Frequent casino guests have learned not to put money into a slot machine without first making sure their “comp” or player card is in. This also is true for table players who practically walk around with their cards attached to their foreheads.

The lure of the player card is that it will get players free hotel rooms, free food and even show tickets, provided one plays enough. A comp, short for complimentary item, is a popular way for frequent casino players to pay for their food and hotel rooms, since the cards reward players for their loyalty.

Based on a payback formula that varies by casino, the premise is rather simple, and it definitely favors the casino. When players deposit a predetermined amount of money into a slot machine during a certain time span and present their card to guest services, they may be given a coupon that entitles them to a free meal. Few people admit that, had they not put that last $40 in a slot machine, they could have paid for the dinner themselves. Then again, marketing to and encouraging the casino crowd is not about logic. It is about evoking emotion and getting caught up in the moment.

Fear sets in

Though most casino guests are accustomed to using comp cards, there are some who have grown leery of them. The legend of free casino dinners precedes most comp card programs, but that was back in an era when networked systems did not exist.

Now, we have magnetic-backed cards, card readers positioned on every slot machine, Internet access to track comp points and casino hosts who walk the casino floor with wireless devices that allow them to check comp card balances, etc. However, some players are tech savvy enough to worry about the information being mined about them.

Some have voiced concern about identity theft, but the information contained on the cards is very basic and not nearly enough to make the owner a victim of identity theft should the card be lost. The worst thing that could happen if someone finds a lost card is that person could try to cash it in for some of the earned freebies. However, that person generally would have to produce photo ID and, if their information did not match, hand over the card. Finally, these cards are not linked to anything beyond the casino’s own marketing and tracking programs.

The system side

Player-tracking software and customer databases are two of the most important information technology elements in a casino. Useful for monitoring the spending and playing habits of paying customers, the main advancement in such systems is that they offer real-time information to both the casino and the player, which can lead to more targeted marketing and safety and security measures.

The back end of a casino with such player programs is heavily dependent on data storage, since the information needs to be housed so it can be analyzed and put to use for marketing and promotional purposes.

These systems mostly are intended for marketing, which is why they are not linked to other casino player information. One common but unsubstantiated fear is that the player card information is linked to hotel reservations, personal tax information (required by casinos for large cash outs) and credit card information. Perhaps there might be a way for an extremely tech savvy operation to link the separate databases together; however, there would be no benefit for the casino in doing so.

Not so scary after all

The best message for a casino to convey is that participation in comp programs is completely voluntary. It is not required for gambling. People within a gaming area may have such a card, and they willingly take them on the promise and hope of recouping some of their gambling losses with free hotel rooms, dinner, drinks, show tickets, etc.

Perhaps if such cards were mandatory, the underlying fear would have a sounder basis. Forking over one’s name, mailing address, e-mail address and birthday is not that much more invasive than writing a check to a small store (where not only does one give out personal information, but banking information, as well) or providing the same information to a chain restaurant to be on their birthday list or to a grocery store to earn discounts. They are all roughly born out of the same principle and support the same end result: Targeting marketing to loyal customers to produce even more loyalty and repeat business.

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at jennifer.stong@comcast.net.