Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | 2 a.m.
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- Economists project rebound in gaming but disagree about how much (11-6-2010)
- As baccarat grows in popularity, so does the cheating (8-30-2010)
- Baccarat in the sky (2-23-2010)
- High rollers bring baccarat boom to Las Vegas (2-22-2010)
- Baccarat making a big difference (1-17-2010)
Two extreme ends of the gambling spectrum — baccarat and penny slots — are helping Nevada survive the Great Recession.
Over the past decade, both games have rapidly overtaken more traditional or widely played casino games to become the state’s biggest moneymakers, hitting revenue records last year, according to the latest figures from the Gaming Control Board.
Nevada casinos generated nearly $2 billion in revenue from penny slots last year, a 21 percent increase from 2007, when the state’s gambling and tourism business peaked.
Boosted by China’s booming economy, baccarat peaked at $1.2 billion in revenue last year — more than 99 percent of that coming from the Strip, where fewer than two dozen casinos offer the game favored by Chinese high rollers.
China is a country of entrepreneurs whose propensity for risk in the business world translates into big wagers at the tables, sociologists say.
For the first time last year, baccarat generated more revenue statewide than blackjack, a game that is losing ground as the most widely played table game in Nevada casinos. There are 149 more baccarat tables than a decade ago, and 815 fewer blackjack tables.
Blackjack revenue is down 17 percent from a decade ago and has plummeted 31 percent from 2007. Anthony Curtis, publisher of Las Vegas Advisor, attributes much of the decline to the recession.
Gambling’s high end, represented by baccarat, has been least affected by the economy, Curtis said. Blackjack is a mass-market game played primarily by midrollers who can less afford to gamble, however, he said.
“This is why Vegas got hammered,” he said. “It needs the middle market.”
Nevada’s gambling revenue rose by less than 1 percent last year, reversing two years of 10 percent declines, on the strength of higher baccarat play and, to a lesser extent, penny slots.
Baccarat revenue grew by $279.9 million from 2007. But that wasn’t enough to offset the $1.8 billion decline from all forms of slot machines, which generate more than 60 percent of Nevada’s gambling revenue, since 2007’s peak.
Although baccarat is a simple, low-tech game that’s hundreds of years old, penny slots are a recent invention enabled by technology creating dozens of digital “paylines” — or sequences of winning symbols.
Penny slots are viewed by the industry as the latest evolution in gambling as mainstream entertainment, attracting casual bettors with carnival themes. Baccarat is a world apart, typically played in hushed salons by people who consider themselves serious gamblers.
Some attribute the popularity of penny slots to the fact that more paylines give players more chances to win. Those wins tend to be smaller, giving players the sense that they are winning even when some “wins” are less than the amount bet, Curtis said.
Players have gravitated to these machines in part because they are the newest gizmos on casino floors, with captivating bells and whistles. But casinos also encourage gamblers to play them by “inundating their floors with the machines they want people to play,” Curtis said.
Penny slots can be inexpensive to play because, after an initial wager of $1 or more, subsequent bets can be made for as little as a penny per spin. Many gamblers instead wager the maximum amount of $3 or more per spin to qualify for the best jackpots, making such machines more profitable for casinos than older generations of slot machines.
Despite the penny slot upswing, overall wagering on slot machines fell 22 percent from 2007 to about what gamblers wagered on slots between 1998 and 1999. Nor are individual games as profitable as they were in years past. Dividing revenue by the number of machines in operation across the state, each penny slot game generated about $47,000 last year — a 7 percent decline from 2007 and a sign of increasing competition for gamblers’ wallets.