06/21/2001 11:00PM

Games just for fun designed as preview for Internet casinos

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Now that the Nevada legislature has finally passed a bill to allow the regulation of Internet gaming by the state's gaming control agency, the path has been cut to pave the way for Nevada's major industry to ready itself for the inevitable.

Before the biannual session ended, Nevada lawmakers enacted legislation that gives the go-ahead for the state's licensed gaming companies to participate on the Internet with casino games. Real games for real money.

Now, the Nevada Gaming Control Commission can set standards for the established Nevada gaming industry to enter Internet gambling. The new legislation gives the Silver State-based companies a chance to level the playing field with the burgeoning offshore gaming competition.

Nevada now sends the Internet Gaming ball into the federal court on Capitol Hill.

Nevada casino companies could no longer sit on the sidelines and watch the offshore gaming sites continue to cut up a lucrative and expanding market on the new medium without doing something to get into the game.

But, it wasn't so long ago that Nevada casino companies were lobbying hard and heavy in the nation's capital behind Congress's efforts to ban Internet gaming from Americans and American gaming companies. Many politicians' coffers were filled with contributions to back a federal gaming ban on the Internet, thus, preserving the "live" brick-and-mortar gaming experience at the nation's resort casinos.

But, like Indian gaming, the Nevada gaming companies soon realized that Internet gaming is here to stay.

Although the reality of the new legislation is years away and awaits federal guidance for the legality beyond Nevada, many gaming leaders argued that they could not take the first step with a state law preventing such action.

Next is the task of gaming regulators to establish guidelines, restrictions, parameters, qualifications, and of course, licensing fees. These items will take at least two years to formulate with many open meetings for debate and challenges.

And, the debate continues within gaming leaders themselves.

The casino industry is well aware of the fact that it must guard against short-term gains at the expense of the long and hard-earned image that Las Vegas has created over decades of diligent work.

At a recent meeting in Atlantic City, N.J., Tom Gallagher, Park Place Entertainment Chief Executive Officer, warned, "Technology and security have not yet caught up with the Internet to provide effective gambling regulation." He also noted that both the general public, as well as the gaming community, should be comfortable with the safety and acceptance of the activity before major gaming companies enter the new frontier.

MGM Mirage chairman Terry Lanni, who served on the National Gaming Impact Study commission, has become an outspoken advocate for the casino industry's entry into Internet gaming. While serving on the commission, Lanni was against the industry's participation, but, he, like many, has reevaluated his company's position in view of the added revenues that can be generated by an Internet casino. He also compares his tightly regulated and highly branded company as a much better alternative than the offshore casino sites now available.

Although almost all the major U.S. gaming companies have Internet sites, there are some taking a cautious view of their new freedom. Most use the sites to promote the many amenities of their Nevada resorts, enabling visitors to book rooms, shows, etc. Some have virtual tours of their complexes and rooms, and some already have gaming mechanisms in place - for fun. MGM Mirage and Harrah's Entertainment are the leaders in the "for fun" games-for-prizes sites, while they position their websites for an Internet casino as soon as the law permits.

Vegas.com, which is one of the largest websites for Las Vegas information and bookings, is already planning a substantial upgrade on its Web site that will expand its "for fun" casino games. The website will launch "Playing 4 Fun," a not-for-cash Internet casino that will feature the standard online games of blackjack, slots, and video poker. It will also introduce online craps, roulette, baccarat and keno as a full-games outlet for Internet players. The expansion is scheduled for a July or August launch. The company's philosophy is that people interested in a Las Vegas vacation who visit their site will also be interested in the resort destination's primary attraction - casino games.

There is no doubt that most of the Nevada-based websites are scrambling to position themselves for the advent of Internet gaming. And, it is also a good bet that there are many more to come.