Friday, June 24, 2005

Alex and I spent today in Atlantic City, gambling mecca of the Eastern seaboard, font of Monopoly street names, scuzzy home to Vegas-style shows. I learned something very important today: old people get cranky when someone stands between them and their nickel slots. Like on the bus ride, they were raffling off free buffet passes and the guy who won couldn't figure out if he wanted to take them or not. And all of the senior citizens on the bus started heckling the poor, confused guy: "Hey, what's the matter, you idiot? Hurry up! We're dying here! We need to get in as much video poker as we can before the Grim Reaper takes us away!"

Okay, they didn't exactly say that, but they were pretty cranky.

Truth is that once we got past that little hurdle, I — a cynic who believes the world teems with indifferent automatons at best — was totally surprised at how friendly everybody in Atlantic City is. From the old woman sitting next to you at the slots to the cleaning crew to the well-heeled floormen, even the myriad security guards carding me never turned child-condescending, like the only reason I'm trolling the casino is to shoplift something. I lost a hundred and sixty dollars there, but everyone was really really nice while I was losing it.

So the bus company has this promotional gimmick with the casinos where they give you twenty bucks to dump into a slot machine, and after you do, you get entered in a drawing. Atlantic City is like ninety-five percent slot machine; the damn things are everywhere. It's not just that the Sands (Al Martino playing August 20) has the entire second floor devoted to them, as well as most of the main floor, all lit up and blinking, screaming for your attention like a crack-addicted Times Square. They're right there when you get off the escalator, they're in McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts. I half-expected there to be some slot machines in the men's room. Which is all very surprising because the slot machines are the most boring, tedious, depressing game in all of Atlantic City, and quite possibly in all of New Jersey.

I want to know who's the dork playing the "Lucky Larry Lobstermania" video slot machine. Larry the Lobster says play five credits! He's lucky!

I actually used to have a lot of fun with the slot machines down on Seaside Heights, where you'd dump real money into the machine for a chance to win fakey plastic tokens. If you won seventeen thousand or so, you could trade them in for a blender. I was less sophisticated in those days, and I liked it how you'd pull on the machine's lever and something would happen. But apparently this whole lever-pulling motion was a bit too complicated for some people to master, and they've replaced it with a giant spin reels button that even the most senile person can figure out. So you sit in front of the machine, it sucks up your twenty bucks into "credits," and you sit there pushing this button like it's special ed. The machines don't even pay out in coins anymore; you get this ridiculous paper printout with your winnings. I got one for $1.25.

It doesn't even come close to balancing out, but everything else in the casino was much less ostentatious. The poker room was this non-descript area on the fourth floor: a dark, smoky room with a big-screen TV, a labyrinth away from the rest of the casino, where I'm pretty sure all the mobsters hung out before the Sands became a publicly traded corporation. My poker table was like ESPN Central Casting sent over the most stereotypical folks they could find. We had the obese woman with her weight in good luck charms. We had the old man in a golf shirt, and the scuzzy old man who was apparently too busy playing the ponies last week to take a shower, and they were both plunking down hundred dollar bills. We had the young Chinese guy. And the old, incomprehensible Chinese guy. And me, totally freaking bewildered by how fast the game was going and totally peer pressured into not thinking before I raised and folding when I should've called. I only lost eleven dollars playing Hold 'Em (Omaha, which no one wants to play anymore, is actually my game of choice), although I'm sure it might've gone a bit better had I not told the entire table that I'd never played against live opponents before.

The casino also makes low-limit blackjack as hard to find as possible, tucking it out-of-the-way in the poker room. Here's some casino etiquitte advice from me to you: always tip your dealer, because they have very low self-esteem. Like our dealer, Bo. He showed us the burn card and it was an ace, so then he dealt the entire shoe apologizing. I spent the bus ride down to AC with the blackjack basic strategy chart and I had a good deal of it committed to memory, but as soon as those cards got dealt everything just flew out of my brain. Eight-eight, should I split? Jack-ace, is that a good hand? As it turned out, even though everybody at the blackjack table is just in it for themselves, there's this real team mentality that the game fosters. Other people were happy for me — I don't know why — when I lucked out and got a blackjack (and it happened way more often than the one out of every fifteen hands that it should have), and I was happy for my fellow players — I don't know why — when they got a blackjack, and we were all happy when the dealer busted. I spent $100 on chips for blackjack and left the table with $88.

So I would've left the casino with some money, except I wanted to play craps, which is advertised as one of the best bets in the casino, and the cheapest craps game we could find had a $15 minimum bet. I guess this wasn't a concern to the old people sitting around the table, without hesitation placing these $500 obscure bets and even confusing the hell out of the dealers. The trick to winning big in craps is to place "odds" bets: bets above and beyond your initial bet that pay off with even odds (i.e. over a long enough time, you'll break even). At the cheap table, you could place odds bets that were up to five times your initial bet, which is why it only took me about ten minutes to lost all my money at craps.

The remaining forty-five mintues before the bus left I spent choking on cigarette smoke, some of which is still in my lungs, and rummaging through my pockets for any more nickels I could put into the slot machines. Sadly, no more change.