Mission control, I have landed on the planet Megabux. I’m going to look around.
Be careful, traveler.
Well, it must be another planet, because it bears no resemblance to any world I’m familiar with.
Ten a.m. on Sunday in the hotel casino. The Saturday night crowds are gone, having taken with them their swagger and their noise, their Mercedes and Escalades fighting for spots in the valet’s front row (although there were also a gull-wing Corvette and a 1955 Porsche Speedster; classic cars are a weakness of mine). And on this fresh desert morning there remain the hardcore and the lonely, frozen like the dead at slot machines the size of refrigerators. These agents of penury beckon as I walk by: “Place your bets!” says the perky-voiced computerized spin-the-wheel game. How I hate to disappoint her. “Way to go!” says the cowboy-sounding slot around the corner, followed by a cascade of bings and chings, virtual money pouring into a virtual pot, no need to handle any actual cash anymore; just reinvest until it’s all gone.
It’s the sights and sounds of the casino that make this place other-worldly. It is approximately the size of a football field, crammed full of slots, mostly, interrupted by virtual roulette and virtual craps and virtual poker, and the occasional low-ante, but analog blackjack table with a real live human dealer. The high-stakes stuff is in separate rooms, probably so the curious (like me) don’t hassle the serious bettors. Alas, there is no sports book (another weakness), which is the only game one has a realistic chance of winning. I was all set to go big on the Clippers.
The machines are brimming with lights and electronic sounds, a marvel, actually, in their mathematical complexity. Computers run the show now, and they are programmed to reliably return a profit to the house. Is there a way to beat them? If you watch and wait long enough will there be a time when the payout is due? Not a chance. Computer randomization has done away with that hope, but don’t try telling the Sunday morning believers.
A friend of someone here who knows the owner of a slot machine manufacturing company mentioned that the employees are forbidden from playing the machines at casinos. Interesting, if not suspicious.
But I really came over to people watch. In that respect it’s almost like perusing statues at a museum. No one moves except to slip in a token, or light a cigarette. Eyes stay riveted on the monitors. They stay and they play, and yet the faces appear emotionless, hypnotized. Is it a game or self-medication?
Here is the old woman, slouched before the massive façade of China Shores slots. There is the lone guy in the high-stakes blackjack room, scratching at the green felt. Even in this one-on-one relationship with his dealer he communicates wordlessly.
A smattering of men and women of all ethnicities, the young and the elderly, people with canes, people in wheelchairs, all participating in an equal opportunity swindle. They seem so lonely, so hopeless.
There is a sadness about this Sunday morning.
Beam me up, guys. I’m ready to come home.