Image: High-rollers
Douglas Healey  /  AP file
High rollers Nick Varano, center, and Ralph Ventola, left, sit with Frank Playo, their host at Foxwood Casino while they eat like kings earlier this summer.
updated 10/12/2006 2:46:48 AM ET 2006-10-12T06:46:48

Perhaps you've noticed them strolling toward the elevator with their butlers while you wait in the check-in line. Maybe you've seen them, from the 25-cent slots, as they stepped into the VIP room with enough chips to buy a Porsche, a house, or both.

Most patrons will never be ushered to ringside seats or have extravagant dinners laid before them in opulent suites. Such luxuries are reserved for high rollers, the gamblers who represent as much as 50 percent of a casino's revenue and are treated accordingly.

But just for tonight, nod knowingly to the security guard and step past the velvet rope. Come along for a night at one of the world's largest casinos as the guest of one of its most important customers.

The limousine is arriving to pick up Nick Varano at Strega, the restaurant he owns in Boston.

First things first, however. Varano peels off a $100 bill and presses it into his busboy's palm. Two boxes of cannoli from the bakery up the street, he instructs, for the Foxwoods butlers who can't get pastry like this in eastern Connecticut.

Just before stepping into the limousine, Varano, 35, takes the boxes and motions for the busboy to keep the $70 or so in change. The driver puts the pastry in the trunk.

Foxwoods sends a limo to Varano's restaurant three, maybe four times a month. Tonight, a Thursday, he's joined by a few friends: Frank DePasquale, 54, a fellow restaurant and nightclub owner, and Ralph Ventola, 38, who runs a fleet of cars for funerals.

There are two types of high rollers: whales and premium players.

The highest of high rollers, whales might bet $5 million per night. While glamorized in movies, whales are increasingly too risky for many casinos who fear huge losses with a few spins of the roulette wheel.

Premium players don't reach whale status and don't get the biggest casino perks — free Lamborghinis, discounts on gambling losses or shopping money for their wives. But many casinos consider them their most desirable customers.

Varano and his friends are premium players.

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"I like to have a minimum of at least $1,000 to $10,000. If I feel that the day's going my way, you know, I don't mind betting $10,000 a hand or more," DePasquale says. "If the day's not going my way, I'll stay as low as $100 a hand. Everything's about rhythm."

Any ultra-rich businessman can drop millions of dollars a few times a year, but DePasquale says the true high roller returns every week, living the high life and playing for high stakes.

Tonight, Varano's plan is to eat like a king, win $25,000 and come back next week.

They're greeted at the casino by Frank Playo, their host. Top players don't call the reservations line. They call their casino host.

Want to see a title fight? Catch a sold-out show? Tee off on a private course? Call the host, whose job is keeping the best customers returning.

Like any good salesman, a host knows his clients' tastes and makes sure they're met without being asked. Casinos spend millions collecting this data and, thanks to corporate consolidation, a regular at the MGM Grand can visit the Bellagio and his favorite champagne will be waiting.

Playo ushers them to the elevator, swipes his card for access to the VIP floors, and shows them to their suite, a palatial flat set in marble. The Red Sox game is on the big screen. The butlers pour the drinks — the usuals — from the in-room bar.

A butler is like a personal concierge. He secures tables at the finest restaurants and has the limo waiting downstairs. He's also quick to meet an odd request. One Foxwoods butler arranged the baptism of a player's baby.

Varano and his friends enjoy a selection of imported Italian meats and cheeses, cracked crab, shrimp and — because the butlers knew DePasquale was coming — a tray of caviar. Then it's upstairs to the gourmet restaurant where chef Scott Mickelson greets them.

"Some appetizers," Varano says. "What do you suggest?"

"I'll have three of each brought out," Mickelson replies.

Mickelson wears a pager on his shoulder in case of a high-roller emergency. If a seafood lover suddenly announces he's coming, Mickelson can have a wahoo fish head-speared in Hawaii that day and shipped overnight.

The appetizers arrive in stages: oysters and crab on silver tiers, lobster risotto, shrimp, beef and more. It's all complimentary, a small price for their business.

"I can't imagine the way everybody else lives," Varano says.

Ventola is getting antsy. The invite-only casino is calling.

"Frank, wanna come?" Ventola asks eagerly. "Five minutes. Five minutes."

Ventola dreams about gambling. That morning, he blindly bet on soccer just to make the World Cup — which was under way in Germany that week — interesting. Now, he's craving blackjack. Five minutes.

"Well, maybe just to check and see if it's the same," DePasquale replies, smiling, "if they changed the colors."

DePasquale can't resist. He'd take an unbeatable night gambling over a night with a beautiful woman anytime. There are plenty of beautiful women.

"There's nothing more exciting than making a score," he says. "It's when you're popping champagne and you're laughing and you're joking and everybody's slapping each other five. And everything seems like the perfect world."

The casino staff greets them by name. Ventola lays $3,000 on the table. As he wins, he rolls the money into the next bet. It's called progressive betting and, if he catches a run of good cards, it's the fastest way to turn huge profits. Within minutes, he's up thousands of dollars, playing $4,000 a hand.

It's gone just as quickly and when Ventola returns to the dinner table — loaded now with chateaubriand, Kobe beef and Hawaiian tuna — he has only his original $3,000.

After dinner, Varano smiles and announces: "Now I want to gamble."

No roulette dealer is upstairs so the boss calls to have someone sent up. In the meantime, Varano plays a few hands of blackjack and DePasquale takes $10,000 from his credit line.

Twice in five minutes, Varano loses when the dealer catches a six to make 21. They're terrible losses and are a bad omen for DePasquale, who abruptly slides all his chips to his friend. They'll settle up later but those sixes spooked DePasquale out of betting tonight.

Down a few thousand dollars and sick of blackjack, Varano gets his private roulette table just before midnight. He always plays the same 10 numbers, hoping for a 35-to-1 payoff.

He begins at $500 a spin, betting progressively. Because of the house advantage, he says betting conservatively for hours is a losing venture. With these odds and betting strategy, four or five good spins can get him his $25,000 in minutes.

He coaxes the wheel with sudden outbursts:

"We're movin' on up, just like the Jeffersons."

"C'mon now! C'mon!"

"I've got more comebacks than Judy Garland."

Not tonight. He burns through DePasquale's $10,000 and his own. DePasquale reminds him of the sixes and suggests they return next week.

This is a bad night but it barely registers on the losing story scale. It's not like when they had to mail the limousine driver a tip, or when, in Las Vegas, Varano lost a massive, potentially break-even blackjack hand, hurled his Rolex at a slot machine and tossed his last pocket change off a balcony.

"You always remember the losses more than wins because the losing stories are so much better," he says.

Varano wants to play another $20,000 but DePasquale urges restraint. It starts like this, he says, then it'll take another $80,000 to break even. Varano ponders it.

"I wish I ordered the bread pudding for dessert," he says. He'll play a while longer.

It's no better the second time and by about 2 a.m., Varano is down more than $25,500. He's tired and they retreat to the suite to watch TV, sleep a bit, maybe take another shot around dawn before heading back.

DePasquale has a busy day tomorrow and, as he selects a bottle of wine from the bar, they call him a limousine.

"You wake up in the morning and start going crazy gambling, call me," DePasquale says on his way out. "I'll wire you some money."

DePasquale knows the routine. He'll call.

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