Harrah's Plans for Hammond - Tuesday 2nd of May 2006

Remember the first riverboat casinos to set sail in the Chicago market? Empress I and Harrah's Northern Star in Joliet, Hollywood City of Lights I and II in Aurora?

They were new, different and exciting for the Midwest, an entertainment option that had been reserved for trips to Las Vegas or Atlantic City. But they were also cramped, low-ceilinged smoky facilities with hardly enough room on one deck to stretch your legs. Finding the games you wanted to play meant climbing up and down stairs between gaming decks.

All that ran through my mind recently when the Horseshoe casino in Hammond announced plays for a new $485 million boat to open in the summer of 2008. As it happens, Horseshoe's current home is one of those low-ceilinged, up-and-downstairs boats that was the state of the art a decade ago. It opened in 1996 as Empress III, bigger, but with the same basic design as the original Empress in Joliet - an Empress-class cruiser, the shipbuilders called it.

When the new vessel opens in two years, it promises to be a whole different world, and a huge step up for the marketplace. Instead of spreading 54,000 square feet of gaming up and down four decks, the new Horseshoe will put a 100,000-square-foot casino on a single deck. With about 120 table games and more than 3,000 slot machines, it will be gigantic even compared to the new Blue Chip in Michigan City, Ind., which has 53 tables and about 2,100 slots in its 65,000-square-foot, one-level casino.

Beyond the sheer numbers in the casino itself, the project is a quantum leap for the market. The second level of the vessel will be given over to a 650-seat buffet and a 2,500-seat showroom that can also be configured for 3,000 seats for boxing and 1,400 for gala events. There's nothing remotely like it in area casinos, and it will give Horseshoe the ability to present name entertainment.

The pavilion space occupied by the current 240-seat buffet will be given over to the Diamond players' lounge. Moving that lounge will enable Horseshoe to double the size of Jack Binion's Steak House and add a new restaurant to the top level of the pavilion.

The ceiling at casino level figures to be 27 to 28 feet up - there will be enough room for smoke filtration systems to do their stuff, a big plus in the eyes of this non-smoker.

I spoke with vice president and general manager Rick Mazer briefly before the press conference started, and he practically glowed as he said this boat was something he'd dreamed of doing for the last five years. That takes us back to 2001, when Jack Binion bought the Empress. Two years ago, when Binion sold his Horseshoe properties, including those in Mississippi and Louisiana, to Harrah's Entertainment, he took care to point out the potential of one property.

"Two years ago, Jack Binion told us, 'Let me tell you where the great opportunity is,'" said Harrah's Entertainment Central Division president Anthony Sanfilippo. "The greatest opportunity is in Hammond."

That's an opportunity Harrah's find worth spending $485 million to pursue.

*****

A few short years ago, no one would ever have believed that poker would become the hottest game around. A big piece of the puzzle was the advent of televised poker, including ESPN's telecasts of the World Series of Poker.

Now ESPN is eager to see if another game that blends skill with elements of chance - dominoes - can repeat the success. Dominoes has long been a huge favorite in Latin American communities, so it seemed a natural fit when the 2005 World Domino Tournament aired in March on the Hispanic-oriented ESPN Deportes. Now ESPN will see if the event can draw interest from a broader market with it re-airs the tournament in English in June on ESPN2.

I spoke with Limo Garcia, general manager of ESPN Deportes, about dominoes could learn from televised poker.

"When the dominoes idea came to us, the No. 1 precedent was the success of poker on television," he said. "Before we could do this, we had to decide how we could capture the action and excitement of dominoes and bring into viewers' homes."

The way to capture that excitement, he said, is similar to the methods that have turned televised poker into a hot item. ESPN Deportes uses a dozen cameras at one table, including cameras in the table to show each of the four hands. Along with the tournament itself, ESPN Deportes took to the road to bring viewers some background on dominoes and those who play it.

As in poker, there are great personalities to bring to the screen, Garcia said.

"One player is a street cop in Jamaica," he said. "We followed him in the clubs where he plays. To give some background on the game, we went to the Spain, home of the International Federation and the museum. We covered a celebrity tournament in Puerto Rico, where one of the finalists was Juan Marichal, the baseball Hall of Famer."

There'll be a learning curve for those of us a lot more comfortable with Ace-King suited than double-sixes, but hey, it should be fun to see the experts.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Beat the Odds" tips Saturdays at 6:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 7:41 p.m. and Sundays at 8:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 10:42 p.m. on WBBM-AM, News Radio 780 in Chicago, streaming online at www.wbbm780.com, and to his casino talk show from 7 to 8 p.m. Saturday on WCKG-FM (105.9).

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