06/19/2002 11:00PM

Fixed drawing prompts board to look at contests

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Forgive me for humming the Janis Joplin ditty "Mercedes Benz." I haven't been able to get it out of my head since hearing about a promotional giveaway last month at The Venetian hotel casino.

In the 1971 song, Joplin prays for a Mercedes, a color TV, and a night on the town.

Before the Venetian giveaway, a gambler had dropped $5 million on a junket. When he visited the next time in May, he won a Mercedes in an invitation-only high-roller drawing.

According to insiders and news accounts, the drawing was fixed in a bid to keep the high roller happy.

To its credit, the hotel reported the incident to the Nevada Gaming Control Board and at least four high-ranking employees, including No. 2 executive Mike French, lost their jobs. The Venetian has declined to comment. But the Gaming Control Board hasn't been as quiet, and is now investigating contests and giveaways held at other hotels.

"We take it extremely seriously," board member Bob Siller said. "If it's a contest or promotion it has to be fair. It cannot be rigged."

Vegas's reputation for being a place to make an honest bet is crucial to the GCB. The worst thing for Vegas would be to have people think that its games and contests are fixed. Most adults understand that the house has the edge, and they're willing to try and buck those odds. However, if they find out they had no chance at all, they aren't likely to come back.

I'm sure the GCB will be taking a look at horse handicapping contests held nearly every weekday around Las Vegas and the high-end tournaments that are held throughout the year.

The race book industry has had to deal with such scrutiny before. In 1997, the GCB outlawed rebates given to big horse bettors (mostly from California) and prohibited "no-lose propositions," which were a less blatant kind of kickback.

Contest organizers do their best to make sure of the integrity of their events. The Orleans and other Coast Casinos have long posted every contest entrant's selections, even when 600 people enter. Boulder Station, Texas Station, and other race books have printed out sheets with everyone's picks to ensure there's no funny business - and to let people know where they stand.

It will be interesting to see what changes come from all this. Meanwhile, I can continue to hum my version of Joplin's song:

Casino host, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?