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Carlo Rotella

Night of the living slots players

One-armed bandits turn players in zombies, take joy from gambling

By Carlo Rotella
May 17, 2010

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I KNOW that the debate about bringing casino gambling and racetrack slots to Massachusetts raises serious questions about social cost and benefit. I’m not going to rehearse them all over again. Instead, I want to ask you a pertinent question: Have you ever been to an all-slots casino?

I have, and it has affected the way I think about legalized gambling. As a general rule, I’m inclined to favor letting consenting adults do what they want to do. But, because I cover boxing matches sometimes, I’ve had to visit a couple of casinos with licenses that allow only slot machines (which sometimes serves as a “starter’’ phase leading to a license that also allows table games), and now I’m not so sure.

Last time I crossed the gambling floor at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I., for instance, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the spectacle of a Funky Amish-themed band grimly cycling through its repertoire on a stage in the middle of a sea of slots uncomplainingly manned by semi-catatonic refugees from the partial wreck of the welfare state. If Earth were destroyed and a ragtag remnant of radiation-damaged humanity fled in a spaceship and crash-landed after hundreds of years on a far-distant planet, and as part of their effort to reconstruct civilization they tried to reassemble “leisure’’ from the paltry half-remembered material at their disposal, then Twin River on that Friday night is what they might come up with.

I go back and forth on the lesson of the all-slots casino. On the one hand, I think it’s a negative reminder that gambling is a form of culture that’s about more than losing or winning or lousy math skills. When you strip the pleasure from the routines of gambling, as an all-slots casino does, you’re left with little more than the deskilled, dehumanized extraction of money from individuals by corporations. You lose the pleasures of table games: the texture of green baize and the heft of chips, the stylized hand-dances of dealers and croupiers, the fellow patron at the poker table who explains that he’s going to make a mistake and see your raise because he would pay that much to watch rats make love.

Slots at racetracks similarly encourage patrons to ignore signature pleasures like the analytical rituals and poetic shorthand of the racing form (“bumped; no threat’’), the cavalry-charge rumble of the horses coming around the turn, and the willful unwise decision to visit the paddock to discover that the 25-1 horse looks like it could run through a brickwall — causing you to momentarily forget that almost every racehorse in creation looks like it could run through a brickwall.

For some gamblers, the cultural rewards of gambling may even begin to compensate for the inevitable financial losses. I think we underrate people’s ability to understand that they’re going to lose when they gamble. Consciously or not, they probably know they’re not going to win. But there’s some kind of satisfaction in the trying, in having their most trivial choices (the red or the black?) seem to matter a great deal, and perhaps even in ritually torching their hard-earned money in a simultaneous bid for a better life and protest against the life they have. Think of seemingly futile gambling as a really expensive variant of pinning cash to the statue of a saint as it’s carried through a neighborhood during a street festa.

An all-slots casino rejects all that, reducing gambling to little more than bad odds and time down the drain.

But, on the other hand, maybe we can only see this kind of gambling for what it truly is when we strip the cultural trappings from it. There’s an all-slots casino lurking under the surface of even the plushest full-service “destination’’ casino. No matter how you dress up casino gambling, underneath it’s like that scene in “The Matrix’’ when we see all the humans in pods being milked of their life force by nefarious machines, only in casinos the people hooked up to the machines are allowed to drink and smoke to pass the time while being used up. Maybe the cultural trappings are misdirection, like the pseudo-reality that keeps the enslaved humans quiescent in “The Matrix.’’

Or maybe all-slots casinos are just uniquely terrible places. As I said, I go back and forth. But if the future looks like an all-slots casino, even a fancied-up one, I hope it stays on the other side of the state line.

Carlo Rotella, a guest columnist, is director of American Studies at Boston College.

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