Casino stays in the game for a day

Las Vegas – The boarded-up Queen of Hearts is open to gamblers again, but only for eight hours. It’s a periodic Vegas ritual that lets closed operations retain their gaming rights — and property values.

The small casino is ringed with a fence topped with barbed wire. Its beige walls have browned from the punishing desert sun. Its bulbous canopies are torn, and the marquee is missing vowels. The front door is padlocked.

Before sunrise on a recent Thursday, a few workers open a side door to the ghostly building, near the County Jail in an unkempt pocket of downtown.

They crowd into a room that reeks of cigarette smoke. They fire up a generator, plug in a boom box and two air-conditioning units, and wheel in 16 video poker machines.

The Queen of Hearts opens — beckoning gamblers once again.

The building’s maintenance man tests his luck on the machines. He loses USD 5. For the next five hours, no one else walks in. Slot foreman Bob Bright slouches on a red vinyl bar stool, sips his Lipton iced tea and stares at the doorway. He drums his fingers on the white Formica bar, USD 20 in his pocket in case anyone wins.

„This is what I do,“ he says, shrugging. „I watch these slot machines.“

Las Vegas casino openings typically demand red carpets, cocktail parties, celebrity guest lists and fireworks. But not so at the Queen of Hearts — it’s a one-day casino.

This spartan, eight-hour event is everything the Strip is not: small, unpretentious and quiet, with no crowds or drunks, no cocktail waitresses or high-rolling „whales,“ and no Midwestern tourists. It’s common, and perfectly OK, for no gamblers to show up.

One-day casinos — mandated by law for a handful of places that are closed but want to hang onto their gaming rights — are governed by the same rules as high-end resorts with thousands of machines. They’re the gambling industry’s equivalent of a solar eclipse. They unfold a few times each year. They typically get some press, and people who stumble upon them are often befuddled but intrigued.

This morning at Queen of Hearts, the boom box plays Aretha Franklin. The air-conditioning units are struggling against 111-degree heat. Bright looks wilted — and bored. He waits for someone, anyone, to dump money into a Gamblers Choice or 4-Way Double Bonus Poker machine.

At 11 a.m., a taxi driver named Michael Whiteley pokes his head in. He rents unit No. 3 of the attached Daisy Apartments. A neighbor had mentioned that something was happening at the casino, which has been closed for several years.

Whiteley, 59, sweats in a long-sleeved shirt, his face shaded by a New Orleans Saints ball cap. He stares at the machines, arranged in a U between a mirrored wall and the bar. Puzzled, he asks, „You open?“

Bright says: „Just for one day.“

„Anybody hit the jackpot today?“ Whiteley asks.

The Queen of Hearts, though vacant, is hugely valuable. Its owners are planning to swap the whole block for a city-owned parcel in an area slated for redevelopment; they want to build a resort.

In the meantime, the owners need to keep the property’s gaming rights intact to maintain the property’s value, estimated at USD 13 million to USD 15 million, which will allow them to trade for land of similar worth.

A state law adopted in the 1990s allowed only large resorts in Las Vegas to run 16 or more slot machines. But smaller operations, including the Queen of Hearts, were grandfathered in. To keep their gaming rights, they must offer eight hours of public gambling every two years — even if the original casino has been closed or razed.

Opening the Queen of Hearts for a day costs USD 30,000, says Barnet Liberman, a managing director for co-owner LiveWork Las Vegas. It hired United Coin Machine Co., which runs most of the state’s one-day casinos.

The firm gets permits from local and state officials that specify „1 Day Only“ and trucks in the same games to each temporary casino. Most of the machines are at least a decade old, and their graphics resemble those of a Pac-Man arcade game.

A slot foreman, or manager, oversees the machines and the money locked in a black cash dispenser, which resembles a desktop computer’s hard drive. The biggest one-day casino payout in memory, however, was USD 75.

The same drill applies to empty lots — only the slot machines are housed in a trailer. In January, United Coin oversaw one such operation on 26 acres in east Las Vegas. The Review-Journal newspaper, in a nod to the property owner, Station Casinos Inc., dubbed the event „Trailer Station.“

(Similarly, the Queen of Hearts must open its bar for one day each year; a bartender is hired and given a bottle to pour. During the last-go-round, the drink of choice was Jim Beam.)

Recently, the number of one-day casinos has jumped. There were three in 2004, five in 2006 and seven this year — including one at the site of Las Vegas‘ first racially integrated casino, the Moulin Rouge. The reasons vary, but the sour economy, which has stalled construction projects along the Strip, has likely played a role. Many owners won’t sell or build until real estate and credit markets rebound.

Bright, a broad man with graying hair, spectacles and a white polo shirt stitched with a playing card logo, works for United Coin. He usually repairs slot machines at the Longhorn and Bighorn casinos, but every so often he manages a temporary gambling hall. He was the foreman at Trailer Station.

Today, Bright has company. Michael Mikula works at Riverstone Residential Group, the property management company that oversees the Queen of Hearts. He’s dressed for a boardroom — starched shirt, slacks, gray-and-maroon tie — and busies himself with his BlackBerry.

Annie Wong, who works for Certified Fire Protection Inc., is required to be here in case something starts burning. She sits at the bar, staring at nothing in particular, near an air conditioner that mockingly says it’s 63 degrees.

„This place has a kind of dungeony feel, doesn’t it?“ she says, taking in a stone-slab wall and ripped carpet patterned like a Scottish kilt.

At 12:20 p.m., two women saunter in, and the one in body-hugging black pants feeds money into machine No. 6. Martha Rodriguez, Mikula’s co-worker, is on her lunch break; she usually tries her luck at a casino named Sam’s Town.

„Three of a kind!“ says Mikula, peering over her shoulder. „You don’t need my help; you’re a professional gambler. You’re going to clear this place out by the end of the day.“

Rodriguez whizzes through nickel games, her gold bracelets jangling, her long red nails clacking the „hold“ button when she wants to keep a card. Clack: a queen of spades. Clack, clack: a three of diamonds, a three of spades.

„Oh, God, how can you guys be here?“ she says. „It’s so hot!“

„Come on, hit the big one,“ Mikula says.

„Get a royal flush!“ says Bright, grateful for the entertainment.

The woman who accompanied Rodriguez is less enthused with machine No. 3, and bids everyone goodbye. After Rodriguez bets about USD 10, she decides to go too. She recoups USD 4.05 and tips Bright the nickel.

„Looks like you’re not quitting your day job,“ Mikula says.

„I’ve still got 15 minutes on my break,“ Rodriguez replies, her hand fanning her face, „but I’m not getting lucky.“

Bright and the others return to their bar stools, where they wait out another hour. At 1:18, Liberman stops by. The LiveWork managing director gives machine No. 2 a whirl.

„I lost 50 cents,“ he says, „but I was ahead 75 at one point.“

Bright’s phone rings — the call is work-related.

„Hi,“ he says, „this is Bob Bright at the one-day casino.“

About 15 minutes later, five United Coin workers arrive to disassemble the operation. Bright tallies the money. The casino paid out about USD 5 (including a dollar to this reporter, who won a hand of Deuces Wild on machine No. 2) and made USD 1 — too little to be taxed.

Bright gathers his blue lunch sack and iced tea and remarks that it was an unusually busy day.

At 2:02, the Queen of Hearts casino closes, again.