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Mississippi Dreaming - Part 13 September 2001
Let's start at the end, shall we? After three nights and two days in Tunica, Mississippi, it was time for my wife, the beautiful AP, and me to get in the Sam's Town car and head for the Memphis airport.
I had come to Tunica to do seminars on gambling with slot expert John Robison and Walter Thomason, author of the best-selling book Twenty-First Century Blackjack.
This was a first really, as Sam's Town was paying for these talks and rarely do casinos bring in gambling experts to teach their patrons the real ins and outs, the real odds and ends of casino gambling. But Chris Wade, the talented, visionary Marketing Director of Sam's Town is not the typical casino executive. So here we were in Mississippi.
Now it was Monday, almost 7AM, and the car and driver were supposed to be there promptly at seven. But I had learned something in my two days in the land of Dixie -- time doesn't press on the Southerner the way it does on us Yankees. As the "devil" time was approaching (in craps the seven is often called the devil), I was getting nervous. What if the car doesn't show up? What if the driver is off in one of the endless cotton or soybean fields smoking his corncob pipe or snoring away on a break? What if I don't make it back to New York and all the deadlines and all the correspondence and all the....
Chris Wade, Marketing Director, Sam's Town: Players are going to find the gaming in Tunica to be just like Vegas, maybe even better, but they're going to find the pace maddening if they expect to experience the Vegas and Atlantic City energy. Everything is slower here. Everything. This is the land of laid back.
I'm used to having my driver in New York show up about 15 minutes early and, well, wait for me. I'm used to knowing everything will be done without a hitch -- before it's really time to do it. New Yorkers are constructed that way. On time means early!
The driver was on time. Seven came and there he was. It was like that all weekend. When things had to be finished, they were finished, just. A half hour before my first seminar on Saturday, I walked into the room and it hadn't been set up. The worker arrived several minutes later: "When's yow talk [towk]?" he asked. I told him. "Oh, plenty a time." And he left. I almost had a heart attack.
"Relax," said another Sam's Town employee, "ya'll in the South, sugah, it'll git done."
It was. The seminars went off without a hitch. By the way, the women all call you "sugar" and "honey" and their accents sound just so sexy. Of course, they liked my accent, too. "Yew sound sweet, sugah, real cute when yew talk." (Actually, I was 19 when I stopped saying "youse" as the plural for you -- so youse readas can get an idear of how a New Yawka sounds. But if the Southern belles thought I sounded cute, hey, I ain't arg-you-in wit dem.)
Then I saw the driver get out of the car, one huge muscle at a time. The guy was a mountain in uniform. He looked like the standard southern sheriff from Hollywood casting. Big. Beefy. Dangerous. I flirted with the idea that he was not going to drive us to the airport but, rather, take us into the swamps and skin us for being, well, from up you-know-where. I had seen many rebel flags on many a pickup and flag pole. In fact, the Mississippi flag sports the stars and bars. If I had known at that moment that his former job was as a bounty hunter, I think I would have walked to the airport.
Of course, I completely misjudged him.
David Whitten was indeed a mountain of muscle but a soft spoken, polite, intelligent and highly knowledgeable mountain. He was the quintessential driver, one of the best I ever rode with and I've ridden with many. He should be hired as the official tour guide for new visitors to Tunica because of his knowledge and delivery. He made the ride to the airport a delight as he told us about Tunica county, Memphis, Elvis, cotton, soybeans, drive in "the-aters" and, of all things, Africans.
David Whitten, driver: Yes, sir, we got real Africans workin' hyere. Most don't know English yet but they come hyere ta work hard and make a livin. Ya'll find them in the food services gen-rally. And if you look at the builders, ya'll see many Spanish, workin' the construction jobs. Tunica was the poorest county in the country before the casinos. We was number one as the poorest. Now people who want ta work are workin'.
"Tunica was the poorest county in the country, now we're one of the most prosperous." Time and again I heard variations of that mantra repeated by PR people, who are paid to repeat it; by politicians who get elected when they repeat it, but also from sales clerks, cage personnel, waiters and waitresses, dealers and players and other sundry folk who repeat it because it's true. Everyone, from average citizen to casino executive, marvels at the profound economic good the casinos have done for Tunica county. Everyone, that is, except for this guy on television that I saw Sunday morning.
Television Preacher: Ah say ta yew that the whirled is filled with abominations. Gamblin! They call it "gamin!" Ha! It is a say-in against Gowd. Read Ex-oh-dus! Thou shalt not covet! Covetousness is gamblin' and it's the devil's work! If yew gamble yew are goin' to hell!
Well, Beelzebub is going to have a lot of playmates because on the weekend I was there, every casino I visited was packed. But from the comments of many dealers and other workers, so were the churches. Interestingly enough, many of the big name entertainers do their one-night shows on Friday nights, not Saturday nights.
"Saturday night many people prepare for church on Sunday," Ronda Cloud, the Public Relations Director for Sam's Town told me. "This is the Bible belt and church is a serious business. We respect that."
But the casinos are an even bigger business. It is estimated that in 2000, Tunica's 10 casinos grossed close to 1.2 billion dollars. Tunica is currently the third largest casino destination in the United States, behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but ahead of all the others. Tunica attracted close to 10 million visitors in the year 2000. No wonder. Its 10 casinos range from gorgeous (Gold Strike) to gargantuan (the Grand) to western class (Sam's Town) to tinsel-town tack (Hollywood) to pre-theme-park Vegas chic (Horseshoe). In fact, there is a casino to fit the taste and wealth of gamblers from nickel slot players to purple-chip high rollers and everything in between. When Chris Wade said that inside Tunica's casinos you would find games that might equal or surpass Vegas, he was not hyperbolizing -- he was speaking plainly.
Walter Thomason, gaming author: Tunica has the best craps games in the country, better than Vegas. You have 20X odds but you can also buy the 4 and 10, 5 and 9 and pay commissions only on the wins. The blackjack games range from single-decks all the way to eight decks and you can find whatever game suits your fancy and your bankroll. The rules are generally quite liberal as well.
John Robison, slot expert: You won't find much in the way of video poker compared to Vegas but the paybacks on the slots certainly compare favorably with Vegas and far surpass those of Atlantic City.
Inside the casino it is Las Vegas, the feel, the games, the smell -- that rich mixture of adrenaline and smoke, of hopes fulfilled and dreams dashed. But outside, it is a whole different world. The casinos sit literally in the middle of the South's original claim to economic fame, cotton, because, as far as the eye can see, there are cotton fields, and soybean fields, and even rice paddies. Interspersed -- one here, one there -- are houses that range from delightful to decrepit. This is farming country, growing country. There are even signs on the highway to watch out for farm machinery crossing!
The Mississippi air often hangs on you like an extra skin and there are bugs and snakes and other creepy-crawly things that the imagination gives rise to in the wee hours of the morning when you stray too far from the glare of the neon night that surrounds the immediate proximity of the casino clusters. Outside that glare is nature.
Chris Wade, Marketing Director, Sam's Town: Once I was riding along on a lawnmower going to Isle of Capri to check on a fireworks display that we were going to have that evening and I almost hit a huge water moccasin crawling along the grass. I thought to myself, "If I hit that thing, I'll turn over and it'll get me." Another time I had to physically remove a family of possums who had decided to get involved with the show at the River Palace Arena. Those things got mean and spit!
Ronda Cloud, PR Director, Sam's Town: There are giant bugs outside. They cross the roads and you think to yourself, "Should I stop?" We also have a herd of deer that grazes nearby and sometimes they come right up to the hotel.
Here's another thing. The casinos are not all bunched together as they are on the Strip in Vegas or on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. They are in separate clusters. There are the "casino strip resorts," which consist of Sam's Town, Isle of Capri, Harrah's and Hollywood. These are within walking distance, if you don't mind crossing a sometimes busy highway on foot. Otherwise there are shuttle buses that run regularly between them. There's "casino center," where the Horseshoe, Sheraton and the magnificent Gold Strike congregate. These casinos are so close you can actually walk to each. Just north of the casino center are Bally's Saloon and Gambling Hall, and the Grand, the largest casino in the county.
Alene Paone (the beautiful AP), writer and publisher: The Gold Strike is very impressive and when I was in it I felt as if I were in Vegas. It's the Mirage on the outside and the Golden Nugget on the inside. It's a beautiful place.
The law in Mississippi stipulates that gambling can only take place "on a navigable waterway." My first thought was that these casinos were actually on the mighty Mississippi River. They aren't, although they are near it. Instead, water was brought to the building area via a large trench dug for that purpose. The barges that would become the casino portion of the properties were then floated down this trench, set in place in pools of water, the trench was closed, and voila! you have a "riverboat."
Each casino has a method for making sure that its "gambling barge" sits atop enough water to obey the rules of the gaming commission. Some actually pipe the water in and it's pure Mississippi River -- because it's muddy as all get out ("get out" -- that's a Southern term), a greenish-brown that makes the East River in New York look almost pristine by comparison.
Clyde Callicott, Marketing Director, The Grand: Tunica is becoming the place to see great action fights and terrific entertainment. In fact, Mississippi has more professional prize fights than Las Vegas. Also, some of the finest entertainers in the world perform here. We might not be Vegas but we're growing and we offer everything a gaming enthusiast could want. And our comps are even looser than our slots! But if friendliness counts, then we're first in the nation in that department.
Madeliene Bizub, gaming writer: I've lived in Vegas and in Mississippi. Mississippi is called "the Hospitality State" -- and the name is well deserved. They offer reasonable rules, and generous paybacks on many slots. There's a relaxed attitude about winning, for the most part, that I just don't see at other gaming resorts. I've even seen dealers who didn't take their break in turn when they were on stick and a good dice roll was going, because they didn't want to interrupt the player's "rhythm." Now that's classy.
This article is provided by the Frank Scoblete Network. Melissa A. Kaplan is the network's managing editor. If you would like to use this article on your website, please contact Casino City Press, the exclusive web syndication outlet for the Frank Scoblete Network. To contact Frank, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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