Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Klondike Sunset Casino
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Compulsive gambling is a tricky topic in a town where casino operators are considered economic engines and icons of ingenuity instead of unsavory merchants muddying the water between entertainment and highway robbery.
This makes casino owner John Woodrum something of an enigma. He worries about those customers who can’t resist the slots’ siren call.
Woodrum, 72, owns the Klondike Sunset, a neighborhood casino that depends on repeat visits from nearby residents, including people, he says, who are perpetually broke.
“Nothing bothers me as much as seeing people lose more than they can afford,” he says. “I’ve told people, ‘Why don’t you just walk away and let it go for a while?’ ” But they don’t.
And so Woodrum is conflicted. He runs a casino but worries about his poor customers losing money. Does he feel so strongly about this that he’d close his business and retire? Well, no. Because even if he did, there are plenty of other casinos in town. And yet, he has seen plenty of lives ruined by gambling from his perspective — one that many big casino executives don’t have.
And now there’s a new threat to gamblers, he says: Internet gambling. No way, no how should that be allowed, he says.
Of course he would say that, right? Internet gambling would hurt his business by allowing his customers to stay home and gamble.
Woodrum understands that people may not believe his more altruistic motive in fighting Internet gambling.
His casino career began inauspiciously. He planned to drive through Nevada from California in 1963 but ran out of gas in a casino parking lot with a few dollars in his pocket. He never left, working in casinos and getting married. He ended up owning the Klondike at the southern end of the Strip — a budget casino known for its Western-themed exterior that was torn down in 2006 to make way for redevelopment. His 43-year marriage has beaten the odds in a demanding business known to strain marriages and close relationships, and he has accepted the slim profit margins that come with small casinos such as his.
But harder to accept is the knowledge that people have lost homes and relationships to gambling’s pull.
When Woodrum talks about “gamblers,” he isn’t referring to the majority of Americans who gamble occasionally or for recreation. He means those who “will gamble every penny they’ve got” and leave nothing for the next generation.
And now comes online gambling to tease them, including the millions of Americans who play online poker for money although it is considered an illegal activity.
Many casino operators think legalized online gambling is inevitable, if only because of a natural tendency to push for regulating activities that have grown acceptable and widespread.
Driving to a casino to gamble is one thing, Woodrum says. “Allowing it for people every minute of every day (at home) and you’ve got a whole different animal on your hands.”
Although Woodrum’s view on Internet gambling smacks of protectionism, especially coming from a small casino that can’t compete against the giants and their increasingly international brands, Las Vegas attorney Jeff Silver understands where he is coming from.
“Given the Harvard MBA types that are seemingly revered in the gaming industry, Woodrum is definitely ‘old school,’ ” said Silver, a former casino executive and member of the Gaming Control Board who rooted out mob influence before Wall Street invested in casinos. “Statistics and surveys aside, his understanding of the ‘gambler’ and what motivates him is very astute.”
Online gambling legislation isn’t expected to pass for at least the next two years.
Woodrum doesn’t know what will happen if and when Internet gambling is legalized and regulated, but he’s resigned that it’s coming.
And he suspects it will usher in a new era where Web casinos — unlike today’s popular, although black-market online poker rooms — will become as promoted as major retail chains.
“More people are going to lose more money,” he says. “The big companies think if people gamble on a computer, they’ll want to go to (Las Vegas). Maybe they’re right. On the other hand, if you lose on the Internet you might have less money to spend at the other place.”
And about his customers who can ill afford to gamble? “I think it’ll be a little too tough for people to handle.”