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Gulf Coast casino-goers head north

TUNICA, Miss.—If anyone along Mississippi's battered casino coast is wondering where the heck the gamblers have gone, swing by the Gold Strike Casino Resort in Tunica in the state's northwest, where the reservation number says it all: 1-888-24K-PLAY.

The staff noticed the trend almost before Katrina had subsided: New poker faces all over the place.

There's Lloyd Anderson from St. Louis, looking a little disoriented beside the charter bus that brought him here because his casino of choice in Biloxi was trashed.

There's retired pharmacist Frank Gagliano from New Orleans, holed up in the hotel playing quarter slots until he learns the fate of his home. Here comes Katherine McSwain, a waitress in the Chicago Steak House, who's heard firsthand about Katrina's blow from Gulf Coast desperados lingering over their desserts.

"They're the ones in flip-flops and shorts, walking their pets out back," McSwain said. "One guy who lost his house said he took what he had from the bank and is gambling it on a long shot. He figures the government will give him money anyway, so it's a good way to wipe out his debts."

Some of the players came after their plans to play cards down south became moot. Hundreds more are evacuees, taken in at discounted room rates by the 11 casinos on the Mississippi River, 30 minutes south of Memphis, Tenn.

Coin cup in hand, Atlanta accountant Pat Miloscia sits in the Horseshoe Tunica with that slot-machine stare, framed by a row of machines called "Get Crazy With Bubba." Not crazy about Tunica, Miloscia said she wished she were in Biloxi.

"We've been going to the Gulf Coast to gamble for five years, and we probably do 15 trips a year," Miloscia said. "We'd probably never would have come here if it hadn't been for Katrina."

The Gulf Coast's 12 casinos were either destroyed or badly hobbled; as far as when they might reopen, all bets are off. Yet even as property damage is still being assessed, casino operators aren't wasting any time luring displaced poker players to the nearest stacks of chips.

With 25 million annual visitors and gross gaming revenues from the coastal casinos of $1.2 billion, all that money has to go somewhere.

"We've added staff in our Memphis office to help customers get from our casinos in Biloxi and Gulfport up to Tunica," said Anthony Sanfilippo, the president of the central division for Harrah's Entertainment, which owns the Horseshoe and Sheraton casinos in Tunica County, the delta-bound birthplace of the blues. "We want to help people who normally play on the Gulf Coast to join us up north. I can't say what the percentage will be, but clearly there'll be a boost now to the Tunica market."

With 17,000 coastal casino jobs threatened with extinction, casino owners also are hustling to relocate as many employees as they can.

The casinos here and at the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians' two properties in Philadelphia, Miss., are bracing for an onslaught of gamblers. Tour and convention groups booked into Harrah's Gulf Coast properties, for example, are being rerouted here, while other gamblers are showing up midstate at the Choctaw's Pearl River Resort, an area that Katrina largely spared.

Casino managers won't say so publicly, for fear of seeming as if they're capitalizing on the bad fortune of others, but the Gulf Coast's loss could be a boon here.

Bennie Lee Adkins, a barber in Philadelphia, said he noticed an influx of new gamblers ever since Katrina landed.

"I've had them sleeping in their cars in my parking lot, eating bologna sandwiches," Adkins said. "Losing those casinos down south is going to have a big impact on us up here. After all, with gamblers, once you get the habit, you're going to keep going, no matter what."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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