In the movies, Danny Ocean pulls one over on the casinos. In Atlantic City, Ocean Casino pulls one over on its customers. At least that’s how some of the players see it.
In a scene just slightly less Hollywood than George Clooney strolling out of the Bellagio with $150 million, one chapter of this story ends with a self-described “weekend warrior” gambler named Eric Rosenthal strolling out of Ocean Casino & Resort with his arms weighed down by hundreds of dollars worth of candy.
Rosenthal was one of many who played at Ocean this summer because of an attractive rewards program and built up comp dollars, only to discover that his accrued rewards — several hundred dollars worth, he says — had unexpectedly expired.
When he complained, he was offered a one-time reinstatement.
“Their advice to me,” Rosenthal tells NJ Online Gambling, “was, ‘Just spend all of your comp dollars today, because when it falls off, it falls off, and we can’t reinstate you again. We can’t help you.’”
So Rosenthal headed to the Rocket Fizz Soda Pop and Candy Shop, located among Ocean’s Shops at the Row.
“I have kids,” Rosenthal says. “I bought hundreds of dollars worth of garbage candy, just to not leave anything there. I walked out — it was worse than Halloween, walking out with bags full of candy.
“My wife was not pleased.”
This was a man exiting a $2.4 billion casino with bags under each arm. But he hadn’t brought down the house. He was just getting out with something tangible because he wasn’t sure what the house was going to do next.
‘Voted Best Comps’
Rewards programs are a central component of any casino’s strategy to get customers in the door. You register for a player card, and as you spend money, you rack up comp dollars, free play, discounts, or entry into sweepstakes.
A pdf on Ocean’s website spelling out the casino’s offerings calls attention front and center to the fact that the property was “Voted Best Comps” by Casino Player Magazine. And nobody seems to dispute that designation. Even those who have spent the past month or so venting about the disappearing comps situation acknowledge that Ocean has good rewards.
Too good, perhaps.
“Ocean Casino Resort put out some very aggressive promotions to bring gamblers in,” Rosenthal explained on the Sept. 18 episode of his podcast, The Bettor Life. “They decided that they were going to basically give away the house when it came to promotions, because the casino is regularly dead. The place is so massive, they need more people, and they were putting offers to get you, as a gambler, to come in and play.
“And I will freely admit I made trips to Ocean based on these promotions. Some, I might have gone someplace else. Others, I might not have gone at all. And it was because of the promotion that I went in. When you’re evaluating promotions, you’re looking at what the house edge is and you’re subtracting the value of the promotion, and hopefully you’re finding areas where you have a positive expected value.
“Now, the positive expected value only works if you actually get what was offered to you. … So what they did was they changed their program, and they said that all comps expire after six months. But it’s not from this day forward. All comps that you earned more than six months ago that have been accruing under the old terms and conditions and the offers that you brought me in with — they confiscated all of them.”
The AP’s perspective
By day, Rosenthal is an investment advisor who owns an insurance brokerage. When it comes to gambling, he’s serious about getting whatever edge he can via comps and acknowledges that the term “comp harvester” applies to him. But he’s no pro.
Another gambler who goes by the pseudonym “Jay” — the same “Jay” who found a flaw in the programming of a video slots game called Ocean Magic and led an effort to win a million dollars in one week earlier this year — could be termed a pro. More specifically, he’s an “advantage player.” And he saw an opportunity for an advantage in the rewards program Ocean was offering this summer.
“For playing video poker with an expected loss of a few hundred dollars,” Jay says, “what they were giving you was $750 a day in free play, six days a week, and it would last for like two months. What they did was they over-player-invested to try and build market share. It was too high of a player reinvestment. The typical casino approach is to give you like 20% or so of your theoretical loss. Ocean went on the high side.”
Jay believes that the math was working in Ocean’s favor just fine during the busy summer months, when giving out somewhere around $100k in free play per day is justifiable if you’re doing about a million dollars a day in revenue.
But Atlantic City is a different place when the summer crowd clears out. In 2018, for example, Ocean’s casino revenue dropped by 24% from August to September. Jay suspects the dropoff in 2019 was enough to make the revenue-to-free-play ratio problematic for the property, leading them to change their expiration policy on the comps — without even telling the players.
Sounding off on social
Some of the players noticed, however. And they started voicing their displeasure on Twitter.
Rosenthal was the first example we found:
When you decide to induce action with comps and than change the terms and RETROACTIVELY apply the new terms to comps already earned, you have the worst player loyalty program in AC. #Foolmeonce
— Eric Rosenthal (@erosenthal1029) August 29, 2019
Jay, who’s on Twitter under the name @playwithanedge1, laid into Ocean also:
A self-described “high limit customer” (whom we tried to contact for this article, but didn’t get a response) didn’t mince words:
Imagine how delighted a high limit customer at Ocean Casino is to see ALL their earned comped dollars wiped out.
And then have the Rewards Club and supervisor Nick Viola give you the runaround for 4 days.
— Jim (@ChaunceyStreet) September 14, 2019
Another player claimed to have $4,000 quietly removed:
In June my $4000 in comps was wiped out. I was so mad at myself for not reading the program rules. Talked to the players desk and said I thought they didn’t expire. Oh they changed that. When? 2 weeks ago. Ok when were you gonna let me know that?So now I have to burn them somehow
— Sandybestdog (@Sandybestdog) September 15, 2019
To the property’s credit, Ocean was responsive on Twitter to those complained, several of the aggrieved receiving a message like this:
We apologize that you were not informed of our comp dollar expiration policy. All guests are able to visit the Card Services center for a one time rein-station if they have not already. Please feel free to send us a DM for additional information.
— Ocean Casino Resort (@TheOceanAC) September 14, 2019
But in Rosenthal’s view, the casino was missing the point about its change in policy.
“They can change their rules on the fly. I have no issue with changing the rules on the fly,” he tells NJ Online Gambling. “My issue is with changing the rules and applying it retroactively. If they did the exact same thing that they did but they said, ‘OK, this was under the rules that you earned them. Now from today forward …’ I wouldn’t have an issue with it.”
He says he would “still expect some transparency and correspondence,” but otherwise, his issue wasn’t with the new parameters; it was with the application of them to previous play.
A strange day to disappear
Jay is highly dubious of Ocean’s explanation and alleges the fact that everyone’s comps vanished on the same random day is a sign that this wasn’t on the up and up.
“I mean, your comp expiration is, like, Sept. 8?” Jay challenges. “That doesn’t happen. Caesars’ is, let’s say, Jan. 1. MGM’s is maybe Sept. 30. There’s not a casino in the world whose comp expiration is Sept. 8, unless their rule is they expire a year from when earned regardless of what the date is. But that’s not what was the case here. Everybody’s expiration happened to be the 8th of September? It’s not possible.
“What they did with all this is just a debacle.”
It’s not the first time the magnificent building at the north end of the Atlantic City Boardwalk has been through something like this — although it wasn’t called Ocean last time. The financial history of the property is ugly, and during its original two-year run as Revel, the casino was sued by gamblers who were promised refunds on their losses as part of a promotion, then weren’t able to get the rebate.
Six years after that suit was filed, history repeated.
“I’m a drop in the bucket compared to some people that I know that gave them real heavy action based on these promotions,” Rosenthal said on his podcast. “One player mentioned on Twitter that, basically, there were thousands of comp dollars confiscated, and when he went to reinstate them, they didn’t believe that he could have had that much so he got the runaround for days trying to figure out if his comp balance was accurate. The guy plays at a level way higher than I ever do. So, you have your high-limit players come in, they work on a promotion, they earn thousands of dollars in comps, and then they get the runaround.
“When it was Revel, people got screwed taking their word. When it was Ocean, people got screwed taking their word … I gotta tell you, if at this point you fall for it again, it’s your own fault.”
NJ Online Gambling hoped to interview an Ocean executive for this article and ask specific questions about the promotion, the handling of the complaints, and their approach to promotions moving forward.
Ocean did not grant an interview, but Ocean Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President Michael A. Donovan did send us a statement:
“The satisfaction of our guests is our top priority,” he wrote. “We pride ourselves on delivering the best value possible to our customers. From time to time we make changes to our Players Club Rewards Program. In June, we changed our comp expiration policy and those changes were communicated to guests and posted on property. Any guest who had balances that expired and were unaware of the changes, their balances were credited back to the account. We listen to our customers and have evaluated their satisfaction. Taking guests responses into consideration, we’ve restored the comp expiration period to our previous policy. Guests comps will now expire after 6 months of inactivity (3 months for blue tier). This should be easier for our guests to keep track of when their comps expire and give greater flexibility when redeeming comps. In addition, we allow our guests to convert comp balances into free slot play 7 days a week. The property saw tremendous business levels this summer and we look to continue to add rewards to keep our guests happy.”
The sources we spoke to have disputed the assertions that the “changes were communicated to guests” and that all “balances were credited back to the account.”
Jay also feels that Donovan’s claim that the comps will now expire after six months of activity is intentionally deceptive.
“I’ll give you an equivalent to that,” Jay says. “It would be American Airlines coming out and saying, ‘All luggage is free,’ and then in parentheses, ‘once you get to platinum level.’ If your basic concept is they expire after three months, don’t advertise that they expire after six for higher-level cards.”
On to the next one …
Perhaps the most maddening aspect for the affected players — at least the ones who know they’ve been affected, as opposed to those who have no idea about any of this and will be surprised whenever they’re next at Ocean to learn their comp dollars are gone — is that Ocean moved right into its next run of promotions.
Just as the crap was hitting the fan in mid-September with players complaining on Twitter, Ocean tweeted out a tease for its upcoming promotion kicking off Oct. 1, which includes the potential to win a Mercedes. (That tweet is no longer available.) Rosenthal remarked on his podcast about “the audacity to roll out a new program and not even address what you did.”
The casino also launched a new program refunding up to $500 in gambling losses:
But Jay alleged on social media that the property changed the rules again after launching the program:
“This is the Revel all over again,” Jay tells NJ Online Gambling. “You can’t entice a player and say, ‘Come in for a $500 loss rebate,’ and then not give them the second half. And that’s what they just did. They reimburse the $500 in two payments. But they locked the card, therefore the rebate that’s on there does not work.
“You can’t entice somebody into losing and not honor what you advertise.”
The ‘why’ question
Intention and motivation are impossible to know for certain. But given what we know about Revel/Ocean’s history, it’s not unreasonable to think the disappearing comps are an indicator about the financial solvency of the property.
“It’s purely supposition,” Rosenthal says, “but anecdotally, what I’ve seen when casinos do something like this is it’s because of their financials and they need to get the liability off their books.”
“Maybe Ocean is a sale candidate,” Jay adds. “Maybe somebody’s interested in buying, but they have liability. And comps are a liability.”
While Rosenthal is slightly — very, very slightly — open to the possibility that disorganization was at the root of an unforced error here, Jay is inclined to give Ocean zero benefit of any doubt. “This was definitely a conscious decision by management to remove the comps, and, ‘oh, we’ll reinstate whoever asks,’” Jay opines.
In the end, though, the “why” is not as important as the “what.” And the “what,” to Rosenthal, is very simple.
“The act alone of inducing action — I made decisions based upon playing their negative expected value games, based upon these promotions. To then, after the fact, change the math, you can’t do business like that. You just can’t,” he said on The Bettor Life.
“Could you imagine if Marriott or Hyatt or any of the airlines just decided overnight all of your miles, your points, we’re just going to take them back? … I can’t think of any other place in life where you come to terms on a deal and then it’s just acceptable to reneg on a portion of the deal. There’s no recourse. The losses have already been booked.”
Rosenthal doesn’t feel Ocean did anything illegal. But he does feel they did something that will cost them customers.
“I understand that the player program is owned by Ocean. Therefore, my comp dollars are technically theirs to do what they want with,” he said on the podcast. “But this is a ‘loyalty program,’ you morons. A loyalty program!”
Loyalty is earned, gradually, over time. And it can disappear, without warning, at any moment.