What sets casinos apart is the ambience, given that games everywhere are essentially the same, as are the odds of winning. Is the floor clean? Are you asked whether you'd like a drink more often than once an hour? Does the staff smile? Is the food edible and reasonably priced? Can you get a seat at a $5 blackjack table? All too often, the answer is no.
In its infinite wisdom, the state figures that a gaming license should be the equivalent of permission to run a monopoly. State gaming commissioners are as interested in making sure no one goes out of business as they are in ferreting out crooks, and so they allow only as many casinos as they figure the market will support. As a result, Missouri gamblers are stuck with betting parlors featuring unkempt bathrooms, lousy food, spotty service and, worst of all, a paucity of low-minimum-bet table games.
The situation would change overnight if everyone who wanted to open a casino and could pass a background check was granted a license. Sure, a few folks might go broke, but after a shake-out period, we'd still have as many casinos as the market would bear. And the ones that survived would offer decent food, prompt service and clean toilets.
One ray of hope on an otherwise dismal scene is Ameristar, which has plunked down $360 million over the past two years after buying out Station, which left broken promises of a state-of-the art casino. Following through on Station's vows, Ameristar has increased gambling space by 80 percent, put in new eating spots and hired 800 new employees. With seven restaurants and 130,000 square feet of casino space, Ameristar is now the region's largest gambling hall, one of the few places with live poker tables. The grand opening came August, and early signs are promising. It's clean, and you don't have to wait forever for a drink. Management is also bringing in such acts as Herman's Hermits and Clarence Clemons -- not exactly top-tier Vegas but a considerable improvement to the status quo.