Creative Commons photo via Flickr by Lisa Brewster
The night I was born, my father rushed home for a hockey game. He had money on the Boston Bruins. “What a bad night,” he likes to say, cursing goaltender Gerry Cheevers.
Despite this potentially inauspicious start, I’ve never been afraid to gamble. I don’t, however, like casinos: polka-vested dealers, germ-laden chips and large crowds always killed the appeal. Lately, though, I’ve been hearing a lot about them. Cities like Toronto and Miami have been debating their pros and cons.
Is legalized gambling a negative societal influence or a harmless boost to a city’s finances? I had no idea where I stood and was curious.
To inform my stance, I spent a day at the Montreal casino.
Critics claim that casinos encourage crime and gambling. They expose citizens to these ills — or so the argument goes. The Montreal casino is an exception. Situated on Île Notre-Dame, it’s like a leper colony for gamblers.
To get there from downtown, you have to drive past the Montreal Port Authority and a shipyard with large containers and old cars. You also cross Habitat ‘67, which once represented the future of Canada, with Montreal as its shining light.
It all has a rusted, fallen-hero vibe. It’s like driving through a Springsteen song about Jersey.
The lower levels of the casino, the province of slot machines, are packed with old people. I have never seen so many in one place.
It’s like a retirement home with a Reno theme.
The elderly have a glazed-over posture, like quality control workers at Foxconn. Aside from a few mutterings of “Tabarnak,” no one speaks.
They play games called:
• Hot Shot Progressive
• Coyote Moon
• Running Wild
• Lucky Larry’s Lobster Mania
It all reeks of the quiet desperation that Thoreau wrote about, and begs you to ask questions: What was your life like? How long have you been doing this?
The sheer number of old people, though, is almost overwhelming. Once you’ve started asking questions, when would it end?
There are two kinds of slot machine players: those who push buttons and those who pull the lever. Neither makes a difference, but I suppose it helps you forget that you’re rooting for matching papayas, grapes and pictures of cats.
A woman in red (shoes, pants and sweater) has won $750. She’s oblivious. A casino employee has to tell her, “Madame, you’ve won!”
“You won!” The employee repeats, pointing to the screen like she’s having a seizure.
The woman staggers away, her day ruined.
An old man quickly takes her spot.
The line at the cafeteria is long and slow.
An employee named Giacinto, who has the kind of moderately pained fake smile seen on political posters, hands out a plate of spaghetti.
“What’s that rice dish?” a short lady with alopecia asks at him. The muscles in Giacinto’s face flinch slightly.
“It’s pasta, madame,” he says.
“Speak up — I don’t have my glasses,” she says.
“It’s pasta!” he shouts.
“I’ll have two rice dishes.”
The restaurant has stainless-steel counters and sleek chairs and tables. It also has windows. With a glaring sun, it’s unsettling, like I’ve just been teleported to the lamest cruise liner on earth.
“You cannot beat a roulette table unless you steal money from it,” Albert Einstein said. He was right. It’s a game that is inherently out to get you.
Knowing this, I’ve always gone for broke, defying fate to, as Dostoevsky wrote, “Challenge it” and “Put out my tongue at it.” I usually lose everything in minutes.
My wife, though, can play for hours with a $20 bill. It’s borderline wizardry. She plays lines and corners, and is satisfied with breaking even.
“I like playing,” she says. This is a healthy approach. Everyone else just wants to win, especially at the gaming tables where the players seem three decades younger and at least five times more desperate.
I don’t use the word “degenerate” lightly.
That said, I’ve never seen a more frantic and broken collection of degenerates in one place. It actually makes me uncomfortable, in that I’m starting to question what sort of person I’ve become.
Why am I so judgmental? Am I an uptight asshole?
Four different people are playing multiple roulette tables at once. They seem allergic to their chips and incapable of standing or sitting still, like shifty addicts propositioning a skeptical acquaintance. It’s the Tom Waits catalogue brought to life.
In other words, I’m utterly entertained.
Craps in the movies is lively and exciting. Here, during the day, it is mostly dull and ugly.
A tall man with meat cleaver hands and cauliflower ears is rolling the dice. He has the markings of an MMA fighter, but he’s too doughy and worn out to be a contender. Two rotund women hang over the table placing bets. I want to cheer for someone — the women, the cauliflower — but everyone looks so spent that it seems useless.
Cauliflower rolls a seven. The women barely react.
An elderly Chinese woman starts yelling at what I gather is her husband. He laughs maniacally and starts hollering at a man on another table, who also laughs like an evil leprechaun. I have no idea what they’re saying, but it feels like the bar scene from Star Wars.
Blackjack players are loose and social, except for one man in his 20s. He looks like a late-night TV poker player: laboured mannerisms, adolescent fashion sense (hoodie, baggy jeans, baseball cap, gold cross pendant and necklace) and feigned “respect” for the game.
He moves slowly, trying to make it seem like he’s learning something, but it feels hollow. He loses five hands in a row.
“Shitty luck,” another player says. He pretends not to hear.
There is a deaf man at one of the blackjack tables. He’s conversing with a woman in sign language.
The dealer is expressionless, like he sees this every day.
I once won $50 at this casino betting on video horse racing. This involved a model racetrack, complete with plastic horses, and a video screen. Adults yelled at figurines.
“Come on, four!”
“Pick it up, six, you bastard!”
Similarly, the people playing video roulette seem to be having a lot of fun.
I’ve decided to join the video roulette crew.
There’s a free machine between a bald man with a toothpick and an even balder woman in a blue jogging suit. I bet on Number 26 and two of its corners. The Number 26 comes up on the first spin. I’ve won $52 in less than a minute.
“It is the mark of an inexperienced man not to believe in luck,” Joseph Conrad once said. Suddenly, I feel very experienced. I cash out and slip in at a “real” roulette table, next to a man who only stops rubbing his face to bet.
When you bet on the same number, other players notice. I keep playing Number 26, and before long, three others are placing the same bet. Only one Asian man, whose whiskers make him look like Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, refuses to join in.
After the 10th spin, he says, “Twenty-six has already hit. It’s not happening again.”
There’s no reason to believe that, but I start wondering: should I try something else?
I move my bet to Number 6.
“Les jeux sont fait,” the dealer says.
The ball drops on Number 26.
Splinter is the epitome of the phrase “not a fuck given.” He picks up his chips and moves to another table.
I’ve just played a game called Money Storm and, watching $5 disappear at a rate of roughly a dollar a second, I’ve come to the following conclusion: slots are stupid.
I tried to buy gum at the casino gift shop.
“There’s no gum!” the shopkeeper shouted, like I was a lunatic. Coming from a man selling toasters and steam cookers in a casino, I found this reaction odd. A woman behind me, though, quickly jumped to his defense.
“Yeah, no gum here,” she said.
She was buying iPod speakers in a casino gift shop.
Leaving the building
This is not for me.
Nevertheless, it’s not so bad. It isn’t, as some say, a tax on stupidity. The people being taxed are not stupid. There is, however, a sense of self-destruction in the air. Poker player Nick the Greek once said, “The house doesn’t beat the player; it just gives him the opportunity to beat himself.” That’s true. I had not intended to gamble, but it pulled me in. I suppose that proves anti-casino critics right.
Still, you can argue that gambling is inherently human — that “man’s instinct to gamble is the only reason he is still not a monkey up in the trees,” as Mario Puzo wrote. I’m not so sure, though.
I think we’re just predisposed to delusion and hope. Like my father, who thought, “The fucking Bruins were due,” we all want to believe it’s our turn to hit the jackpot.
We want to believe we can.