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Free Money?

There was a time, back in the good old days of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, when casino comps were a lot more glamorous. You'd sit down at a blackjack table, you'd win some and lose much more ... and at the end of the night, the pit boss would throw you a room and a meal.

Those days are long gone. Casino gambling is so widespread across the country that casinos no longer need to draw customers from far away. Once the new Rivers Casino opens, there will be slot-machine gambling minutes from Downtown -- and three other casino options within an hour's drive. Chances are that none of them would have to give away anything to encourage customers to gamble.

But casinos still offer comps -- the occasional free T-shirt, free spin on the machine, and even, yes, a meal or a room. And many players still chase them. Only today, the whole process is handled automatically.

John Robison, a slot expert and author of The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots, says casino comps are awarded based on roughly 20 percent of what an average player would expect to lose. So to get $20 in comps, for example, a player would have to lose about $100. That would generally require wagering between $650 and $1,000, given the state's minimum payout requirement of slot machines.

"Usually, the comp is worth a whole lot less than you spent," says Robison. "It's definitely cheaper if you want something to just go and buy it yourself." On the other hand, he says, "if you're going to play anyway, it's foolish not to get a card and a free meal or something like that every once in awhile."

Some see the comps as much less benign. Bill Kearney, a recovering gambling addict who has become a vocal opponent of legalization, says the real purpose of comps is so that "people [who play] can justify all the money they give a casino. But if they really stopped to look at it, what they get out isn't even close to what they put in."

But the process of awarding comps is highly automated, so that players won't step to look at it. Comps are handed to gamblers who sign up for a "player's card" that they can bring back on subsequent trips. "Every time you play a machine, you put the card in the machine and it begins to keep track of your number spins." The computer gives you "points" based on how much you play -- and the points are later cashed in.

But because the points don't translate easily into dollars, the cards don't suggest how much money a gambler has actually wagered. Kearney says that's no accident. In fact, along with gambling opponents like Paul Clymer (R-Bucks County), Kearney has pressed for a law requiring casinos to send monthly statements to regular customers, showing exactly what they've spent. The law has been staunchly opposed by the gambling industry.

"It's a nightmare for casinos," Kearney says. "The last thing they want you to know is how much money you're spending."