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First rule in gambling: Get a player's card

Imagine a week's vacation where you don't have to pay for the hotel. Or the food. Not even a souvenir T-shirt.

It's possible for casino patrons who take advantage of offers available from using a player's club card.

New gamblers often don't grasp how much a player's card can add to their future fun.

By using a player's card, even "low rollers" who bet at modest levels -- 25-cent video poker or $10 blackjack -- open the door to offers from casinos eager to have them pay return visits.

Cashing in on player's club offers is a "really powerful strategy" that works in gambling hotbeds such as Las Vegas and Reno as well as in smaller destinations such as Western Pennsylvania, said Anthony Curtis, publisher of Huntington Press and LasVegasAdvisor.com .

Player's clubs points at Rivers Casino and The Meadows can be redeemed for free play, meals, gift shop discounts and valet parking. Members also can be eligible for drawings for cash or free play not available to everyone.

"It's pointless to play without a card," said Rivers General Manager Todd Moyer, who began his casino career by handing out entry forms for a Rolls Royce giveaway in Atlantic City. The forms helped the casino develop a customer database.

"The player's card is our marketing engine," said Heidi Hamers, director of marketing at The Meadows, where players can redeem points for gift certificates to neighborhood restaurants and merchants.

Any time you visit a new casino, head to the player's club and get a card. Rivers and The Meadows offer free play to new enrollees.

Then, make sure you use your card each time you play. Don't start playing until the machine recognizes your card. You don't want to play an entire session before noticing the "please re-insert card" message.

The points you earn can vary by casino. At Rivers and The Meadows, slot and video poker players earn one point for every dollar gambled, Moyer and Hamers said.

The points apply to all money bet in a session, not just your original buy-in. Say you feed $20 into a machine and hit a few minor payoffs before cashing out with $10. Although you lost $10, you might earn 100 points or so, depending on how many spins you were able to get.

Moyer said 800 points translate in one comp dollar at Rivers. At The Meadows, it takes 1,000 points, Hamers said.

Both Hamers and Moyer said offers are not based on whether you win or lose overall, but on the amount bet and the type of machine you play. Pennsylvania slot machines have about a 9 percent house edge overall; the edge for video poker is 4 percent to 5 percent for a player who knows VP strategy.

The formula for table games players is less defined, involving type of game, average bet, length of time played and game speed.

One way to accumulate points quicker is to play on "multiplier" days. Casinos often offer 10 times points, for example; instead of one point per dollar played on the slots, you get 10 points per dollar.

Each casino has multiple levels of cards, depending on how many points a player earns in a specific period, say six months. The Meadows has four: introductory (red), silver (at 5,000 base points), gold (25,000) and platinum (100,000). Rivers has three: entry level; double diamond (15,000 points) and triple diamond (80,000). Holders of the upper level cards must requalify every six months. They may be eligible for extra offers -- for example, 20 times points.

Using a player's card also gets you onto a casino mailing list, which can bring offers of free food, match-play coupons (bet $10, win $20), free rooms from casinos with a hotel or other incentives. Those can be valuable. Even on a small gambling budget, my wife and I have parlayed offers into weeklong casino trips with no hotel or food costs.

"What I would do is go to each (casino) in my proximity and sign up," Curtis said. "If I was going to play, I'd give them a little action that day and make sure it goes on my card. Then, I'd sit back and wait and see who wants my business."

Tournament winner

Kathleen Malatest of Ellwood City won the feature poker tournament -- a $225 buy-in deepstack event -- last weekend at the Meadows. She was one of three women in the 47-player field and won $4,000. On Sept. 5, Meadows will offer a $1,000 buy-in tournament. Winners of satellite tournaments Friday and today, plus Sept. 3-5 will get seats at the Sept. 5 event.

Poker bad-beat jackpots

• Meadows: $20,596

• Mountaineer: $58,727

• Rivers: $29,281

• Wheeling Island: $43,795

All figures as of Thursday.

Money Trail

For week ended Aug. 22, Pennsylvania's nine casinos had gross slot machine revenue of $45.14 million on bets totaling $566.3 million. The state's tax take is based on the gross revenue. Gross revenue figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:

• $4.8 million: Rivers, on bets totaling $59.28 million.

• $5.41 million: The Meadows, on bets totaling $65.5 million

• $3.79 million: Presque Isle in Erie, on bets totaling $45.96 million

Question of the week

What do I need to get a player's card?

Not much more than a valid ID, such as a driver's license, and whatever time it takes waiting in line. You'll also need to choose a personal identification number to access your point balance or free play. Meadows marketing director Heidi Hamers said players should always have an ID available. Casinos typically card anyone who appeard to be under 30 to prevent underage gambling. Also, players must show identification before receiving payments on jackpots that require tax withholding, she said. For slot players, that starts at $1,200.

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