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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 1)

So what the hell am I doing?

For one thing, I don't know how to do anything else. When I find myself in a casino—almost always when I'm in Las Vegas to give a speech or cover a large media convention—I gravitate to the slots out of fear or ignorance. I can't remember the rules for craps; the cards at blackjack are dealt so quickly that I break out in a cold sweat after three or four minutes; and I am about as able to maintain a poker face at poker as Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher is at keeping calm when a Steelers touchdown is nullified by a holding call.

Moreover, I am the victim of the worst thing that can happen to a clueless, very occasional gambler: I once won big.

As steel-trap-minded Cigar Aficionado readers may remember, the first time I traveled with my wife-to-be Dena—to Vegas, for speechifying—we walked into the New York, New York casino, put two quarters into a slot machine, and won $1,600. This not only convinced me that I had indeed met my soul mate; it also imbued us with a kind of arrogance: "Odds? We don't care about no stinking odds. We're winners!" And over the years we have done a little better than even, according to our own, highly suspect calculations. (Once Dena hit a $250 win on a quarter "Wheel of Fortune"; less than a minute later, at an adjoining slot, so did I. Such memories are the stuff of which foreclosures are made.)

So when the memory of a decades-old New York magazine piece began to stir in my memory, it fired the blood. That writer had taken his fee and agreed to invest it in a range of lottery tickets: pocketing the profits and absorbing the losses. (If memory serves, he lost.)

My proposal was similar: Cigar Aficionado would front the $2,500 fee: I agreed to risk it all on the slots, ranging from quarter machines to the $25 slots (Venturing into Bill Bennett territory would make no sense; the $500 level could wipe out the stake in less than five seconds.) How did I define "risk"? The way my wife does: put in a bill, and if you win enough before the bill runs out—more or less double your investment—you cash out that bill and put in another. Whatever I lost was my loss; anything I won over the original fee would be split 50-50 between me and charity.

Before our journey, we armed ourselves with all sorts of information, reliable and otherwise. We went online to get the slot percentages for every level of machine at every casino in Atlantic City. For example, the Sands pays out 93.1 percent on its quarter slot, while the Taj Mahal pays out 89.5 percent. Caesars pays out 99.9 percent on its $25 slots, while Resorts pays out 94.8 percent). We bought a quartet of books that offer advice on beating the slots: if a machine doesn't pay out after six pulls—or 10 pulls—move on. Don't play slots near the table games, because those players don't like the distracting bells and whistles. Play in the early morning, after the losers have filled up machines during the night.

("It doesn't make any difference," John Alan Paulos patiently explained to me. "Every spin is independent of every other spin. It's unlike, say, blackjack.") And we learned of the special appeal of "cherry dribblers," those machines that seem to provide no end of chances to win, with extra spins and bonus wheels, with huge payoffs that always seem to elude the player by just this much, but which, of course, are programmed by a Random Number Generator to create just that illusion. These, of course, are the games we're most attracted to.

And so, on an overcast afternoon, we pull into the parking garage at Caesars, walk through the faux-marble entrance, check into our room on the XXXIVth floor, and walk into 131,000 square feet of instant riches a fingertip away. Rows of slot machines greet us—3,100 by the casino's count. Most make the simple three-reel device invented by Charles Fey in the late 1890s seem like a diversion from caveman days. "Wheel of Fortune"—the billion-dollar-a year breakthrough game that fused America's lust for gambling with its obsession with television—has now been joined by "The Price Is Right," "Jeopardy" and other games featuring the images and voices of long-dead media stars from Lucille Ball to Elvis. There are penny slots, nickel slots and every other conceivable denomination; off to the left are the high-limit slots, set off from more plebian ventures by a red velvet rope.

Later for that; we're starting modestly, with quarters. At 3:30 p.m., I insert my first $20 bill into a "Wheel of Fortune." Six minutes later, after playing three-credit spins that produce only two "wins" (a single cherry, giving back two credits, thus equaling a loss of 25 cents for each "win"), and without the blessing of a single "Spin," the $20 is gone. Dena, meanwhile, is playing "Bonus Frenzy," a three-reel game replete with fiery "7"s. She hits a "100" pay icon; a few minutes later, she cashes out with a $10 profit on her first twenty. So we're down $10; no problem, we'll make this up in volume.


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