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Reels are turning, but no one’s home

Sun., April 15, 2007

I have, against my will, accompanied various 80-year-old-plus companions to our local casino and seafood buffet emporiums. Each time, two thoughts have occurred to me.

The first: At any given moment, upward of 30 to 40 Inland Northwest residents might NOT be at a casino. It’s astonishing how many people are jammed into these places. You haven’t seen so many cars in a parking lot at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday since Wal-Mart launched a two-for-one Fruit of the Loom sale.

The second was: Man, there sure are a lot of mysterious, mystical forces at work when it comes to slot-machine gambling.

(Excuse me, they do not call it slot-machine gambling. The industry prefers “video lottery terminal gaming.” These are the machines where you hit a button and a bunch of, maybe, penguins or hula girls or Chinese-food cartons tumble across a screen, and then a bunch of musical noises emanate from the machine in a thrilling manner and then you look at where it says “Paid Out” and you see “0.”)

Here’s how one 84-year-old described some of the mysterious forces that animate these machines:

“You have to look for a machine that hasn’t just had a big payout,” she confided. “All the money’s gone out of that machine.”


I made the mistake of attempting to refute this idea with logic.

“Look, there’s no money in these machines at all,” I said. “It’s all electronic and tied to some random number generator.”

She just looked at me and said, “Well, the machine just paid a jackpot. It’s not going to turn around and pay another one.”

But that didn’t stop me from, stupidly, forging ahead with logic anyway.

“OK, look,” I said. “Even if the machine did just pay a jackpot, that doesn’t mean it won’t pay another one on the very next try. It’s all random. Straight mathematical odds.”

“I know it is,” she said, leading me to think I was making some headway. “That’s why no machine is ever going to pay two jackpots in a row. It’s against the odds.”

Ok, so I wasn’t making any headway.

“No, no, no,” I said. “Let’s say I flipped this coin and it came up heads four times in a row. That doesn’t mean it won’t come up heads on the fifth try. It makes no difference what has gone before. There’s still a fifty-fifty chance it’ll come up heads on the fifth try.”

“Well,” she said, waving me off and heading toward a unicorn-themed machine. “I don’t know about that. But if you’re smart, you’ll find yourself a fresh machine. That’s all.”

Clearly, logic is not welcome, not welcome at all, in the intellectual environment of the casino. But then I discovered that consistency is not exactly welcome either.

That’s because it has become clear to me that some of the other slot-players of my acquaintance subscribe to exactly the opposite philosophy. They prowl up and down the row, checking the “last paid out” display and avoid the ones where the last payout was a big fat zero.

“Why aren’t you playing those machines?” I asked one sweet little old lady. “Those machines are ‘fresh,’ aren’t they?”

“No,” she said. “Those machines are bad luck.”

“What do you mean?” I said, exasperated. “I thought you wanted to find a machine that hasn’t paid off in a while. Isn’t that a machine … that’s … due?”

“No,” she said, looking at me as if I were a bit slow. “That’s a machine that’s snakebit. Only a dummy would look for a machine like that.”

Over the course of several visits, I have heard a huge variety of related theories. I heard that it’s bad luck to play just one credit; bad luck to play an even number of credits; bad luck to play anything except the maximum number of credits; bad luck to play next to someone who is winning; and bad luck to play next to someone who is losing.

Which proves, more or less, my overriding thesis that it’s bad luck to play at all.

Still, hope springs eternal. Last week, even I got sucked into the allure of hitting a big jackpot. However, it soon became clear that all of my “logic” wasn’t making me any luckier. If anything, it was making me a big fat zero. My 84-year-old companion was winning more than I was.

So she and I decided to go in search of a “lucky” machine. We finally found one with what looked like a lucky theme. I crossed my fingers, knocked wood (or a facsimile) and punched the random number generator. We won $100.

This machine sported a familiar yellow-and-black logo. The title: “Winning for Dummies.”

I couldn’t have summed it up better.

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