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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

(continued from page 3)

And this was just the warm-up.

Like an accused criminal overwhelmed by bad news, we decide a change of venue might do the trick; so we cab over to Borgata, the newest joint in town. It's a sleek two-year-old billion-dollar, 43-story, 2,002-room building for 30-somethings who wait on a line half the length of a football field for the chance to play in Mixx, a nightclub where a skybox view of the dance floor tents out for $1,000 a night, and where a bottle of premium vodka can fetch $300. As with every casino-hotel, there is virtually no way to navigate the place without passing rows of slots, complete with footrests no less; so we leave with $200 less than we came in with.

Our last stop of the night is Bally's, where we find the "Megabucks" game with its giant progressive jackpot, standing now at about $6.2 million. And it's a nickel slot! Well, not exactly! To win the progressive jackpot, with odds of some 45 million to one, you have to play 60 credits—in other words, the same $3 you had to play when it was a dollar slot. You win on just about every spin; it's just that you generally win fewer than 60 credits, which explains what happens to my $100 bill in little more than 20 minutes. We retire for the night some $700 down; the prospect of tomorrow's encounter with the high-limit slots leaves me with the same dread I felt in high school on all those Sunday nights on the eve of a physics exam.

t's 9 a.m. when we venture back down to Caesars' massive casino; the huge floor is largely deserted, and when I make my way over to the high-limit area—after dropping another $100 along the way—the only other people there are a cleaning woman and a casino employee tending to the $500-a-pop machine. I ease my way past the velvet rope—hey, serious player here!—and cautiously approach the $5 machines. I feed in the first $100 bill—only 20 credits?—and I hear a faint whirring sound. It's not one of the slots—it's my grandmother spinning in her grave.

After four spins, I'm up $5. I wimp out and cash it in. (Well, I did risk it, didn't I?) I move to the next machine. After three spins, I'm up $5 again. I wimp out again. Come on—this isn't what you agreed to do. I find the $5 "Wheel of Fortune," where a two-credit play gives you a chance at a bonus spin. All right, if I'm going down, I'm going down with the king of the filler slots.

Six $10 spins bring me nothing. Then, magically, the "Spin" wheel appears, and the machine chants: "Wheel!—Of!—Fortune!" It looks as if this wheel pays off generously; I see no wedge smaller than $100. Round goes the wheel—and stops at $750. With what's left, I cash out at $790.

Aha! It was just a matter of time. As I swagger over to the $25 machines, I see what's coming clearly: the ringing of bells, the wail of sirens as I hit the Big One, the long wait for the casino employee to rush over with a tax form; will I take the tens of thousands in cash or a check? (Check, certainly; otherwise some crook will call ahead to his compatriots, and Dena and I will be hijacked before we ever hit the Garden State Parkway). Which charities will receive the half of this booty—and did I really promise half?

It takes less than two minutes for these thoughts to flash through my head—which is longer than it takes to lose $300 at $25 a shot.

Still, between that one big hit, and a $200 spin at a dollar "Wheel of Fortune," we wrap up our adventure with $1,720 left of our original $2,500 stash. If the fantasy of sudden, unearned cash did not come true, neither did the possibility of working for an hourly wage that would have sent Caesar Chavez rushing to sign me up. And with experience comes an important Life Lesson, one that all of us, particularly those who came of age at a certain time in America, would do well to remember: we are not exempt.

We may have been part of a Youth Revolution, but our hairlines are receding and our waistlines are expanding, just like everyone else's. Our music seems just as dumb and creaky to your kids as Bing Crosby's croonings did to us. If we eat cheeseburgers and fries and chocolate doughnuts, we will get just as fat as everyone else.

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