AT FIRST glance, it seems unfair, if not disrespectful, that Dennis Gomes, the veteran casino executive who died Friday at age 67, might very well be best-remembered as the man who brought a tic-tac-toe-playing chicken to town when he ran what is now Tropicana Atlantic City in the late-1990s and early 2000s.
After all, Gomes, who was co-owner and CEO of Resorts Atlantic City when he died, was a successful and universally respected gaming-industry executive whose resume included top jobs at such major properties as the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas and Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. And before that, he was an official with Nevada's gaming enforcement office who headed up the investigation that was the basis of Martin Scorsese's 1995 film, "Casino."
But when you get down to it, the tic-tac-toe-playing bird encapsulates what set him apart from the dozens of casino suits who have paraded through Atlantic City since legal casino gambling came to town in 1978.
Far too often, the stewards of the modern casino business are colorless, unimaginative people - far more comfortable poring over spreadsheets than glad-handing high rollers and brainstorming old-fashioned publicity stunts. To these execs, running a casino is no different than operating an insurance or real estate-development company.
But Gomes - seldom seen at work in anything other than a running suit or open-collar shirt and casual slacks - fully grasped that casinos are, at least theoretically, all about fun and excitement and creating a fantasy world for customers. He got it that the "Wow!" factor was as important as clean towels and honest games. He wanted his patrons to walk out of his casino with giant grins on their faces, regardless of how much money they might have lost.
As such, he was much more a kindred spirit to P.T. Barnum than Warren Buffett, and Atlantic City was a lot richer - not to mention more fun - for it.
To be sure, Gomes didn't always have a Midas touch. Despite a seemingly nonstop whirl of promotional and entertainment strategies, he hadn't yet made the long-floundering Resorts, which he and his partner, real estate tycoon Morris Bailey, purchased in late 2010, into the success story he fervently believed it would become. His efforts included such maneuvers as giving the property a "Boardwalk Empire"-inspired "Roaring 20s" motif, booking an adults-only "Cirque"-style production show and opening the world's first gay disco inside a casino.
Such clever stunts are why last December I chose Resorts as the region's Casino of the Year.
I caught plenty of heat. But as I explained in the column, I made that choice because Dennis and a small executive team that included his son, Aaron, and his longtime marketing chief, Sherry Amos, did what I thought could never be done: make the downtrodden and beat-up Resorts relevant and part of the Atlantic City conversation for the first time since the late Merv Griffin sold the property in the 1990s.
Ironically, Dennis Gomes' final act was a major blow to his beloved Atlantic City. At a time when the city's fate truly hangs in the balance, his death is an immeasurable loss. Atlantic City needed him far more than he needed it, not just for his vision, enthusiasm and dedication to his city and profession, but for the many charitable endeavors he and Resorts embraced, and his unshakable belief that AyCee's best days lie ahead.
Which is why remembering the days of the tic-tac-toe-playing chicken, rather than being an insult to the memory of Dennis Gomes, is actually a most fitting tribute to an unforgettable and irreplaceable man.