IN THE END, the Big Guy blinked - and the Little Guy walked away $102,000 richer.

The story began when Stephen Wilkinson, 56, called the Inquirer to tell them he'd been ripped off by Philadelphia Park Casino last Monday.

The story broke Wednesday and it went national, lifting off like the space shuttle. Other reporters, including me, descended like ravenous locusts.

The irresistible hook was Wilkinson's statement that in place of the 102Gs, the casino offered him a couple of comps to the buffet.

Here's what Wilkinson told me last week:

"I'm thinking to myself, they do have a nice steakhouse there. They didn't even give me that. They're giving me the buffet. That buffet must be one helluva buffet," he said, laughing.

Instead of chowing down at the buffet, the retired carpenter filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania State Gaming Board, the first of its kind against Philadelphia Park. In this case, there was no prize for being first.

The casino's story was that a message telling Wilkinson that he had won $102,000 was a "communication error" mistakenly flashed on the 25-cent Wheel of Fortune machine he was playing, and that his machine had not really hit the jackpot. The buffet, Philadelphia Park said, was offered to him to enjoy while they figured out what to do.

As is often true, perception is reality, and Philadelphia Park was getting hammered from coast to coast.

As the tsunami of bad publicity broke, the casino put out a media alert saying, "There was no winning combination . . . in the PlayerPower jackpot system that would have triggered a jackpot in excess of $6,875."

A smart operation - in an industry that practically prints money - would have swallowed hard and offered up the 6Gs.

I asked Wilkinson last week if he would have settled for $6,875.

"At that time, I would have," he says. "But after all this and the way they handled it - they haven't contacted me or whatever - you know what? No."

Had nothing changed, he told me, he'd be talking to a lawyer today.

That might not have gotten him too far.

"A casino willing to take a case through the courts probably would prevail," I was told by Whittier (California) Law School professor I. Nelson Rose, an authority on gaming law. But a lawsuit would rain bad press and create an impression that casinos welch when they make mistakes. Rose thought they might settle. I thought so, too.

As I finished the column Friday afternoon, I checked in with Philadelphia Park spokesman Andrew Becker, who asked me to hold off for an announcement by 3 p.m.

At 2:50 p.m. he gave me a courtesy call to say there was a delay, which extended through Friday night and then into Saturday. I didn't know what was going on, but I pictured frenzied meetings among casino execs, lawyers and PR people figuring how to extinguish the fire they had fanned by not acting sooner.

At this point, it no longer mattered whether the $102,000 was a slot machine malfunction or a communication error. What mattered was public sympathy, which had lined up with the retired Feasterville carpenter and against the Bensalem casino ogre.

In what casino Chairman Bob Green called a goodwill gesture, at 5 p.m. Saturday Philadelphia Park paid Wilkinson 102Gs.

I'm guessing they wish they had comped him the steakhouse instead of the buffet. *

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