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A former casino worker's view from the floor

Jason Feng, who left River Rock casino about a month ago, estimates that during his most recent period with the casino, daily revenue averaged about $2 million, and that about 70 per cent of that arrived in the pockets of the clients who played in the casino’s high-limit “upstairs” rooms.  More than a million new dollars a day, every day, is Vancouver’s challenge, he says.

Jason Feng worked as a dealer and floor supervisor for 15 years at casinos across Metro Vancouver.

Jason Feng falls silent for a moment, busily calculating the odds on how successful a new casino in downtown Vancouver might eventually be – if the controversial proposal survives the heated public debate about approving it.
Feng is in a better position than most to make the calculation.

The affable 44-year-old Richmond man is fresh off a 15-year run as a dealer and floor supervisor at casinos across Metro Vancouver, most recently at Richmond’s River Rock, an operation that he says gave him three unique insights.

The first is that some of the bad stories people hear about casinos are true.

The second: so are some of the good ones.

The third, he says, is that if River Rock has anything to teach a city agonizing over the upcoming decision on the controversial Edgewater casino proposal, it is this: The real money to be made will be made off the high rollers, not the regular mom-and-pop neighbourhood gamblers and day tourists that feature so prominently in promotions for the proposal.

What’s a high roller?

Tens of thousands bet in a single visit, he says. Maybe a hundred thousand. One night, he says, a man walked in with two large shopping bags crammed with $300,000 in cash.

There are a limited number of such spenders, Feng argues, and many will either have to be pried free from their present nest in Richmond, or a whole lot more of them will have to be found somewhere else.

It’s an interesting, common sense kind of observation, and Feng doesn’t pretend it’s anything other than one more opinion in the sea of facts, figures, critiques and defences flooding the airwaves as Vancouver’s city council nears its decision on a zoning change that would allow the relocation of the present Edgewater casino on False Creek to bigger, flashier downtown digs. But when Feng explains some of the numbers he used make his argument, it begins to float nearer to the top of that sea.

River Rock is one of several successful casinos in Metro warily eyeing Vancouver’s looming move for a slice of the region’s gambling revenue. Great Canadian Casino, which owns River Rock, says overall gaming revenues for 2009 were $380 million, with about 30 per cent of that from its Richmond casino.

Feng, who left the casino about a month ago, argues that the breakdown of those revenues is the critical lesson. He estimates that during his most recent period with the casino, daily revenue averaged about $2 million, and that about 70 per cent of that arrived in the pockets of the clients who played in the casino’s high-limit “upstairs” rooms.

(A spokesman from the Richmond office of Great Canadian Casinos, which owns the River Rock, told the Vancouver Observer Friday that no one was -- or would be -- available from the company to comment on either daily revenues or the revenue split between the high and low-end tables.)

Feng underlines the math: The casino would have drawn at least $1.5 million a day from high-end clients. He argues that for the new Vancouver casino – which is expected to have more tables than River Rock -- to succeed, it would have to attract a similarly high percentage of high-end gamblers with at least as much to spend, and he’s not so sure there are many more of them around. Or that the ones who frequent the River Rock, 80 to 90 per cent of whom he says are Asian or Asian-Canadian, can be lured away.

More than a million new dollars a day, every day, is Vancouver’s challenge, he says.

Feng says that in his working experience, there was a palpable difference between the laid-back casinos aimed at providing entertainment and charitable revenue and an operation that makes most of its money from big-stakes gamblers.

High-rollers -- some of them local and some out-of-towners enjoying the proximity of the nearby airport – are catered to, he says, simply to protect their business. There are free rooms and dinners, restaurants arranged when clients need to host friends. It’s not as widespread as, say, in Vegas, but it happens, he says. Rides and drivers appear as needed. The upstairs rooms are arranged to provide whatever level of privacy a client wants – anything from a totally private game between the player and the dealer to a small table of other players.

And discretion is the order of the day. Feng details story after story about the struggle managers face in deciding between enforcing house rules and keeping the big-money players happy. People in the “upstairs” rooms aren’t there for entertainment, music or booze, he says. They’re there to gamble, and money matters. When their game goes badly, they often scream at the dealers – which would see them tossed out if they were downstairs. Dealers, some of them hired because of their proficiency in Mandarin, take the abuse hard, Feng says. They don’t get paid more to work the big-money games and a lot of them don’t like to be there, he says. One female dealer left in tears after a half-filled water bottle was flung at her and the angry client objected to her being moved to another table, Feng says.

“He said, in our language, he didn’t even want to look at her back. Our ‘F’ word flies around a lot.”

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