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.)
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.
I take note of the woman sitting next to me, who is blissfully unaware of the workings of the Random Number Generator. She wins a "Spin" on "Wheel of Fortune," and the wheel gives her a paltry 30-credit payout—just one click away from a 1,000-credit ($250) win.
"Oh, just missed!" she moans, and immediately switches from pushing the "spin" button to pulling down the lever, as if this will coax the machine to providing that big payoff she just missed. Foolish woman; she obviously lacks my fine appreciation of these games, which has enabled me to lose with a full understanding of the probabilities.
And indeed, at precisely 4:02, three fiery 7's align themselves on the pay line: 100 credits, twenty-five dollars! Look out, Jaguar dealers, I'm heading your way! At the strong suggestion of my wife, I cash out with $35. So far, we're down $40 after a half hour of play, but I am increasingly sure that it is only a matter of time now.
And it is; two minutes later, I'm down another $25. OK, it's time for a change of strategy: we're moving to the one slot game where a small degree of skill is required: video poker. Here, knowing what cards to hold actually makes a difference. (You know: if you're dealt five spades, keep them). And here, the difference in our fortune is palpable: it takes 15 minutes to lose another $30.
As I mull over the possibilities, I notice that I am behaving exactly the way the makers of these games want me to. For instance, I am gravitating to machines based almost solely on the highest—and rarest—payout lines. This "Double Diamond" pays 4,000 coins if you line up three Double Diamond symbols. This one pays 8,000 coins. Both Dena and I are drawn to the games that provide "Action"—hit the right combination on "On the Money" and the reels go crazy, spinning again, and again, and again, all to the accompaniment of the bizarre sounds of a machine going crazy. The result may be—and usually is—only four or five dollars, but by God, you've done something, you've cracked the machine.
"The slot machine is brilliantly designed from a behavioral psychology context," psychiatry professor Nancy Petry told The New York Times. "The people who are making these machines are using all the behavioral techniques to increase the probability that the behavior of gambling will reoccur."
Of course, as a highly trained journalist impervious to such irrational forces, I now reach a flawlessly rational decision: since I have lost at the quarter level, it's time to move up. Step aside, Michael Jordan; I'm heading to the fifty-cent "Wheel of Fortune" with a hundred-dollar bill.
The change is remarkable: in two minutes, I am down $50. Three minutes later, I'm down to my last dollar, which of course I cash out; God forbid I win a "Spin" on the bonus wheel that I can't play because I've only played one credit instead of three. Clearly another change of strategy is in order: over we go to the dollar slots. Dena bravely agrees to risk $60 on the dollar "Double Diamond" (this is the woman who, on our honeymoon, called a halt to our stopover at the Chumash casino outside of Santa Barbara, California, when we were $12.50 ahead). I'm at the dollar "Wheel of Fortune." She wins $60 quickly and cashes out; I lose the hundred almost as quickly.
I am beginning to feel like Carmine Sabatini, the Marlon Brando character in The Freshman, who says to his stockbroker: "The last stock you sold me went down; I don't like it when my stocks go down." It's one thing when you wander into a casino with a budgeted amount to lose; it's no different from taking your kid to a video arcade, where you're buying fun, a break from the work that has brought you there. But now, this is the work. I've agreed to put every penny of my wages for this enterprise on the line, and I don't care very much right now that the Atlantic City payout rate for slots is over 90 percent. If this luck keeps up when I move to the high-limit slots tomorrow, I am looking at one simple possibility: by the time we leave tomorrow, we will slouch out of Atlantic City with next to nothing, leaving only the sure and certain prospect of public ridicule.
My dark thoughts are interrupted by Dena's frantic beckoning. Back at the "Bonus Frenzy" quarter slots, a "Ten Times" hit has given her 500 credits; along with what was left of her original $20, she cashes out with $135. The euphoria lasts just long enough to watch a succession of $20 bills disappear into "Triple Stars." With that, we pack it in for the afternoon, with a loss of some $350.
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.
And if we gamble at machines that are computer-programmed to relieve us of our money over time, then we will lose money. It matters not how much more vivid the memory of a long-ago win is than the slow, steady losses.
We have paid our tax on stupidity. And we're outta here. (But you know, on that last $25 spin, I was so close...)
Jeff Greenfield is the senior political correspondent for CNN.