagship Harrah’s Tunica Hotel and Casino, Horseshoe, and Tunica Roadhouse.

It was different 20 years ago. The time traveler would visit a world where cotton and soybean farmers pondered outrageous offers for their land, where skeptics scoffed at the audacity of Destination Tunica, where the closest casino to Memphis was an hour (not 30 minutes) away on two-lane U.S. Highway 61, where a sandwich shop could pass for a restaurant, and where rookie dealers miscounted only slightly less often than rookie players. When Harrah’s opened its first casino in Robinsonville, a seemingly endless line of cars streamed over the levee before the doors opened as then-CEO Mike Rose muttered to a reporter nearby, “unbelievable.”

No one had heard of Paula Deen, smartphones, or televised poker tournaments that would rival baseball for exposure. Actual dimes, quarters, half-dollars, and silver dollars in plastic buckets truly were the coin of the realm, to be fed one by one into hungry slot machines. Nickel slots? Only for the bottom feeders in lesser markets. Penny slots? You must be kidding.

As everyone knows, the Tunica market proved to be even bigger than almost anyone imagined, supporting nine casinos for the last 15 years. It is the 10th largest market in the country, surpassed in 2011 by the Mississippi Gulf Coast thanks to post-Katrina rebuilding and the post-BP-oil-spill marketing windfall. The Coast has grown 20 percent while the North River Region stayed flat. With 30 casinos in all, Mississippi is the 4th largest market in the country behind Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Chicago.

Memphis contributes approximately 30 percent of the Tunica customers, but the share of total revenue is anyone’s guess.

Harrah’s Tunica took over the former Grand Casino and bought out savvy competitor Jack Binion’s Horseshoe. The market withstood the introduction of the Tennessee Lottery, the expansion of casino-style games at Southland Park in West Memphis, the recession, and the Great Flood of 2011.

Penny slots became the most popular machine in the casino, taking in a staggering $321 million in a single month. Yes, you can play one cent at a time, or as much as $10 at a time.

But don’t go grab that jar of change on your dresser. The sound of coins clattering into a metal tray or shaking in a plastic bucket is a thing of the past, replaced by bill acceptors and tickets redeemable at the cashier’s window.

“Money can be dirty — and heavy,” says Harrah’s Tunica GM Darold Londo, a graduate of West Point and the Wisconsin School of Law who came to Mississippi in February. “My mother would rather travel light than heavy.”

Harrah’s did a $40 million renovation after taking over its signature property consisting of the casino, two hotels, a golf course, kiddie arcade, events center, and shooting range. Paula Deen’s Buffet and Gift Shop rode a hot streak for five years before crapping out this summer.

The Queen of Southern Cuisine is out but the King could be coming in. Harrah’s is talking to wrestler Jerry Lawler about hosting his new museum.

Technology changed table games as well as electronic ones. Pit bosses still look friendly to a point but now watch for cheaters who would assist their memory with Google Glass. You can bring your smartphone with you but you can’t make a call on it at the tables. There is an electronic version of craps with a tutorial so novices can nurse a small sum and learn the game before going to a real table. The old soldiers of the Greatest Generation and street hustlers must shake their heads in wonder.

The no-smoking area? Forget it. Didn’t take. But you can get baked chicken, steamed vegetables, three kinds of lettuce, and sugarless cookies at the low-calorie buffet.

What does the future hold? If only. “Online poker for money is going to happen,” Londo says. “It’s happening in some states now. Perhaps at some point it will be approved federally.”

As Internet gambling expands, does the potential market for casinos expand as well? Harrah’s VP Ricky Busey, who came to the company as a second career after working in retail, says, “The customer who likes sitting at home and gaming on a computer is not the customer who wants to be in the action at the craps table high-fiving people. Kids who grew up on video games may be online gamers, versus my group that travels in packs. The question is how you get the most people. It’s no different than retail. If you asked me when I was at Macy’s in the ’80s if people would buy online I would have said, ‘No.’ And we would have been wrong.” 


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