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The pursuit of “comps” — that is, complimentary benefits such as free rooms, meals, casino play, show tickets, and so on — are a major engine driving casino gaming. Maybe you know a gambler who loves to tell tales of the comps he’s enjoyed — how a car and driver met him at the airport, or the opulent suite he was given gratis, or the excellent steak dinner that was “on the house.” Maybe, in years gone by, there were gamblers who excelled at bluffing their way into all kinds of freebies, and maybe there are even a few Ocean’s 11 con artists still out there, playing the angles and living high and well.

But for most people, even high rollers, the days of just talking your way into casino comps are long gone. Nowadays, big casinos can track your spending to the penny and the second, and they know exactly how likely you are to put your money where your mouth is. If you call up a modern casino-hotel and start asking for comps, you’ll be grilled on what games you play, how many hours a day you play, how much you bet, what casinos you have frequented in the past, and would you mind applying for a line of credit as a condition of your comps, if any? And if you don’t give the casino the amount of action you boast about, be prepared to get charged full price for everything when you try to check out.

Still, if you can put aside the fantasy of getting something for nothing — a wise policy before any casino vacation — there are easy ways to step into the comps game without relying on charm and subterfuge. Almost all casinos offer frequent-players’ clubs, which in principle are exactly like frequent-flyer programs. You sign up and are issued a membership card, which you use to log the money and time you spend on casino games. The casino isn’t worried as much about whether you win or lose — though they make a note of that too — but rather how much you play, and if you “reinvest” your winnings in more casino play. That’s the kind of customer they want to keep coming back, and that’s the customer who is offered comps.

Signing up for players’ clubs is free and easy; you can fill out a form at the casino, or even online in some cases. There’s really no downside, with the possible exception of getting on a few mailing lists. Even before you spend a dime, signing up for the club identifies you as someone interested in repeat play, and you’re immediately on the casino’s radar. New members are usually offered a small bonus or two as incentives, and you’ll be notified of special offers on a regular basis.

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Most players’ clubs started as slot clubs, geared primarily toward habitual slot-machine enthusiasts. Now, at some casinos, they’ve expanded to track (and reward) most any game or purchase available. You present your magnetic-strip membership card wherever appropriate — inserting in a slot machine or video poker game, handing to a table game attendant for a swipe, or doing the same at the hotel front desk or restaurant — and the money you spend is logged. Spending money earns you “points,” which can be redeemed for souvenirs, discounts, free hotel stays, transportation, entertainment, dining, or anything else the casino cares to offer.

In the beginning, these clubs were sort of a mixed blessing, because if you wanted to get the most out of your points, you needed to stay at one casino so that all your rewards would add up on the same scale. However, since so many big casinos are owned by the same parent corporations, many clubs now work at several different properties.

For example, the MGM Mirage Players Club (http://www.playersclub.com) earns points at Bellagio (http://www.bellagio.com), MGM Grand (http://www.mgmgrand.com), the Mirage (http://www.mirage.com), Treasure Island (http://www.treasureisland.com), and New York–New York (http://www.nynyhotelcasino.com) in Las Vegas; Beau Rivage (http://www.beaurivage.com) in Biloxi; and the MGM Grand in Detroit (http://detroit.mgmgrand.com). Members get points for slot or table play in any of these casinos, which makes them eligible for a hierarchy of special offers. The Caesars Connection Card (http://www.caesars.com) can be used at a whopping 18 different casinos — and in addition to rewarding casino play, it also tracks and gives points for money spent on hotel rooms, dining, spa services, and the like. Both programs and others like them allow you to enroll and track point balances online.

Even smaller casinos offer with slot-only clubs special bonuses for playing at certain times or circumstances. The Las Vegas Advisor (http://www.lasvegasadvisor.com) maintains a mind-bogglingly comprehensive and current list of who’s offering the best deals.

So how soon can you start enjoying that opulent suite? Let’s just say that patience is a virtue. One casino vacation will earn you discounts or comps for next time, which is how the system is designed to work. With all this data at their disposal, the casinos are going to offer the best comps to players who will provide a return on their investment. It’s something of a gamble, but as you probably know, the house always wins … eventually.

Chris Mohney is a contributor to "The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas."

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