Monday, Nov. 8, 2004 | 9:11 a.m.
It's payday and a long line has sprouted at the casino's cashier cage, where tellers dole out bundles of money.
Nearly all the folks waiting this afternoon inside the Boulder Station casino are clutching paychecks. A waitress offers free margaritas to the growing crowd beneath catchy banners -- "Just cash your check, spin and win?" "Everyone's a winner ... Guaranteed!" and "Free drink with every paycheck cashed."
Many in the line leave the casino without spending a penny of their hard-earned money. But others drop dollar after dollar into the ubiquitous slot and video poker machines.
Some lose everything.
"I come and leave," said John Humphrey, 35, an electrician who said he once lost his entire $1,400 paycheck playing the slots after cashing it at a casino. "It hurt on bills. I don't do that anymore."
Check cashing is business as usual Friday at many Las Vegas casinos, where residents flock to exchange their payroll or government checks for cash at no charge. The service puts people and their money inside the casinos but it also draws some criticism from those in and out of the industry.
Patrons come to avoid the fees of check cashing centers and account requirement of banks.
Unlike banks, casinos lure their customers with free booze and an array of gimmicks. People can win food and more money by playing games, such as Poker Payday, Paycheck Bonanza Plus and Paycheck Poker.
Some of the biggest practitioners of this time-honored Nevada trade are Wall Street darlings like Station Casinos and Boyd Gaming, companies that own casinos popular with residents.
At Boulder Station, testimonials hang above the cashier cage from Gilbert, Michael and Dietmar, the last claiming he doubled his paycheck.
The Orleans casino boasts the Paycheck Party Machine that allows players to pick their favorite game: poker, slots or Keno and "Win up to $250,000."
On its massive parking deck, the Palms hotel-casino displays a scantily clad woman holding wads of money with the slogan: "Win up to $10,000 instantly." The casino also advertises in the local newspaper.
Arizona Charlie's tempts workers with the words "Dream Big!" and a free big-screen television.
The biggest companies in the industry -- MGM Mirage, Harrah's Entertainment and Caesars Entertainment - do not partake in the longtime tradition in or outside Nevada. In Las Vegas, these gambling goliaths depend on tourists rather than residents to drive their earnings.
Harrah's Chairman Phil Satre said many communities frown upon the practice and it isn't worth the negative publicity.
Virginia McDowell, senior vice president of operations of Argosy Gaming in Indiana, said her company does not allow check cashing at its casinos.
"We wouldn't even if we could because ... it's not good business," she said. "It's just not the right thing to do. We are good corporate citizens and we certainly don't want to do anything that's going to cause problems."
Indiana, New Jersey, Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana are among the states that prohibit payroll or government check cashing at their casinos.
Kevin Mullally, executive director of the Missouri Gaming Commission, said people should not do their banking at casinos, which are for entertainment.
"I'm sure that some would argue that it's a convenience factor for the patron," he said. "But it's just inconsistent with the environment that we would like to create in Missouri. You don't go to the movies and cash your paycheck. You don't go to the bowling alley and cash your paycheck. When you start allowing those type of deviations, then it becomes something other than that."
Scott Scherer, of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, said he was approached by a company that wants to go a step further and install automatic loan kiosks inside casinos.
"My gut instinct is I'm opposed to this but I'm open to listening," he said. "It could be a combustible issue for the industry. If you're cashing a paycheck, it's money you've already earned. Do we want to allow this one step further - gambling away money you haven't earned?"
Executives with MGM Mirage and Caesars Entertainment have raised the question of whether check cashing should be discontinued in all casinos.
When members of the American Gaming Association talked about including the check-cashing business in the industry's new code of conduct, Station Casinos objected.
Stations spokeswoman Leslie Pittman said it would put her company at a competitive disadvantage if only AGA members followed the trade organization's code of conduct. Not all casinos companies -- the Palms for instance -- are part of the association.
"If this is going to be prohibited it should be across the board," said Pittman, who served on a working group that developed the highly touted code that went into effect Oct. 1. "If the industry was going to voluntarily not provide this service, in the interest of fairness, it would have to be as a whole."
Judy Patterson, the association's executive director and senior vice president, said the trade group was divided on a ban.
"The goal is to reach consensus," she said. "There wasn't consensus on this issue."
Station Casinos supplies a valuable service to many residents who don't have bank accounts and don't want to pay a percentage of their check to cash it at other places, Pittman said.
At the off-Strip Orleans hotel-casino, scores of people stood in line one recent Friday waiting to cash their checks. The line was longer than a football field and a waitress couldn't unload her drinks fast enough to the mostly Hispanic crowd.
At the end of it paycheck queue, the Paycheck Party Machine loomed large.
Robert Stillwell, Boyd Gaming's vice president of corporate communications, said the casino tactics are reasonable, including offering free drinks.
"You see a lot of promotions in retail, and it's commensurate with what any business does trying to generate business," he said. "We are not serving minors. We are serving adults."
Rob Hunter, a clinical psychologist who runs the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas, said his patients don't need more temptation to gamble.
"The idea of having an entire check in $100 bills and two free drink coupons is inherently dangerous for the problem gambler," he said.
Mixing booze with dollars inside a casino could be a combustible combination, said Arnie Wexler, former executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.
"That's wrong," Wexler said. "For them to cash checks is a business decision, but for them to give free drinks? That's disgusting. It's an inducement to gamble once you get the money."