02/05/2004 1:00AM

Coming to a bar near you

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Nevada has had "wide-open gambling" since 1931.

Most people - even those who have never been here - know about the Las Vegas and Reno casinos from television, the movies, and newspaper and magazine articles. A lot of people are under the impression that just because they now have an Indian or riverboat casino near their house that it's just like living in Vegas. But they have no concept about what "wide-open gambling" means.

Many people start to grasp the concept when they fly to Vegas and, while they're walking the runway into the terminal, they hear the bells, whistles, and clank-clank-clank of coins from the slot machines right at the gates. But even that doesn't fully show what "wide-open gambling" is all about unless they venture off the Strip or away from downtown and see that there is gaming at just about every gas station, grocery store, convenience store, laundromat, and local bar.

This has been the domain of slot machines and their modern-day descendant: video poker. You won't find blackjack, roulette, craps, baccarat, or keno at these places, but starting this past week you can make sports bets at 25 bars and taverns around Las Vegas at self-serve kiosks. It gives a new meaning to the phrase "bar bet."

Sports Bet Xpress is a joint venture of three Las Vegas-based companies. United Coin Machine Co. - which with 8,400 gaming devices in 675 locations is the largest slot route operator in the country - is the distributor; VirtGame developed the software interface to the books; and Multimedia Enterprises is handling the marketing.

Bill Nader, president of United Coin, said the idea started about a year ago when VirtGame was getting ready to put new digital machines that are intranet-friendly into the Terrible's casinos in Las Vegas; Pahrump, the Las Vegas Club downtown; and the Casino MonteLago at Lake Las Vegas. A presentation was made to Nevada's Gaming Control Board last summer that led to more testing and eventually the approval in December to do a limited 60-day trial with one sports book and 25 remote locations.

"We're very happy," said John English, president and CEO of Multimedia, that the gaming board "was willing to think outside the box with this new technology."

Bally's Las Vegas was chosen as the host sports book - which means that before anyone can make a bet, he has to go into Bally's and deposit money into an account - and then United Coin had to pitch the idea to its clients, the sports bars. Nader said the response was overwhelming and wished he could have had more bars as part of the trial.

On Wednesday night at the Bally's sports book, a meet-and-greet/orientation session was held for the 25 bar owners and some of their staff to help them explain the system to their customers. Some establishments that locals might recognize include Chicago Brewing Co., Draft House, Nikki Lee's, Magoo's, Kilroy's, Korner Store II & Deli, and multiple outlets of the Big Dogs, Bogey's, Doc Holliday's, and Instant Replay chains.

Sports Bet Xpress, Nader told the group, "is fundamentally an extension of the sports book. It's one-stop shopping. They can be at your establishment - eating, drinking, having a good time - and they don't have to leave at halftime to make a bet."

When players log on, they can access their account information or go to a screen with all the betting options: straight, parlay, teaser, parlay card, future. Virtually any sports bet that is available at the book can be bet on the system.

There is no minimum wager and bettors can bet up to the house limits, though bets through the system are subject to the $2,200 daily limit set by the gaming board for all wagers through a telecommunications system. There is no charge to view any of the odds or to access account information, but there is a $1 surcharge on all wagers. The hope is that the surcharge is more than offset by the convenience.

In a light moment at Wednesday night's gathering, Raquel Rodriguez, United Coin's director of marketing, said, "Your customers will never have to go to a sports book again."

John Avello, the race and sports book director at Bally's, spoke up: "I wouldn't necessarily say that.

Rodriguez shot back, "Hey, we had an agreement."

Also at the orientation, the first person to make an official bet on the Sports Bet Xpress system was present. He is Joe Wilcock, owner of the Brewery Bar and Grill on Sunset Road. He registered on the machine at his bar and then deposited his money at Bally's on Super Bowl Sunday. "I felt bad because it was a madhouse, one of their busiest days of the years, but they took care of me," Wilcock said. And on Tuesday, he bet Illinois -2 1/2 vs. Indiana in a college basketball game.

For the record, Illinois rallied from an eight-point deficit to win, 51-49, and neither team scored in the final 2:41.

"I lost because of the hook [half-point]," he said, "but it's a great system. Very easy to use. My place has a lot of players, so I think it will go over well."

Nader said his company and its partners could have started the trial before the Super Bowl, but they chose to wait until now because he didn't want anything to go wrong at a time when so many people might be trying the system for the first time on such a high-profile event. In addition, the timing of the two-month trial now lets people get used to the system and leads into March Madness.

"That's when the system will really get put through its paces," Nader said.

Nader said the system is capable of taking parimutuel wagers and that that is among the long-term goals, but he said the main focus now is on getting through the trial with the sports program.

"The players will ultimately determine if this is a success or not," Nader said. "We welcome their feedback. We've put a lot of work into this, but we don't pretend to know everything. The bar owners are on the front lines and will hear from customers about what they like and don't like, and we're hoping to incorporate what the customers suggest and make the system even better. We have two months to get the customers comfortable and convince Gaming to give us the go-ahead."

If that happens, the field will be wide-open, indeed.