02/21/2003 12:00AM

A fowl way to bring 'em in

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How many original marketing ideas do we ever actually see? How many times have you seen an old idea retooled to fit the modern era and suddenly become a "grand slam."

I saw one of these ideas last year at the Tropicana Resort and Casino. Its award-winning promotion is a chicken that plays the old children's game tick-tack-toe against humans. If the chicken wins, it keeps getting fed. If the person wins, he or she takes home $10,000.

In reality it's not one chicken, but a team of 14 well-trained fowl that are constantly rotated. They are taught to play using a simple Pavlovian theory. When a chicken plays correctly, positive reinforcement is used to ensure the behavior. The reward is food.

So far the chickens are doing a great impersonation of Randy Johnson. They're pitching one goose egg - I mean chicken egg - after another. On average 500 people a day play a free game of tick-tack-toe against the chickens, and the chickens don't lose.

Last fall, the Tropicana won an award for Best Casino Company Promotion with the chickens. A Reno-based company called Raving Consulting Co. sponsored the award.

Raving's president Dennis Conrad said at the time: "Sometimes there is just no telling why something works. Somebody said go with the chicken and, combined with a $10,000 price tag, it's been working magic for three years."

Tropicana casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Indiana are using the chicken tick-tack-toe program. It has successfully increased their slot club membership many-fold.

I guess what ticked me off was that I had first seen the game-playing chickens 40 years ago. In 1963, while I was growing up in Stamford, Conn., my parents would regularly take the family to Chinatown in lower Manhattan.

Mott Street cuts through the heart of Chinatown and on it was an arcade called the Chinatown Fair. My dad would give me $2 to play with. At the Chinatown Fair, I would play tick-tack-toe for a quarter a game against a chicken. If you played to a draw, you earned some coupons.

If you won, which was unlikely, you would get a lot of coupons. The coupons were redeemable for real quality stuff like key chains and cheap sunglasses.

Now turn the clock forward to the fall of 2002. Again I face off against a chicken in tick-tack-toe. At the Trop, I can play him for free so already I'm ahead 25 cents. Instead of coupons, I'm playing for $10,000. My sportsmanship is gone as I try to antagonize the bird with facial expressions. However, the chicken won't look at me and pecks another perfect game. Some things never change.

The final insult is that for a game that I first saw 40 years ago, some marketing wizard probably got a big pay raise, a promotion, and an award.

Maybe there's some lesson to be learned for racing: That some of the best ideas are still before our very eyes; that we just need to recognize them and be clever enough to make the right adjustments.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.