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Nov 2003 / games :: email this story to a friend

The Rewards of Low-Stakes Gambling
By Kent Shaw

I wish I were a smoker. I mean, I really wish I were a smoker. And this has nothing to do with my trip to the casino, even though threading my way through all those bright lights, and seeing all those people seated at slot machines with cigarettes just barely dangling out of their mouths surely helped convince me that smoking is one of the truly precious American addictions. Like gambling. And if I could double my addictive pleasure with something so simple as leaves wrapped in paper ... well, what am I waiting for?

Well, this particular Saturday night I was waiting for the hand of God to show me to the penny slots. And they're really not very easy to find. It's about as easy as finding a nutritious meal at the President's Buffet. I went walking on every level of that boat looking and looking. I even asked some of those people wearing official-looking aprons, and all they could do was vaguely point in a certain direction. "They're over by the nickel slots." Right; most of the slots on the boat are nickel slots. "It's on the south side of the boat, lower level." Now, I loved these directions. It's a well-known fact that they don't put clocks in casinos. I was imagining how useful it would be if they hung compasses on each wall. Thankfully, I was a Boy Scout, and after a little ingenious triangulating I found myself in front of the 2-cent slots, which I learned are also 1-cent slots. You just have to know to press the right buttons.

And I stress, the right buttons. These particular machines are definitely more complicated than those space ships on Battlestar Galactica. Oh, for the ease of operating three simple toggle switches to blast a whole spaceship into outer space! All I wanted to do was play penny slots. And all I could figure out was how to spend 25 cents a pop. There're something like sixteen buttons if you add up the touch-screen ones plus the buttons on the bottom. And then there's this animated frog on the screen who looks like he wants to help. He keeps waving his hands at me like, "Come on. Come on." And I'm sitting at this machine going, "I want to come on, Mr. Frog. I want to win." And I even press the little button that says, Mr. Frog helps you. But it's not helping that much. So finally, I ask some of the other slot players what everything means, and finally I start playing penny slots.

A big thumbs up from Mr. Frog! Now maybe most people know this — but when you're playing penny slots, you're not actually putting pennies into the slot machine. I was, well, kind of disappointed to learn this. I was also disappointed to learn that there are none of those one-armed bandit type slot machines where you can play pennies. It's all buttons. It's all electronic and screen display. The only consolation for me was Mr. Frog, who, as time went on, I really started to relate to. I like giving thumbs-up to people like Mr. Frog does. And I like smiling like Mr. Frog does. And I like spending more and more money like I can tell Mr. Frog likes me to spend more and more money.

Because after just ten minutes at the slot machine, and plenty of ups and downs with my credit count (at one point I was up 80 cents), I figured out that the casino is really playing a scam. You start with small stakes, and then you look at all the charts that show you how much more you could win if you played higher stakes. I like winning. And I really like winning more money.

So I started doubling my bets. I was playing two lines per pull and betting two cents per line. Then I was playing five lines at two cents per pull. That's ten cents a pull! And I was making some money. I was happy. Mr. Frog was happy. Saturday Night was even happy. I could hear it on all the other slot machines playing their funny little songs.

That was when I pulled myself away from the kid's stuff. Time for the nickel slots. Bigger stakes equals better gambling. I could feel it in my bones. And all that cigarette smoke was starting to make me a little dizzy. I sat down to a one-armed bandit, beside a player wearing headphones and dancing and pressing the pull button to some strange beat. Good luck, I thought. And I started playing 15 cents per pull. Of course, I could have played more. But I wasn't ready for it. "There will be time. There will be time," says my boy T.S. Eliot. And, well, I was ready for pretty much anything.

Except maybe winning 200 credits. I couldn't even tell you why I won, but the little counter just started going up and up. And I thought, maybe now I should walk away. Maybe I can go away high and dizzy and a little richer. Maybe I could take these winnings and buy me and my friend a beer. And maybe all these bright lights blinking in my face and all these little slot machine songs are making me nauseous and I need to get out of here and find the real world, smell that very real river, watch one of the twenty bachelorette parties that have come down to the Landing for a night on the town.

And that's what I did. I wasn't even disappointed when I cashed out and learned that my triple-digit credit count put me up only $4 from the $5 I had walked in with. It's OK. It's still enough for a couple of beers and a little walking-around money. Maybe not enough to impress any of the ladies. But then my boy Mr. Eliot was never into that whole game anyway.

Kent Shaw is a two-armed bandit of poetry.

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