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Tilting at Slot Machines

Call it a fool's mission, but Jeff Greenfield, the CNN political analyst, headed off to Atlantic City with a pocketful of cash destined for the slots
Jeff Greenfield
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

You sense it first: the hint of salt in the air, the widening, flattening of the horizon, the glimpse of marshland. You know it's just east of where you are, two hours and 125 miles south and east of New York City. But as the expressway turns and the welcome signs appear, you do not see the expanse of a magnificent ocean; no, you see a dozen high-rise buildings that block the water's view: Trump Taj Mahal, Bally's, Caesars, Harrah's, while your approach is lined with billboards of near-pornographic promise ("Loosest Slots!").

It is fitting that our first look at Atlantic City is not of the ocean that was once its central attraction, but of the hotel-casinos that have been dominating the city's landscape and economy for the last quarter century.

For my wife and I have come here not to gaze in wonder at the Atlantic, nor to sample the simple pleasures of the Boardwalk, whose charm survives even in the face of Burt Lancaster's comment in the film Atlantic City: "You should have seen it in the old days."

No, Dena and I are here...on a mission.

A really, really stupid mission. Like the Gallant 600 in Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," we have chosen to ride into the Valley of Financial Death. We are risking all—or to be more precise, all that this fine publication has agreed to pay me—by challenging the iron laws of mathematics and a century of experience of millions of gamblers.

We are going to see whether we can make money at the single least gambler-friendly form of wagering known to man: the slots.

Now it's not as if I don't know that I am embarking on a foolhardy mission. In talking with renowned mathematician John Alan Paulos about my plan, he says, "It's a very dumb thing to do. In fact, I think it's dumber than playing the lottery—but at least the lottery has the psychic payoff of allowing you to daydream for a week, imagining who you're gonna tell off."

I don't need a mathematician's mind to tell me how dumb Paulos thinks this is, because he rewards me with Voltaire's observation that "the lottery is a tax on stupidity."

Dumber than stupidity...hmmm.

Joe Winert, a journalist who covers the gaming industry, gives me some perspective. He says the once lowly slot machine was offered in casinos in bygone days primarily to occupy the spouse or very special friend of a high-rolling craps shooter or blackjack player. Now it accounts for 75 percent of casino revenue—and that's 75 percent of the nearly $5 billion that gamblers left in Atlantic City hotels in the last fiscal year. (Nationally, according to The New York Times Magazine, casinos took in some $30 billion from slots.)

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