Rollin’ dem bones

by Brian Clarey

In a non-descript strip mall not too far from the YES! Weekly offices, at a storefront tucked between a DQ and a nail salon, I purchased $20 worth of internet time. I then sat down in front of a computer screen, gripped the mouse and began playing slots. For money.

Stealin’ Sheep, with 25 payout lines and a cartoon bonus screen. Gnomes Gold, with a medieval theme. And even a little five-card draw.

It was the kind of giddy thrill I thought I had given up when I moved to Greensboro, where it has always seemed to me that there is an official cap on how much fun a body can legally pursue.

I sat for about half an hour, smoking cigarettes and demonstrating the law of diminishing returns before cashing out at the change booth. In that time I had turned my $20 into $19, not a bad price for a little fun and excitement.

In this week’s cover story (page 16), I tried not to let my advocacy of gambling affect my journalistic objectivity. But during the process I couldn’t help but get excited at the prospect of legalized gambling in the sate where I have lived, blackjack free, for the last 10 years.

Oh yes, I like a little action. I started going to casinos in 1993, when the Mississippi Gulf Coast began looking like a Deep South Vegas. That’s the same year I took my first trip to that sinful desert city, before the fountains at the Bellagio danced in the arid air and the Stratosphere was an abandoned project standing like a forgotten sentry at the base of the strip.

I returned to Las Vegas many times over the years — I was even married there in 2001, at Caesar’s Palace. In the intervening years I spent some time at Harrah’s in New Orleans, at the foot of Canal Street, perfecting my blackjack system and tinkering a bit with low-limit slots.

I picked up Texas Hold ‘Em right about the same time everyone else did, when a Midwestern accountant with a horseshoe up his ass won the World Series of Poker, and I used to play online for money until President George Bush put the kibosh on payouts.

And, of course, I played a lot of video poker. Video poker became legal in Louisiana in 1991, while I was still a student at Loyola in New Orleans. That was also the year started tending bar — to pay for my education, yes, but also to get free booze and meet drunk women.

I was new to the business, but smart enough to recognize that the video poker machines — three to a bar — were what kept many of these places above water.

To say that video poker — or “video lottery” or “video sweepstakes” or whatever trick of nomenclature the industry’s North Carolina proponents want to apply — generates money is like saying that a sword is a kind of knife.

Video poker generates quite a bit of money. I know this because I’ve seen it, held it in my hands, counted it on a scarred office desk in the back of TJ Quill’s, where as a manager it was part of my job to empty the machines and record the take. On a good weekend, the three machines at Quill’s could take in a few grand. Back then the state got about a third of the profits, with the bar and the machine owners splitting the rest.

The money came in slips and rushes, from college kids popping in a few loose dollars to seasoned slot jockeys who would set up camp in front of a “hot” machine and feed it five-dollar bills until it hit. Or it didn’t.

I know well the pitfalls of compulsive gambling just as I know the dangers of substance abuse or duplicity or hubris. I saw with my own eyes cab drivers and waiters put their whole night’s pay into video poker machines and stand up with the look of people who can’t believe or understand what they’ve just done. I know a couple bartenders who wigged out during slow hours and put money from the register into the poker machines only to walk away empty handed and soon to be unemployed.

I’ve even thrown a bit too much into the machines myself. But as I came to understand the nature of gambling I learned to respect it, to put it in its proper perspective: Casinos were not built on winners, and if video poker machines paid out more than they took in, they would not exist.

Gambling is entertainment. When there’s money on the line, things get more interesting — ask anyone who forgot to fill out her Final Four bracket before the first tip-off or slept through his Fantasy Football draft. And if you accept that the money you put on the line could very likely not come back to you, a kind of discipline instills itself. At least, that’s the way it worked with me.

As video poker proliferates in the Old North State — which I surely believe it will — there will certainly be plenty of horror stories making the rounds: the guy who lost his diaper money, the mother who blew her rent, the grandpa who’s slowly but surely contributing his Social Security benefits to the state. And there will also be tales of 500-to-1 payouts, miraculous streaks and Cinderella turnarounds.

To me, this means there will be more action. And whether it’s up or down, I like the action.