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Lessons for low rollers from the Queen of Comps

Queen of CompsThe first thing to know about Jean Scott is that she and her husband stayed 191 nights in casino hotels in Las Vegas one year and never paid for rooms or meals. Everything was complimentary, or "comped," in the lingo of Las Vegas.

The second thing to know about Scott is that she has an obsession with penny-pinching, and she has written the definitive pair of books on how low-rollers can stretch their money in Las Vegas and other gambling destinations.

The first book, "The Frugal Gambler," was published in 1998, right around the time Scott and her husband, Brad, were enjoying their half-year of free room and board in Vegas. (They still owned a home in Indianapolis at the time.) Among other things, "The Frugal Gambler":

  • lists seven myths about casinos (No. 1: "The casino will always make a big effort to get your business");
  • tells how to request comps (complimentary items such as rooms, meals and tickets); and
  • explains how to get bumped from your airline flight profitably.

That last item is a big one; Scott will go out of her way to get bumped from a flight, and as she tours the country to promote her recently published sequel, "More Frugal Gambling," it pains her to travel on a tight schedule.

"Once in a while I have a timetable where I'm going to speak and I can't take a bump," she says. "Nothing breaks my heart more than that."

In addition to the two "Frugal" books, Scott runs her own storefront on the Web; helped design Frugal Video Poker, a tutorial computer program from Wolf Gaming Software; recorded an audio book called "How To Get Comps at a Casino"; gives speeches at gambling resorts across the country; writes a weekly column called Frugal Fridays for a newsletter called Las Vegas Advisor, and is writing a tax guide for gamblers. The former English teacher says she wants to retire, but always has something more to say.

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In her books and speaking engagements, Scott preaches that gambling is a form of recreation. The money a gambler loses is the cost of entertainment, like the price of a theater ticket. A frugal gambler stretches those entertainment dollars to the limit.

Scott is in her mid-60s. She always has been thrifty, but she wasn't always a gambler. She didn't know the names of the card suits until her early 30s. She grew up as the daughter of an evangelical, fundamentalist minister. He was not highly paid. The paltry salaries encouraged Scott's parents to prize thrift; religious conviction required them to forbid dice and cards.

"We weren't even allowed to play games like Old Maid, because that would have the appearance of sinful behavior," she writes in "The Frugal Gambler." "Someone might have seen us playing and thought we were engaged in a poker game!"

These days, Scott spends hour upon hour playing video poker. She not only enjoys it, but it's also how she puts food on the table (complimentary lunches and dinners) and fuel in the car (gasoline coupons earned at casinos).

Despite the time she devotes to video poker, her true passion is for saving money. Call her an evangelical, fundamentalist tightwad. Thriftiness is next to godliness. Waste is sin.

"If being at least careful with your money is not fun to you, I have no hope for you anyway," she says in the manner of a rebuffed proselytizer.

Gambling and frugality might appear to be opposites, but Scott says there is no contradiction. She is so skilled at video poker that she makes money playing it. Most people aren't willing to invest the time and money to become that proficient; they visit casinos for recreation, and Scott understands that. In her books and speeches, she tells casual gamblers to walk into a casino with realistic aspirations.

Winning money at a casino, Scott says, "is not a goal, it's a hope. A better goal is extending your playing time. The casinos aren't against that. The casinos don't want you to lose too fast, because you'll get mad and you'll want to leave. They want it all eventually, your bankroll, but they want you to have fun while you're losing it so you'll go home and say, 'Well, I lost money, but I had a good time.'"

It didn't take Scott long to come to this conclusion after her first visit to Las Vegas, in the early 1980s. She and Brad took $3,000 and blew it in three or four days. He played the slots and she played blackjack -- badly. She noticed that casinos were giving out coupons for all sorts of things: free plays at the blackjack table, discounts on buffets, you name it. Then, after the couple returned to Indianapolis, they got a discount offer in the mail from the casino where they had stayed. "So I thought, well, this is another world that's just like the real world," she says.

For Scott, the real world is filled with savings opportunities. She and her husband live in a modest, ground-floor condominium not far from Flamingo Road in Las Vegas, and they get a $15 monthly discount on their electric bill for allowing the electric utility to cut off the air conditioning at times of peak demand -- even in summer. "I don't know why anybody wouldn't do that," she says in her living room, where the windows are open on a warm fall day.

Scott was spreading the gospel of parsimony long before she wrote her books. When Scott's daughter, Angela Sparks, was growing up, the two would clothes-shop on half-price day at the thrift store. To repeat: Half-price day. At the thrift store. "She thought everybody got their clothes in a thrift store until she was a teenager and her friends took her to the mall," Scott says.

Lesser children might have been traumatized, but not Angela. She co-wrote "More Frugal Gambling" with her mother and pronounces half-price day at the thrift shop "the supreme shopping experience." While in high school, she made her first trip to Las Vegas, courtesy of an airline ticket that her mother and stepfather had earned after getting bumped off a flight. She brought a friend, who also got a free ticket, courtesy of the Scotts' bumped flight.

Angela's first trip to Vegas happened in the days when Jean Scott would gather every tidbit of information she could find about coupons. She would pass along the coupon intelligence to Anthony Curtis, publisher of Las Vegas Advisor, now a 12-page monthly newsletter whose most popular feature, "Top Ten Values," tells Vegas visitors where they can find the cheapest rooms, buffets, burgers and cups of coffee, among other things. Impressed by Scott's coupon prowess, publisher Curtis dubbed her "the Queen of Ku Pon."

Back in Indianapolis, Scott was a schoolteacher, then a tutor. Eventually she quit the tutoring job because she could make more money staying home and planning how to get free travel, food and lodging. She attended to "hundreds of little details."

"I'd walk across the street and down three blocks to get a coupon that had the value of a dollar," she says. She doesn't have the strength to do that anymore, and, besides, "If I can play a game that has a theoretical win of $20 an hour, I'm not going to take two hours to run around town for $5 in coupons."

In the days when she and her husband were staying free in hotels for months at a time, one of Scott's favorite gambits was to sweet-talk the hotel maids into "bringing valuable trash" from other guests' rooms -- the coupon books that can be found in every hotel in town.

Now her frugality serves generosity. Courtesy of airline vouchers (collected when the Scotts are bumped from flights), she flies relatives to Las Vegas, where she often can put them up free or inexpensively in hotels, courtesy of comps and coupons.

Neighbors benefit, too. As Brad leaves the condo to run some errands, he totes a bottle of white zinfandel wine. "We had a $25 coupon to eat at the Gold Coast and the meal came to only $20," Scott says. "We don't drink. We got the bottle of wine anyway, and we put the cork back on it and gave it away to the neighbors."

She gazes fondly at her husband as he closes the door. "Brad's job in life is to keep me from being too nutty frugal," Scott says. "I'm changing. I used to know where every penny was. Now, if it comes right to about a thousand dollars one way or another, I say that's good enough. Now, that's a long way for me."

 

 

 
-- Posted: May 13, 2004
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