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Cripple Creek's flood warning 

New limits and games could attract different kinds of gamblers to mountain town

If Dominic LoRiggio enters a casino in Mississippi, he could be arrested for trespassing.

There are 15 casinos in Las Vegas where LoRiggio's been "backed off," meaning management's let him know that he and his style of play aren't welcome in their establishments.

LoRiggio's unpopularity isn't tied to cheating. Indeed, he sounds disgusted at mention of the word.

No, LoRiggio is what betting types might call a "skilled" gambler. The silver-haired, bespectacled and goateed player, who looks more like a high school teacher than a casino savant, believes he can consistently beat the house by controlling his dice throw at craps or by counting cards at blackjack.

In the 18 years since Colorado has allowed slot machines and $5 card games in the mountain towns of Cripple Creek, Central City and Blackhawk, LoRiggio hasn't bothered trying to do that here. But reached by telephone in late June, he's well aware of the voter-approved changes to the state's gambling laws that go into effect July 2, when casinos can raise single-wager limits to $100 and also offer craps and roulette.

Asked what the changes mean, the rant-prone LoRiggio sounds wistful for a moment.

"It'll definitely put Colorado on the map."

Stakes moving higher

That's what Colorado casino operators are betting on, at least in part. Mike Chaput, co-owner of Bronco Billy's Casino in Cripple Creek, believes the new law, which also allows round-the-clock gambling, will trigger a "new gold rush."

Profits at Colorado casinos have been stagnant or have declined recently, particularly since the state smoking ban was expanded to casinos in January last year. Chaput says the new games and limits should make Cripple Creek and other Colorado gaming towns an option for those who have traveled to Las Vegas and other big-time gambling spots.

"I have golfing buddies that don't want to play slots and don't want to play $5 blackjack," Chaput says. "They do want to play craps and roulette."

On a late June afternoon, Bronco Billy's is busy with construction, with Chaput maneuvering slot machines to make room for the new craps and roulette tables. He gets animated showing off the changes, including a beefed-up security room where employees will monitor gamblers on eight wall-mounted LCD screens. The close attention is mostly to protect customers from casual thieves, Chaput says.

Asked about the higher stakes and new games attracting "skilled" gamblers or outright cheaters, Chaput is dismissive.

"It has not been a problem in the past," he says, becoming impatient when pressed further: "That's almost a side story."

But it's a big story for LoRiggio, an author who helps run goldentouchcraps.com, where you can sign up for a two-day, $1,495 craps course to teach the art of throwing dice. (A two-day blackjack course offered at goldentouchblackjack.com is a relative bargain at $895.)

Chaput says he's doubtful that anyone can control dice when they are thrown, as required, against the far wall of the craps table. And while card counting is legal, Chaput points out he's allowed to ban people caught doing it.

"I don't want them in my casino," he says.

Working the odds

LoRiggio finds that outrageous: "I think it's un-American, to be honest."

As played by most gamblers, the odds in all casino games are tilted in favor of the house. When it comes to roulette and slot machines, there's not much a player can do (apart from cheat) to tweak those odds.

But craps and blackjack are different. In blackjack, your odds go up when the deck is relatively rich in aces and cards with a value of 10. So counters keep track of cards played before a deck is reshuffled. When the deck is rich, they increase their bets. (If that sounds easy, just remember you have to place bets and do the arithmetic in an instant, all without getting caught.)

LoRiggio believes his odds are even better at craps: "They are putting the dice in your hands."

He tries to capitalize on this. Unlike cheaters, who might try to use loaded dice or illegal throws where the dice don't turn, he uses a consistent, reproducible throwing motion that he says allows him to reduce the chances of throwing a losing number.

By shifting the odds at craps and blackjack, however slightly, LoRiggio believes he will beat the house over the long run. He feels it's akin to discrimination for casinos to close their doors to players who do it well. And from a business perspective, he says, it's foolish: Though few gamblers ever master the skills he has, they'll watch him play and see the games ripen with possibility.

Hiring bonanza

A more glossy kind of possibility was appearing in Cripple Creek in the weeks before July 2. Bronco Billy's and other casinos were remodeling to accommodate the new games and added visitors.

The additions and new 24-hour schedules at the casinos were expected to bring up to 500, mostly new employees to town, according to Cripple Creek Mayor Dan Baader.

Looking forward, Baader says the changes could boost revenues by 15 to 25 percent in the year ahead, and he hopes they also bring an increase in hotel occupancy rates.

"We're looking at a whole new paradigm," Baader says.

To meet the new demand for employees, Bronco Billy's and the Triple Crown casino group, with the help of Pikes Peak Community College, opened a temporary dealing school with weeks-long training courses in roulette, craps and blackjack.

A day from finishing his roulette class, Ron Smith — a former high-tech worker who's been dealing blackjack most of the 17 years he's worked in Cripple Creek — is excited about the new games.

Placing pretend bets while classmates work the roulette table, Smith talks about the number of Coloradans who've been going to other states with higher limits. The new $100 betting limit and added games should change that.

"It will keep revenues here," Smith says brightly.

A few moments later, almost as an afterthought, he mentions a possible dark side of attracting crowds to Cripple Creek that once went elsewhere: "I'm talking about the cheaters."

He and other dealers are trained to spot these cheaters, and the Denver Post reports that state regulators have hired 13 investigators to help catch them. But whether dealers will also have to watch for "skilled" players like LoRiggio is another matter.

Because LoRiggio, despite seeing Colorado on the country's gambling "map," clarifies that he thinks a $100 betting limit is still small potatoes. For now, this state's casinos probably don't have to worry about him.

"I'm a $100 minimum player," he says.

lane@csindy.com

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