07/31/2003 11:00PM

Lots of seats, no waiting in city's private salons

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"Where are all the high rollers?"

That is what some Las Vegas gaming operators may be asking after the latest reports from their private gaming salons. More than six months after selected mega-resorts opened their new private gaming rooms for high rollers, three Strip gaming properties have more "private area" than they do players.

In 2001 and 2002, Nevada lawmakers were lobbied by the state's big gaming companies to change state laws regarding private gaming areas for those high rollers who wanted privacy when playing in Nevada casinos. The state law of "wide-open" gambling to the public was enacted in 1931.

The new private gaming law was seen as the answer to attract international gamblers to Nevada, where private salons were previously prohibited. The new regulations allow state casinos to compete on an even playing field with those casinos that offer private salons in other parts of the world, such as Australia and Macau, as well as U.S. tribal casinos. The new salons, if nothing else, would at least stop an erosion of high-end business from Las Vegas casinos.

MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, and Caesars Palace quickly opened opulent full-service private gaming salons for their high-rolling clientele. And although the gaming companies did not expect significant additional business from the private salons, nor did they actively market the new rooms, meaning that the casinos didn't expect such a limited response, either.

Where are the Diamond Jim Bradys?

Through April 30, the Strip's trio of international gaming salons had won a total of $3.5 million from high-rolling gamblers. That's $3.5 million total.

Professor Bill Thompson, who tracks the gaming industry for the University of Nevada Las Vegas, was quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on the numbers: "That's like zero. It's low - low, low, low," he was quoted saying.

So, are the private gaming salons a flop?

Not really. A high percentage of the city's high-roller clientele are Asian players, and world conditions may have played a major part in the salons' low action. Continuing recovery from a post-9/11 tourism slowdown and a shaky economy are factors, but many industry observers believe that the war with Iraq and, most significantly, the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus (SARS) outbreak has heavily curtailed the Asian high-roller travel to Las Vegas.

Another reason may be the regulations themselves. In an effort to get the law passed and on the books, lawmakers may have forced to many limitations that have also kept high rollers away. State rules require the private salons to log players in, provide live video surveillance feeds directly to the Gaming Control Board offices, and mandate minimum $500 wagers.

These strict guidelines may keep Asian high rollers from playing the private salons and drive them back to the public gaming areas. Thompson concurs.

"These rules are an administrative nightmare," he said. "For the players, it's not worth the effort. A player gets more anonymity playing in the main casino.'

Some operators are keeping the private salons accessible to the general public rather than comply with the strict gaming rules. And, although the verdict is still out on whether the private salons will remain part of the gaming terrain in Las Vegas, they are not unique to Nevada.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.