Taverns maintain big role in gambling ecosystem

From Irish pubs to Mexican cantinas, it seems that every culture puts its own stamp on imbibing. The United States has generated its own share of distinctive drinking niches—tiki bars flowered in California before spreading across the country in the 1960s, and microbreweries have become almost ubiquitous.

Las Vegas has its own twist on the American watering hole—the gaming tavern. In addition to being popular places to drink, these establishments form a substantial part of the area’s gambling culture and gaming economy.

Gaming taverns are a genuine part of Nevada’s frontier heritage: When miners were seeking their fortunes on the Comstock Lode, they blew off steam drinking cheap whiskey and playing cards. Slot machines debuted in San Francisco taverns in the late 1890s and didn’t take long to cross the Sierra Nevada range.

Today taverns occupy a unique space in the city’s gambling ecosystem. Unlike casinos, which have unrestricted licenses, taverns with restricted-gaming licenses are allowed no more than 15 machines. Built into the bar top, they offer dozens of variations on games of chance, with several flavors of video poker, keno, blackjack and even video reel slots.

Depending on the location, each tavern’s daily win per machine averages $50 to $200. Figuring 15 machines, that’s $750 to $3,000 in income per day.

Out of the 1,900 places in Clark County with restricted licenses, about 550 are taverns, pubs or bar and grills, with about 8,000 slots among them. (The remaining places are mostly convenience stores, supermarkets and gas stations.) Some of the better-known chains and mini-chains—PT’s Pub, Village Pub and Putter’s Bar and Grill—run their own slot operations in-house. Others farm the maintenance and money handling to slot-route operators—Golden Route, ETT and United Coin are the biggest—that typically earn 10 to 20 percent of all money played.

They do more than just fix broken machines. If a player hits a big jackpot that exceeds the cash in the bar’s till, an on-call truck speeds to the scene, forking over the large bills within minutes. While you sleep (whether it’s on grave or day shift), trucks are cruising the streets of Las Vegas, waiting to pay off the next lucky winner at a bar down the street.

The typical tavern gambler likes the basics—light draft beer, tequila, vodka and bourbon are the most popular drinks—and can expect drinks on the house if he steadily bets a dollar per hand or so.

The games are mostly the same you’ll find in a casino, and loyalty programs can give players casino perks such as free play and comps. But those who operate gaming taverns claim that their service sets them apart.

“At our taverns, there’s more personal recognition,” says Christopher Abraham, vice president of marketing for Golden Gaming, which operates PT’s and Sierra Gold taverns throughout the Valley. “Many of our customers work in the service industry themselves. Once our bartenders get to know them, they’ll find their favorite drink waiting for them before they sit down.”

Abraham points with pride to his company’s Golden Gaming University, a course covering everything from customer service to drinks that all employees complete, and the company’s half-off happy hours and daily prize giveaways as examples of giving people what they want in tough times.

The 2007 Nevada smoking ban and the economic downturn have slowed business at gaming taverns, but by responding to their customers, they have been able to maintain their niche in a city with about one slot machine for every 14 residents—and that’s no mean feat.

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