Monday, March 14, 2011

Casino Life

I feel a little bit like I'm stealing this topic from Billy, but I thought he'd have written about it by now, so what the heck. Maybe he will weigh in on this topic, too, since he sees a side of casinos that I don't...

Wilco--"Casino Queen" (mp3)
Clive Gregson and Boo Hewerdine--"Sin City" (mp3)

I harbor a certain fondness for places that are artificial and decadent--Las Vegas, cruise ships, the French Quarter, the tourist sections of Key West. Aside from the obvious connection of activities and vices, these places share another quality--they make you forget about time and the outside world.

My daughter's return from Disney World a few weekends ago has had me thinking about this very topic, though the truth is that I've never been to Disney World, even though it meets both of my criteria above, albeit in the guise of good, clean family fun. But that is perhaps a topic for another time. One of my favorite created decadent worlds is the casino.

On the surface, since I'm not much of a gambler, you wouldn't think that this would be so. After all, the last time I was in a casino, during Christmas vacation, I put $20 in a penny slot machine, elected to play every line available (if you aren't a slot player, a "penny" slot can cost you 50 cents or more, if you want to have a realistic chance of winning), pushed the play button one time, won immediately in the form of "free spins," and after these and numerous bonus rounds, my winnings totaled $80. From one push of a button. I immediately cashed out and didn't play another slot the rest of the night.

Nor do I go there to play poker. In fact, these days, I usually don't go unless my dad is paying, but that doesn't mean that I don't cherish my time there. Or my timelessness there. Or the wealth of experience. I've been to all manner of casino--the big themed ones in Vegas, the cruise ship diversions, the sad imitations in Tunica, the Indian reservation variety, even the docked riverboats on the Mississippi.

I entered my first casino in Las Vegas in 1980. A friend and I were driving cross-country to California and stopped in the magic city for a night or two. Back then, nothing was too high tech or sophisticated. In fact, one of the lures for us was that casinos advertised their "All-You-Can-Eat" buffets for $.99. That's right, ninety-nine cents. You got cheap roast beef, pre-fab mashed potatoes, lettuce and maybe a few carrot sticks and Thousand Island dressing (the only choice), jello, and chocolate pudding. Maybe a roll and butter.

We stayed at a Motel 6 and frequented the Circus, Circus casino. My friend, long-deceased by his own hand, fancied himself a skilled blackjack player who eventually came to believe, later in the trip, that we could subsist in Reno on his blackjack winnings, would spend his time at those tables while I tried to keep from losing anything at the prehistoric slot machines and video poker and blackjack games.

From my perspective, always somewhat on the outside, what drew me to casino life was the desperation. If you like to watch people, there is no better place than a chair in front of a slot machine in a casino. Especially if you like to watch people on the edge. Especially if you are desperate yourself. My dominant memory from that first trip is a non-descript bride in a light blue dress trailing behind her newly-minted husband through the room of games and machines, her special day sullied by his desire to spend part of that day living casino life.

Today, you can see the same desperation in simple details: the casino card on a lanyard around a woman's neck, as if somehow enough senseless spending will reap rewards (those rewards will be discounts to encourage future trips to the casino), the ATM receipt left hanging in the machine, someone in too much of a hurry to grab it, the empty drink glasses and full ashtrays stashed between machines (because now the drinks are free and you can even order them using a button on the slot machine), the photographs of winners as you walk into the casino (the amount they've won to make the wall far less than it used to be), the willingness of all of us to believe the happy, smiling faces of gamblers that we see on the billboards. Inside a casino, the real look of a gambler is weary resignation, the look of someone in it for the long haul. Even if someone wins, the celebration is brief, the joy is transitory. A win keeps you gambling; it does not change your life.

And so, gambling, at least on slot machines, is about buying time. You know that you are going to lose, that given enough pulls of that machine, everything that you have will be taken. But that is a deal that you are willing to make, as long as the house will make those machines loose enough that you can spend the evening in that fantasy land of stale smoke and no windows and not have to go back to that ATM too many times.

I have a friend with whom I've gambled a time or two, and his goal is to win. He plays the big slots, the dollar slots, because he thinks that that is what he has to do if he is going to make money on the transaction. (NOTE: if I were Bob Dylan, I would stop here to write a song about how if you have to win, you're bound to lose)

One time when we gambled together, he ran through all of his money in about 10 minutes, while another friend and I nursed our investments and chugged free drinks at the cheapest slots we could find. The other time we gambled, which was actually in the Las Vegas airport, my friend who has to win actually got up on machine, but couldn't let it go, had to keep pushing buttons until his early winnings had dissipated, and we boarded the plane with that sourness in both of our mouths.

All of which may have you wondering why, exactly, I am enamored with casinos. Well, put simply, I like to be in places where pretensions are stripped away. My friend who has to win is a good, church-going man, and his self-allowance to grapple with these machines shows him one of his true selves that he might not want to see, but that we all need to be reminded is there.

I am much the same. Though I have no weakness for gambling, there is no doubt that every time I pull a lever or push a button, I have visions of a bell-ringing, everyone rushing to my machine kind of victory, the hope against all odds, even as I remind myself that I am no different from a primate in a lab pushing a button repeatedly in hopes that, randomly, if I keep pushing that button enough, something good will happen. Sometimes it does. So, it might again.

Couple that with the fantasy element of living, however briefly, in a small, self-contained world with few rules and a singular purpose, and you've got me hooked--on the experience, at least.

11 comments:

rodle said...

I'm going skiing in Lake Tahoe this week, and can't wait to hit the casino. It's a great way to pay for the trip.

troutking said...

Like you, I'm not much of a gambler. I kind of hate that feeling of scrambling to stay on the wheel before you eventually get ground up and lose. I generally feel if you can't afford to lose, you shouldn't be gambling, and if you can afford to lose then what's the big deal if you win some money? And yet, every time I'm near a casino, I'm drawn to go in, throw away some money in a slot machine or at a blackjack table and remember how much I dislike it after about 15 minutes.

If you really want to see desperate gamblers, go to the casinos opened in the old mining towns in Colorado. Not only is there the irony of them opening at the very places where the first desperate fortune seekers operated, but throw in the oxygen-poor altitude and you'll get to see lots of senior citizens plunking money in the slot machines while hooked up to their oxygen machines and smoking cigarettes. It's enough to send me high-tailing back to the area trout streams!

Bob said...

Trout, I've been there, in Deadwood, I think. On top of all your said, they were lame casinos with poor payouts, as I recall.

Bob said...

Trout, I've been there, in Deadwood, I think. On top of all your said, they were lame casinos with poor payouts, as I recall.

Billy said...

Fun post, Bob. I've tried several times to write about it but always feel like I'm trying to defend a hobby about which no one, ultimately, gives a flying crap. I don't want to be that old golfer who just has to tell you about the shot he hit on the 16th that landed three inches from the cup or the poker player who has to talk about every bad beat he didn't deserve.

The difference with poker is that, basically, we're renting the casino space. The money we win is not from the casino, but from other competitors. The casino profits by skimming off the top of these pots. Poker rooms have their own air of desperation and oddity, but it's a different kind of dysfunction than slot people.

To me, slot people are the zombies of the casino world. No offense meant, but it's harder to change channels on a TV than to play slots.

Hank said...

I generally enjoy gambling and casinos. I like the action and they are a great place to kill time when you have forgotten your hotel room number. However, I almost swore off casinos after making a stop at a Cherokee North Carolina casino on the way through the mountains. It was the saddest place on earth. Just busloads of old people with sacks of nickles. I left after 10 minutes of video poker.

troutking said...

Given the subject of this post and the recent events in Japan, I had to post the Boss's "Roulette"

We left the toys out in the yard
I took my wife and kids and left my home unguarded
We packed what we could into the car
No one here knows how it started
Suddenly everything was just so out of control
Now I want some answers, mister, I need to know
I hear all the talk but I don't know what you're sayin'
But I think I got a good idea of the game that you're playin'

Roulette, that's the name
Roulette, that's the game now
Roulette, I don't know what they're sayin'
Roulette, everybody's playin'

I grew up here on this street
Where nothin' moves, just a strange breeze
In a town full of worthless memories
There's a shadow in my backyard
I've got a house full of things that I can't touch
Well all those things won't do me much good now
I was a fireman out at Riker's, I did my job
Mister, I've been cheated, I feel like I've been robbed
I'm the big expendable, my life's just canceled null and void
Well what you gonna do about your new boy

Roulette, you're playin' with my life
Roulette, with my kids and my wife
Roulette, every day the stakes get bigger
Roulette, a different finger on the trigger

Down by the river that talks
The night speaks in searchlights
And shortwave radios squawk
The police patrol the streets
But I've left behind the man I used to be
Everything he believed and all that belonged to me
I tried to find my way out to somewhere where I thought it'd be safe
They stopped me at the roadblock they put up on the interstate
They put me in detention but I broke loose and then I ran
They said they want to ask me a few questions but I think they had other plans
Now I don't know who to trust and I don't know what I can believe
They say they want to help me but with the stuff they keep on sayin'
I think those guys just wanna keep on playin'

Roulette, with my life
Roulette, with my kids and my wife
Roulette, the bullet's in the chamber
Roulette, who's the unlucky stranger
Roulette, surprise, you're dead
Roulette, the gun's to your head
Roulette, the bullet's spinning in the chamber
Roulette, pull the trigger, feel the click
No further danger

goofytakemyhand said...

I'll add to that post with a stanza from Bob Dylan's Rambling Gambling Willie.

So all you rovin’ gamblers, wherever you might be
The moral of the story is very plain to see
Make your money while you can, before you have to stop
For when you pull that dead man’s hand, your gamblin’ days are up
And it’s ride, Willie, ride
Roll, Willie, roll
Wherever you are a-gamblin’ now, nobody really knows

OCseven said...

i am nt a gambler too.. but sometimes i do consider myself as one. I've been playing Bingo. If i win a game, i feel so lucky, but if not, i sometimes regret playing. Anyway, your post was a real fun. Its good to read something like this.

Unknown said...

Love the Casino Life. I have to take it with me when I leave one-- the empty drink glass, a $1 chip, maybe a match book. It sticks with you. Love the old vintage feel some casinos still have (I'm looking at you Wendover and Mesquite). I started collecting vintage casino hotel keys. When you pick one up... the old plastic fob and metal key... reminds you of that place... check out some of my collection at http://www.casinolife.us -- just pics of old casino stuff.

Marci Deegan said...

We share the same thoughts, Bob. Most of the time, it’s not about the machines and poker cards that’s really enticing, but the thought of having fun with everyone else. However, it’s not bad if you could win a game or two. That’s definitely a bonus! Haha!

Marci Deegan @ Twin Pine Casino & Hotel