07/19/2001 11:00PM

Nevada Numbers: Lottery or keno?

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After two years in the making, the newest game to hit Nevada's casinos has been in operation for a month. The question is: What kind of game is it?

It's called Nevada Numbers and it's the newest brainchild of Las Vegas Gaming Incorporated, a maker of casino games, and Park Place Entertainment, which owns several casinos in Nevada, including the Hiltons, Bally's, and Paris.

Just over two years ago, Russ Roth, president of LVGI, and executives of Park Place Entertainment began to shape the idea that became Nevada Numbers. Following months of tests and regulatory review, the Nevada Gaming Commission approved the game for operation in the state.

Now the public will decide if Nevada Numbers stays a part of the casino terrain.

But some people think Nevada Numbers, which is marketed as a keno-type game, comes perilously close to being a lottery, which is illegal in Nevada.

Although Nevada Numbers is located in the keno section of six Park Place casino properties (Bally's, Paris, Flamingo Hilton Las Vegas, Las Vegas Hilton, Flamingo Laughlin, and Reno Hilton), it looks and feels more like a lottery than a game of keno.

Nevada Numbers draws at 6 p.m. each evening at Bally's. Tickets for each night's drawing can be purchased at any of the six participating properties. Eighty numbered balls are mixed around in a machine with a see-through housing, and five are randomly drawn for each game. There is one game played per day, every day.

In many ways, the game more resembles a lottery drawing than keno. In a keno game, 20 of the 80 numbers are drawn. Also, keno jackpots are nowhere near the $5 million paid out to the winner of Nevada Numbers.

So, if it looks like a lottery, draws like a lottery, and feels like a lottery, well . . .

Bally's and Paris race and sports book director John Avello, comparing Nevada Numbers to neighboring states' lotteries, notes that the odds to win Nevada Numbers is around 24 million to 1, which is a far cry better than state-run lotteries. Nevada Numbers is progressive; it builds on the starting pot of $5 million until someone hits it. The jackpot has not seen a substantial carryover since the game started a month ago.

According to Avello, the big jackpot concept was one of the major selling points of the new game. "Since the Megabucks slot machine jackpots have gotten so big and popular, keno seemed to get smaller and smaller," he said. "Now this game starts at those big jackpot numbers."

Although you must have the five numbers drawn to win the big jackpot, Nevada Numbers offers consolation payoffs - just like the lottery - with four of five paying $2,000, three of five paying $20, two of five returning the base investment of $2, and one of five redeemable for $1.

The opening-night drawing was hosted by Avello and singer Sheena Easton, with a little help from a chorus line of showgirls. Nevada Numbers has grown slowly since that first night, and reviews have been encouraging, Avello said.

"Players, both local and tourists, really like the game," Avello said.

A selling point for the tourists is that they can buy 50 games at a time, so they can enjoy the action of Nevada Numbers well after they return home. Winning numbers are posted at www.parkplace.com or www.nevadanumbers.com.

Nevada's casinos have been against lotteries for years. As recently as at this year's session of the Nevada Legislature, a bill that would have legalized a state lottery was shelved.

Keno has always been as close to a lottery as Nevada casinos have ventured and the lottery-playing public sees Nevada Numbers as being as close as it gets to the real thing.

That sits just fine with LVGI and Park Place Entertainment.

Lines of cars head down I-15 toward the California border, where a convenience store sells California lottery tickets. Nevadans wait in line for up to seven hours to buy that ticket of chance at the store - owned by Nevada gaming giant MGM Mirage - which is the top-selling lottery outlet in California.

Now, locals will have to negotiate only the traffic on the Strip to ante up $2 a ticket for a chance at $5 million. And, they can do it daily.

So, is Nevada Numbers a lottery or keno?

Beauty - or in this case Nevada Numbers - is in the eyes of the beholder, and Avello admits that as long as people want to play for the big jackpot then they can call it whatever makes them happy.

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