Against Casinos

I love casinos–the air of excitement heightened by the oft-rumored, never confirmed, super-rich, extra-oxygenated air in them–and I love my memories of random camaraderie generated at the card tables and my many stories of money won and money spent by me and my friends:

  • There was that time John and I found one single quarter on the floor of his car after a night of non-winning gambling, played it, and remained in the casino for hours after on that one quarter’s winnings.
  • Or there was the night two friends and I played “Commie Slots,” a game of our own devising, and won big and shared the winnings, as per the name of the game. (In “Commie Slots,” we pool our resources, split them into equal portions, venture off to our individual machines, play through that portion, reconvene, and collect the winnings. If one player has spent through his part and has little or nothing left but another has hit big, well, we signed a communist deal, and “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”) One night, I was the low man, and my friend, John again, hit for $1000, which we dutifully split three ways.
  • There was that late night at a roulette table with a guy who truly believed in the mathematics behind his roulette bets–there is no math behind roulette, no secret book to study–but whose every bet hit for an extended run, as if his belief in his scheme provided sufficient cosmic energy to make it true. We shared the success in his run by joining him in his bets, building multicolored pillars of chips on certain numbers. We pounded on each other’s backs.

There were other nights and days, though, too. Unhappy memories:

  • There was a hungover summer afternoon when I was unemployed in Iowa and hanging out with a middle-aged barfly named Harry who claimed to have been screwed over for song royalties by every major rock songwriter–and he had somewhat believable … okay, plausible … stories about how he got screwed … um, okay, scenarios plausible to drunken ears hanging out late at night in a wood-paneled bar with desk lamps on it for illumination. We drove to Meskwaki Casino in Tama, Iowa, an hour-long drive, to try to turn our fortunes around and left after perhaps two hours, our fortunes unmoved by our joint efforts. There were only slot machines there, and Harry was no Commie.
  • And there were nights when my stake was exhausted far earlier than anyone else’s, and any handouts from my “comrades” did not reverse the night’s seeming intention for me to learn a lesson while I waited for the others to finish.

* * * *

My enjoyment of gambling is mostly limited to casinos (I did play a lot of Quick Draw for a while, long in the past), and those trips to casinos have always been special to me: long drives with my close friends to an exciting, foreign atmosphere, encounters with fellow travelers at the tables, and an understanding that since I am not a wealthy man, my enjoyment of the games would be enhanced by understanding what I could afford. At times, I have traveled to a casino with fifty dollars in my pockets and had a great fun run with that. At other times, when I have forgotten my simple rule, I have burned through several hundred dollars rather quickly, and I remember the desperate shame and hope placed with those final bets, desperate that a big win will restore order in my universe, either at a table or in a slot machine, only to see the gamble turn up empty.

That was my mindset in the not-so-epic drive to Tama–when I was unemployed, living in a part of the country where I knew no one even after four-plus years there–that I was traveling there to make some needed money. To earn some money. The cosmos wouldn’t punish me further, would it? Empty, desperate, shame and hope. It wasn’t a punishment, not from the cosmos, anyway. 

Gambling is not a way to make money; it is a sometimes exceedingly fun way to spend money. But a lot of money is there, and money sometimes comes when you need it most, which is when you least expect it, as the saying goes.

That is why I have always been opposed to casinos being located in an urban area, or near a residential area, unless that urban area is, well, Las Vegas or Atlantic City. When it is a fun trip, made with a budget that includes gas money and food, I truly love the experience. Right now, I am a man on a limited, fixed income. There are no casino trips in my future. Fifty dollars is food money for a week.

In my current mood of needing money, needing quick money, the thought of buying a scratch-off has crossed my mind. I will admit that. The scratch-off, the cardboard version of a slot machine. If there was a slot machine in New Paltz, or one a cheap local bus fare away, mightn’t I try to make the opportunity to give the universe a chance to shine some luck on me? Why mightn’t I? I’ve been living the right kind of life lately, haven’t I? Luck be a pally, tonight.

For many people, my current experience of poverty feels empty and desperate; life’s a gamble, anyway. For many people, scratch-offs and slot machines love taking hope one quarter at a time.

* * * *

In the mid-1990s, I wrote for a newspaper in Sullivan County, NY, and one of the larger issues the population of that rural county faced at the time was casino gambling. The St. Regis Mohawk tribe, not a tribe indigenous to Sullivan County–in fact its home is based closer to Montreal than Albany–had developed an interest in operating a casino as a way of raising revenues for itself. Through many convoluted real estate negotiations that took place over many years, the tribe attempted to open a casino at Monticello Raceway, taking advantage of the fact that there was legal gambling there already. I was a part of the coverage of some of those convoluted negotiations and I hated every part of it.

Sullivan County is a mostly rural region of great natural beauty and a history that includes many, many vacation resorts (the “Borscht Belt”), which have all closed. It is an impoverished part of the state and its residents have seen casino salesmen pass through like Harold Hill for almost 40 years, salesmen who see closed hotels already in place for new hotels to occupy. 

(Ultimately, a “racino” was opened at the Raceway, long after I had moved out of the county. The St. Regis tribe still does not own or operate a casino in the county; the company that owns the Monticello Raceway and Casino only owns that one casino, in which the only games are slot machines.)

Our letters to the editor section was often occupied by tit-for-tat missives between Lee Karr (an anti-casino activist) and the late Noel Van Swol (a pro-casino activist, and, later, a pro-fracking activist).

I learned back then that pro-casino advocates always come armed with “facts about the future,” numbers and very specific dollar amounts (the current Proposition 1, on the November 5 ballot, will bring “$51.0 million per year to the Catskill Region”) reflecting the good the casino will create in the local community. But the numbers about the future, solid-sounding numbers with respectable decimal points and the whiff of reality, are never accompanied by financial figures from cities and communities that actually have casinos. I have yet to see what the real numbers look like in those communities to compare them to what was promised as real future numbers once upon a time.

Oh, but the anti-casino advocates don’t bring numbers about community economic impacts, they write like I did in my personal anecdotes above: about real real-life, present-day anecdotes and true, individual economic impacts.

Thus, one side looks like it is armed with hard facts and the other with mushy feelings and stories about individual people; one speaks of the community as a whole and its future plans with math and actuarial tables about a casino’s economic impact, both if it is built and if it is not, while the other, well, how can you reduce an entire community’s mathematical future to one poor schlub’s bad gambling addiction? We’ll make sure there are plenty of signs up in the casino with 800 numbers offering help.

The pro-casino advocates often remind me of the guy I met long ago at the roulette wheel, the fellow who believed he had a system for a game that is truly system-less. The anti-casino advocates only have the facts of our stories. 

I will happily vote no on Proposition 1 tomorrow.