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Playing for High Stakes

click to enlarge The Rivers Casino as seen from Mt. Washington - HEATHER MULL
The Rivers Casino as seen from Mt. Washington

The Rivers Casino has everything that a casino is supposed to have: cashier cages, restaurants, bars, and of course ATM machines.

Beyond that, though, the Rivers will have plenty of surprises in store when it opens less than two weeks from now.

I've been to every major casino on the Las Vegas Strip, from the top-tier to the bargain-basement. So far, Pittsburgh-area casinos have been reminiscent of mid-level properties like the Flamingo or Bally's. There's nothing wrong with those facilities -- they'll take your money just as efficiently as anyplace else. But the Rivers brings to mind top-shelf Vegas properties like The Mirage.

"We believe that this facility is the Venetian or the Bellagio of Western Pennsylvania," says Rivers spokesperson George Matta, referring to two of Las Vegas' most extravagant hotel-casinos. (And the Rivers, like other casinos offers its own "comps" for veteran players: Find out more about the upside and downside of comps here.)

"There's definitely a Vegas inspiration out there," says Joanne Kraly, Rivers' vice president of slots.

click to enlarge A view of the Rivers gaming floor - CHARLIE DEITCH
Charlie Deitch
A view of the Rivers gaming floor

In a slots parlor like Washington County's Meadows Casino, the first thing you notice are the machines: bright, blinking, buzzing, ringing, beeping slot machines, as far as the eye can see. (And how do those machines really work? Click here to find out.) As you walk into The Rivers, though, you first get a stunning view of the Ohio River.

Many casinos don't have windows at all -- all the better to help players lose track of time. (Click here for a discussion of treatment options available for problem gamblers.) But the Rivers features huge banks of windows across the front of the facility, admitting an ample amount of natural light. That light is supplemented by a dramatic white-glass chandelier -- the largest in the world, Matta claims -- and the illumination plays across an interior with a palette of rich earth tones. The gaming floor offers another window into the Pittsburgh psyche: Unlike most casinos, the Rivers has included flat-screen LCD televisions scattered around the slots area, to keep a sports-crazed crowd in touch with games taking place in the outside world.

Even the air is different here: On the casino's roof are 12 ventilation units -- each the size of a small truck trailer -- that change the air every 12 minutes. That equipment, and the fact that the casino is 75 percent smoke-free, means "we actually don't think you'll be able to smell smoke," says Matta.

And while other casinos arrange their slots in long aisles -- to get as many machines into the space as possible -- the 3,000 slots at the Rivers are grouped in banks of six or eight, allowing for wide aisles and an open floor plan. Matta says the casino has an extra 30,000 square feet to grow into.

click to enlarge The state's only $500 slot machine - CHARLIE DEITCH
Charlie Deitch
The state's only $500 slot machine

The mix of games has changed as well. You'll find all the popular slots: Wheel of Fortune, Star Trek, Sopranos and Jaws. But the opportunities for losing your money vary widely: While some slots cost as little as a penny to play, there's a three-reel machine that costs $500 per play -- the only $500 machine in the state.

The Rivers also has added electronic "table games" like blackjack, roulette and poker. While The Meadows has most of these games, it does not have Evolution Roulette, a game where players sit around a large virtual wheel to simulate playing the real thing.

"These games allow us to compete with West Virginia even though we don't have traditional table games," says Kraly. "We offer these for our customers who don't want to go to West Virginia to play games like blackjack."

(Why is a video version of blackjack legal, but not the real thing? Under Pennsylvania law, the electronic version is legal only if the actions of one player don't affect anyone else -- whereas in traditional blackjack, all players get cards from the same deck. But the video version might actually be harder for players: Players can no longer count cards, and since the full deck is reshuffled after each hand, the chance of getting any particular hand is the same each time around. That makes it more of a game of chance, and increases the house edge.)

click to enlarge A video blackjack table - CHARLIE DEITCH
Charlie Deitch
A video blackjack table

Much of the casino's design began changing in 2008, when Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm took over the casino from the original developer, Don Barden.

Construction was well underway by that point, and the building's layout is essentially the same. But some of the styling did change, Matta says, with the lounges redesigned for a more contemporary feel. The setup was designed by Cleo Designs of Las Vegas. The company has done extensive work in Vegas, including at the MGM Grand, a four-star establishment on the Las Vegas Strip.

And there are amenities away from the gambling floor as well. Outside the casino, and just a few feet from the river's edge, is an amphitheatre with seating for 1,200. Inside, the casino features two lounges on the gaming floor -- Spiral Bar and Levels Lounge -- each with sleek bars and décor. Just off the slots area are two other bars: the Drum Bar, which will have more of a nightclub feel; and a new sports bar called the Wheelhouse, slated to open in October.

Matta says the casino will offer four restaurants, including a contemporary steakhouse called Andrew's -- named after native sons Carnegie and Warhol. There's also a buffet, the West End Café and Ciao, an Italian eatery featuring gelato and wine by the glass.

"We're here for everyone who wants to play slots, have a nice meal and spend an entertaining night out," says Matta. "And when they come, we don't believe they will be disappointed."

click to enlarge These units swap out the air inside the casino for fresh air every 12 minutes. - CHARLIE DEITCH
Charlie Deitch
These units swap out the air inside the casino for fresh air every 12 minutes.

The Rivers will open for all customers at noon on Sun., Aug. 9.

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  • Pretty Ugly

    @ James Gallery

    Mondays-Saturdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Nov. 2