On a stretch of despair that tourists seldom see, the Western Hotel-Casino stands out as a beacon for the broke and nearly broken.

With their crumpled dollars and gloomy gait, they stumble in through the wide doorless entrance, beckoned by the sounds of penny slot machines and cheap table games.

The Western is a poor man's dream, a downtown casino where sad Las Vegas cliches collide.

"This is the underbelly of Vegas," said Byron Hilton, 28, who was playing $2 blackjack on a recent Friday night. "This is not the Strip."

There is no valet parking of Porsches here. Instead customers come on foot, in beat-up cars and riding wobbly bicycles. For many, it has been a short journey to the Western.

The boxy structure is planted among a slew of low-income houses and budget motels. The Western feeds from one of the city's bleakest Zip codes, stained by high poverty and unemployment rates.

Inside they gamble, pouring nickels and quarters down the throats of always-hungry machines.

The roulette table sees an occasional gambler, but the blackjack tables -- marred by cigarette burns and beer stains -- get plenty of action at minimum $1, $2 and $5 bets.

In the early-morning weekend hours, the smoke hangs in the air like a veil, a giant gray cloud that wraps itself around the customers. The booze works its sleepy magic.

Some people are slumped over, passed out. Rousted, they are politely, gently made to leave.

Others, thumbing their last casino chip and in need of one more drink, look to Betty Williams.

Williams has walked the worn floors as a cocktail waitress for 31 years. She has spent the past 15 of those working the smoky graveyard shift.

Known to her loyal customers as Miss Betty, she has logged the most time at the Western, except for an algae-colored bingo machine that has been pumping out balls since the casino opened in January 1971.

Williams, 54, has witnessed it all in three decades: She has seen a man die playing bingo and another collapse dead during keno. Both heart attacks, she said.

"I've seen all types in the Western, down from the poor to the rich," she said. "You got to treat them all the same. I laugh with everybody."

Williams does more than tote complimentary cans of Budweiser and Tecate. She delivers hope.

"I try to lift their spirits when they don't have anything. A lot of people like to come talk to me because I'm a good listener."

The Western has been good to Williams and many of its loyal employees. Williams has a house in a quiet residential community in North Las Vegas. Tips can reach $200 on a Saturday night.

Even the dealers, the ones who speak little English and must endure the abuse of drunken players, have learned to smile, though they sometimes run low on patience when a foggy brain cannot calculate two cards.

"Today!" one dealer snapped at a mathematically challenged man missing his front teeth.

For $23.98 and the proper identification, a customer can get a clean room. Patrons, however, may not check out until a security guard has completed an inspection of the room.

Ted Schaghy, 39, who has worked security at the Western for three years, said the hotel is safe now that Las Vegas police have run off the drug dealers and prostitutes who once lingered in packs on Fremont Street.

Some of the Western's regulars could change after the hotel's new owner completes a planned makeover.

Barrick Gaming Corp. bought the Western and three other older downtown casinos and intends to revamp them, Barrick President Stephen Crystal said.