Even if they were unlucky at card tables, Atlantic City gamblers could end up a winner pretty easily at the buffet tables, as casinos were only too glad to hand out freebies to keep the gamblers coming.
But with the economic crisis hitting the gambling halls hard, comps -- the free items ranging from meals to hotel rooms to show tickets -- are getting harder to come by.
So far, comps are down 7 percent for the first nine months of the year.
Richard Hill of Baltimore makes his decisions on which Atlantic City casino to visit based almost solely on who offers him the best deal.
"We used to go to Harrah's; they'd give us a room for two nights," he said. "But now they cut us off."
So this week, Hill and his wife Dolores were at Trump Marina Hotel Casino instead -- where they got two free rooms, $31 in meal credits, and $10 worth of free play at the slot machines.
But their luck might not last long there, either. The Hills play the penny slot machines, and are not exactly the type of high-rollers the casinos are fighting over.
"As long as you give comps to the right people where there's an expectation that you get a return on that, you do it," said Mark Juliano, CEO of Trump Entertainment Resorts, which runs three casinos here. "What you don't want to do is give away a lot of comps to people who will come and spend the value of the comp and that's it."
Atlantic City, the country's second-largest gambling market after Las Vegas, is experiencing its second straight year of declining revenues after seeing them rise for 28 straight years since legalized gambling began here in 1978.
The city's 11 casinos have laid off hundreds of workers, and even some top casino managers have cut their own pay to try to deal with the downturn. Adding to the pressure is competition from slots parlors in Pennsylvania and New York.
Harvey Perkins, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, a casino consulting firm, said comps are down by about the same percentage as the casinos' revenues this year.
"I fully appreciate and understand operators' need to reduce their expenses," he said. "But one of the things that shouldn't be cut are the marketing engines. Marketing dollars are the fuel that powers all gaming ships. Wise, astute operators will keep those engines fully primed and the fuel flowing."
Only two casinos are actually spending more this year than last on promotional items. One of them -- the Tropicana Casino and Resort -- is trying to win back customers who fled it last year when former owners eliminated nearly 1,000 jobs, leading to problems with cleanliness and service that contributed to them losing their casino license.
In the third quarter of the year, Atlantic City casinos handed out $428 million in comps, down 4.8 percent from the same period a year ago. For the first nine months of the year, the total was $1.17 billion.
Casinos have been trying to shift more of their concert tickets to cash patrons rather than giving them away, too. As a result, many of the top acts are out of reach for small-time gamblers. Eric Clapton? Forget about it, unless you've got the cash. Tom Jones? Let's talk.
Free rooms are getting harder to find, too. More than 508,000 people were allowed to stay for free at Caesars Atlantic City in the first three quarters of last year; 100,000 fewer did so this year.
And the casinos' new math may leave you thirstier. The Trump Taj Mahal casino resort gave away nearly 4.7 million free drinks over the first nine months of 2007, but just 1.8 million over the first nine months this year.
Juliano doesn't think comps will become more frequent anywhere in Atlantic City until at least the second quarter of 2009.
"It will change when the economy changes," he said.
Until then, Rich Hill will keep an eye on his mailbox to see which Atlantic City casino wants him most.