ELIZABETH, Ind. -- "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell is wafting over the mood music system, and suddenly Barry Morris breaks into his own version of the classic, right in the middle of the casino lobby. Okay, so it's not that strange to see people breaking into spontaneous celebrations at Caesars Indiana, but this puckish bespectacled wildman happens to be the casino's General Manager.
He couldn't resist, he says, because of all the memories that came flooding back. "I had a safety pin through my nose, a chain attached to my ear, and bright orange hair. Major Sex Pistols fan. Twenty-five years ago I would have been spitting on you. But look where I am now!"
Look where he is indeed--running the largest riverboat gambling ship in the world, the only place on the Ohio River that has the hum and frenzy of the casinos out west. Barry Morris is not one of the faceless bureaucrats who have come to be the norm at midwestern casinos. The man obviously loves gambling, loves action, loves the clatter of the dice and the naughty stories that go with it. For much of the day you can find him out on the floor, bustling through his domain, joking with the slots players, buttonholing the dealers, making sure the party remains hearty.
Saucy Barry is an Englishman--hence the affection for the Sex Pistols--who cut his teeth dealing baccarat, roulette and blackjack at "seedy sawdust joints" in the United Kingdom before becoming a casino host at Paradise Island in the Bahamas, looking after sybaritic jet-setters for Resorts International. He stayed there from 1977 to 1993, when Merv Griffin sold out to Sol Kerzner's Sun International and the incessant Caribbean sunshine had started to pall. Gambling was just opening up in Mississippi around that time, and Morris took his talent for coddling millionaire celebrities to the new Grand Casino in Gulfport. Then, after a series of mergers and acquisitions, the Grand chain became part of Park Place Entertainment, owner of Caesars, and 21 months ago he ended up running "The Glory of Rome," a 450-foot- long four-story behemoth tethered at a dock outside Elizabeth, Indiana.
Elizabeth, Indiana? Fortunately it's only about 20 minutes from downtown Louisville and attracts gamblers from Indianapolis and Lexington as well.
"But we're still actually a little bigger than we need to be," he says. "If Park Place were building this place today, it would probably be a Bally's, not a Caesars. But since we have the Caesars name, we've got to make everything live up to that."
Caesars Indiana is not so much a gambling ship as a barge that occasionally drifts away from shore and drifts back again. (The total cruising distance is 2,000 feet.) There are no windows in the casino, and the lavishly decorated gambling areas are so heavily themed--a "Cleopatra" area, a "Burning of Rome" area, a musically themed area, etc.--that it has achieved what most riverboats only claim to achieve: it feels like a land-based casino.
What I like about it is that it's a temple of table games. At 142 tables, it has more live action than any other casino in Indiana, featuring just about everything except baccarat.
"We tried that, too," says Morris, "but the demand wasn't there. We have mini-baccarat, of course. And we still have a baccarat table in storage, in case there's some way to bring it back."
It may seem strange that a casino this large and lavish can't maintain even a single baccarat game, but this is Indiana, where people love their slots and where there's still some resistance even to well-known games like Let It Ride and Caribbean Stud. Morris is especially proud of his Three Card Poker tables, since he helped developed the game while he was working at casinos in Mississippi.
"We mmust develop new table games, or they're going to die out forever," he says, like a true traditionalist. "Fortunately Three Card Poker is working. It's doing three times the volume of a Caribbean Stud game, with twice the revenue. The highest payoff on it is 40 to one. Now we just need more of them."
It's hard to imagine that the words "riverboat gambling" now connote floating office buildings full of slot machines. In the era of Mark Twain, the Mississippi and the Ohio would have been full of poker players, faro layouts, and games like Chinese Fan Tan that are now mere footnotes in gambling history. "I think the problem with faro," says Morris, "is that collusion was too easy, so the operators eventually abandoned it. The riverboat guys definitely played that game, though, and now poker is making a comeback. In Mississippi especially--those poker pits in Mississippi are like a shark-infested ocean."
Meanwhile, Morris is not trying to reinvent the wheel. He has a whopping 2,510 slots on the ship, including some $500-per- pull machines in the special "high-limit" pampering casino on the fourth deck. But after a career devoted to serving million-dollar players, Morris is a little miffed that Indiana doesn't have more high rollers at this point. "As far as high-end development goes," he says, "we've done nothing. We couldn't until now. We opened in 1998, but at first it was only the boat. Now we've built the pavilion, we've just opened a hotel, we'll have a golf course next year. We're looking at ways to get the customers here without fighting the traffic from Louisville--perhaps helicopters. And we have one big event that no other casino has-- the Kentucky Derby. That's our big high-roller weekend."
Churchill Downs may be 20 minutes away, but unfortunately the historic race track is not too crazy about casino gambling on its virtual doorstep. For one thing, they've been agitating in recent years to get state approval for slot machines at the track. For another, most traditional thoroughbred tracks feel that casinos have already siphoned away many of their customers.
"No, Churchill Downs doesn't look at us as their best friend," acknowledges Morris, "but we still invest heavily in the Derby. We had 200 seats on the first turn this year for our best players, and we probably invested $450,000 in hospitality for that event."
Combine that with Bustling Barry's plans for the Indianapolis 500 and the weekends when the Indianapolis Colts play at home, and you have something that no other midwestern casino is even attempting. He doesn't expect to attract real "whales"--the million-dollar-per-visit players--but he hopes to land a few swordfish, and perhaps the occasional tuna.
"The place is really cooking," he says. "At our night club, Legendz, we have live bands that pack the place on weekends. We have 'showtenders' that eat fire and serve flaming drinks. Then we've got the big Caesars names in the showroom--Engelbert Humperdinck, Tony Bennett. We're doing some boxing. We've got a big televised Angel Manfredini fight coming up."
And he's got a brand spanking new hotel, with 503 rooms outfitted in the traditional "Roman excess" style that the original Caesars in Vegas is known for.
With all the amenities and frills, backed by one of the largest gaming companies in the world, you would think Caesars Indiana would rule the Ohio River. But it actually ranks fourth among Indiana casinos, behind the Argosy (closest casino to Cincinnati), and two Chicago-area boats, Harrah's East Chicago and the Hammond Horseshoe. "My job is to make the place profitable on a cash-flow basis," says Morris, "and last year we did see our first small profit."
One reason he's been held back so far is that, when they broke ground for the hotel, Indian artifacts were discovered, leading to what has now become the largest archeological dig in the United States. "It cost $16 million to do the dig," he says amiably, "and we paid for it. Apparently this area was originally a Native American market, where the Indians gathered to trade. They're finding a lot of chirt stone, which was used to fashion tools. Other artifacts."
Result: the hotel opened this month, but with no pool. But it's the kind of setback he's used to. "We needed water for our new golf course, Chariot Run, but the town of Elizabeth didn't have a big enough plant to supply it. So we bought them a water plant. Now they sell us water from the plant we bought them. It's the gift that keeps on giving."
Still, Morris and Park Place are obviously aiming at becoming the biggest players on the river, and to do that they know they need to make the 25,000 residents of Harrison County happy. Indiana has so many gaming taxes, boarding taxes, development agreements and hidden costs that a whopping 35 per cent of the casino's income off the top goes to various government agencies. Even with the huge tax bite, they keep the slots hold down around 6.8 per cent, meaning the machines return 93.2 cents for every dollar wagered--not great for the player, but not terrible either.
But then again, once he trains that army of table-games dealers--some of them are still a little clumsy at this point--he might be just the man to convince midwesterners to start looking at games with better odds. Those would be the ones played at tables, like God intended. For Barry, that excessive love of machines is somehow . . . tainted.
Near Elizabeth, Ind.
Theme: Roman Excess, Riverboat-Style
Total Investment: $425 million
Known For: Three actors dressed as Caesar, Cleopatra and a Roman centurion roam the casino, schmoozing the clients with hearty Roman sayings.
Marketing niche: Controls the Louisville area, extends to Indianapolis, Lexington, Nashville.
Gambler's Intensity: High
Cocktail speed: No free alcohol, but rapido
Dealers: Uneven (some too slow, some too fast)
Surrounding area: Knobs and dales.
Overall rating: 82
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $60 after a rollicking hour of Three Card Poker: Total to date: -$143