09/21/2006 11:00PM

Casino's wallet at odds with its word

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There was a time, and not too long ago, when a handshake or giving your word meant everything. It was honorable. Ironclad. No questions asked.

Well, times they are a changing, and not for the better.

Two recent stories have shaken that unwritten bond between gambler and casino. It's bad enough when most casino gamblers lose. But when they feel cheated, then the integrity of the entire industry comes under scrutiny.

The first story occurred in Florida where a man apparently won $259,945, and then the next day the casino said no, he hadn't.

Freddy Howard played a free "Swipe and Win" promotion at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. After swiping his player's card, the machine went bonkers and Howard was proclaimed a jackpot winner. The Hard Rock marketing staff brought out an oversized check, took publicity photos with him, and made a big deal out of the win.

The next day Hard Rock executives told an incredulous Howard that he had won nothing. The casino claimed the kiosk that declared him the winner had malfunctioned.

Howard had no recourse because the Seminoles are a sovereign nation and thus do not operate under the Florida Gaming Control Board.

Howard's only out was to create a public relations nightmare for the casino - which he did quite well for two weeks.

The Seminole Hard Rock, which makes more than a half-billion dollars a year in profit, finally paid Howard. It still claims he was not entitled to the money. The casino said paying Howard was done as a gesture of "good will."

The second story is still unfolding. Two weeks ago, Sornpaserd Unkeowannulack thought he had won a $737,203 progressive jackpot at the Table Mountain Casino near Fresno, Calif. At least that's what the video slot machine showed.

However, Table Mountain officials said a malfunction had occurred and the player was supposed to win $10,000 and a new motorcycle. That's all they're willing to pay. It's quite a disparity.

Again, the player has little recourse because he is dealing with an Indian tribe, which does not come under the jurisdiction of the state or federal government.

Problems like this have occurred before in all casinos, even here in Las Vegas. The difference is when a gambler makes a mistake, he loses his money. The impression now is when a casino makes a mistake, human or malfunction, it won't pay you.

In such a highly regulated environment, these kind of mistakes are not supposed to happen, but they do. And when they do, the casinos should pay up, no questions asked. If the casinos truly care about doing the right thing, pay the customer despite the mistake, but buy insurance to cover these extremely rare occurrences. They can consider it part of the cost of running an honorable, and supposedly honest, business.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and author of "Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies."