Nobody says how boring slots are

October 20, 2008|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - The machine is called Black Cherry. Or it's called Go Bananas! Or Double American Beauty.

Nickel, quarter, 50 cents, a buck, it doesn't matter. The routine is mind-numbingly the same.

Feed your cash into the bill slot.

Hit the spin button.

Watch the cherries or 7s or Double Jackpot symbols spin round and round.

Hope you win. Most times you don't.

Does this sound like fun to you?

But this is life at the slot machines at Charles Town Races & Slots, the huge gambling emporium off U.S. 340 not far from Harpers Ferry. And soon it might be life in Maryland, too, if voters on Nov. 4 approve a referendum establishing slots in five casinos across the state.

Proponents of slots say they'll boost state revenues, save the horse-racing industry and keep gambling dollars from leaving the state.

Opponents say they'll be a net-revenue loser for taxpayers, increase crime, and lead to gambling addiction and personal bankruptcies.

But nobody talks about how boring it is to play the slots. I don't know how people can stand it.

Still, on a recent weekday afternoon, hundreds of gamblers swarm over the 5,000 slot machines here in themed areas called Hollywood, Slot City, OK Corral, etc.

You wouldn't believe this place on the weekends, says a security guy. You have to walk sideways, it's so crowded.

"How do they stay awake?" I say.

He shrugs and says he's not a gambler himself.

Walk around the main slots floor at Charles Town and what you discover is, it's still 1955.

The smoking sections are packed. Everywhere you look, people puff away merrily. Clouds of smoke from Marlboros, Newports and Camels fill the air.

Is Ike still the president?

I play Triple Triple Diamond. I play White Ice. I play Enchanted Unicorn.

I win five bucks playing Jokers Wild! And here's what happens when I win: nothing.

Zero, zip, nada.

The machine doesn't light up. Bells don't clang. Whistles don't sound.

"Why didn't the machine go crazy?" I ask a Charles Town employee named Felicia.

Oh, she says, you have to win $1,200 or more. That's when they take out taxes, too.

Great. The machine celebrates when you're on the hook to Uncle Sam. That doesn't seem right.

Neither does the "Gambling Too Much?" sign, urging people to call an 800 number if they think they have a problem.

What if they put up similar signs in restaurants? "Eating Too Much? Call 1-800-GET-HELP." Isn't that going to hurt business?

But I keep playing, moving from machine to machine. Penny slots, nickel slots, right up to the big boys at five bucks. I'm trying to understand what people get out of this.

I ask a woman playing a 2-cents slot called Nurse Follies: "Are you having fun?"

"Oh, yes," she says, smiling brightly.

"What's your secret?" I say. "How can you possibly enjoy this?"

The woman's name, it turns out, is Phyllis Lunsford. She's from Staunton, Va. She's here with her husband, Mark, celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary.

Except Mark had the good sense to wander off to the simulcast area, where you can bet on horse races from tracks all over the country.

The day before, she says, she played the slots from 4 in the afternoon until 1 in the morning. Won $406 at a machine called Hoot!, too.

"My brother gave me the nickname 'Hoot' when I was a kid," she says, "so I had to play that machine."

Really? I think. My mother gave me a nickname when I was a kid, too: Useless. Wonder if there's a machine with that name.

"This is entertaining. That's what it is to me," Lunsford continues. "It's not gambling. I'm not here to win money. But it's nice when I do. You either like this stuff or you don't."

Put me down for Door No. 2, I say.

I go back to playing the one-armed bandits. Except some of them don't even have an "arm" to pull down anymore. All you do is hit that wussy little spin button.

Anyway, I keep playing and playing and losing and losing. I'm ready to leave this joint and go back to the Free State, where there are much better ways to lose your money, like Lotto and Knights of Columbus raffles.

Then it happens. I'm on a 25-cent machine called Double Spin, Double Diamond, down to my last two plays.

I hit the spin button.

When the Double Jackpots stop spinning, I've won 82 bucks. Hey, not too bad at all!

Walking over to the cashier with my ticket, I wonder whether I've been too hard on slots. Maybe they're not so boring after all.

Maybe you just have to give them a chance.

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