For once, it wasn't all about baccarat.
Strip casinos took in their largest revenues from blackjack in three years as results from the game fueled Nevada's first monthly gaming revenue increase since October.
For at least a month, blackjack -- not baccarat -- was the reason Nevada's largest casinos won or lost money.
High-end baccarat business, which has kept much of the Strip afloat the past two years as the gaming industry battled its way out of the recession, had a decent reporting month in March.
Michael Lawton, senior research analyst for the Gaming Control Board, pointed out that blackjack wagering and revenues had their largest monthly totals since 2008, which could signal a return of mass-market customers.
"I'm not saying mass-market play is back after one month, but it was a very good sign," Lawton said.
Statewide, casinos collected $958.7 million from customers during the month, up 5.1 percent compared with almost $912 million collected in March 2010, according to figures released Tuesday by the Gaming Control Board.
Strip casinos also ended four straight months of declining gaming revenues while powering the statewide increase. Strip properties collected $527.3 million from gamblers during March, a jump of 12.9 percent.
Gaming analysts said Strip revenues have always carried the state, but it was no more evident than in March. Clark County as a whole saw a 7.2 percent increase in gaming revenues. Other reporting areas, including downtown and the Boulder Strip, experienced either single-digit revenue declines or relatively flat results. Only a handful of statewide reporting markets showed year-over-year gaming revenue increases in March.
"We believe these results support our view of a gradual recovery on the Strip followed by a more pronounced lag in the locals market," Jefferies & Co. gaming analyst David Katz told investors. "The data reveals important qualitative and directional indications for the overall health of the Las Vegas market. We view March casino revenue trends (excluding baccarat) as largely within our expectations of a slow and tentative casino revenue recovery."
For the first three months of the year, gaming revenues statewide are down 0.9 percent and down 0.4 percent on the Strip.
On the Strip, casinos collected $83.8 million from blackjack players, the largest revenue production from the game since April 2008. Customers wagered $730.9 million on blackjack, the most since August 2008.
Meanwhile, baccarat still had a healthy performance. Strip casinos collected $81.8 million in revenues, up 55.2 percent from March 2010, while gamblers wagered $708.8 million on baccarat, an increase of 13.3 percent.
The hold percentage from baccarat was about 2 percentage points better for casinos than it was a year ago.
"March's results were consistent with those recently reported by the Las Vegas operators," Stifel Nicolaus Capital Markets gaming analyst Steven Wieczynski told investors in a research note. "(The figures) provide further evidence of stabilization along the Strip."
Lawton said the ConExpo/ConAg trade show, which drew more than 118,000 attendees to Las Vegas in March, with special events such as the return of Celine Dion to Caesars Palace and the Miguel Cotto-Ricardo Mayorga WBA super welterweight championship at the MGM Grand, helped bring mass-market customers back to Las Vegas.
Other table games, such as craps and roulette, showed healthy revenue increases.
Slot machine play on the Strip was also a positive. Casinos collected $260.2 million in slot revenues in March, up 0.9 percent from a year ago. Gamblers wagered $3.32 billion on slot machines, which was an increase of 0.4 percent.
Hudson Securities gaming analyst Robert LaFleur said Strip gaming revenue has lagged rebounding revenues from nongaming amenities, such as hotel rooms.
"In the quarter we saw decent growth in slots and table games," LaFleur said. "High-end international baccarat play has moderated."
Macquarie Securities gaming analyst Chad Beynon said the slot machine figures are also a way of evaluating gaming trends and nongaming spending.
"We will continue to monitor the trends in hotel fundamentals, nonbaccarat table play and convention attendance as drivers of a recovery," Beynon said.
Gaming taxes collected in April based on March's gaming revenues were $79.6 million, a 0.35 percent drop compared with $79.9 million collected during the same reporting period a year ago.
For the first 10 months of the fiscal year, the state collected $540.9 million in gaming taxes, a 1.5 percent increase over the same 10 months of the prior fiscal year.
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@review journal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.