BETTING ON SUNDAY: The group left church and headed straight for the Chumash Casino. I don’t know if they thought a Hail Mary would help with the slots, but they certainly hoped Lady Luck would be riding with them over San Marcos Pass.
I’ve never darkened the door of the Chumash citadel of chance, but Sunday I decided to tag along to see what goes on there. The people I went with were veterans of the casino and seemed to know every binging, singing, flashing slot by name and reputation.
“Everyone has their favorite machines, ones they consider ‘good,’ and the best times of day or night to play,” said Player A as we arrived in the early afternoon and turned the car over to a valet. (Yep, a casino with valet parking.)
Player A moved fast through the smoky main room lined with seemingly hundreds of slots and jammed with a wide assortment of gamblers, a few in wheelchairs and on oxygen. (Oops, to him this is not gambling. It is “gaming.”) He headed for the smaller, nonsmoking room, settled into a corner seat at a Triple Diamond slot, and fed in two $20 bills.
“He doesn’t care about winning,” someone in the group told me. “He just likes to play.”
“It’s an addiction,” Player A said. “It really is. For an hour or so, you’re in your own little world, away from the outside world. And you have a chance.” A chance, he didn’t have to add, for an exciting jackpot.
“It’s La-La Land. For a short time, you can watch your cares, and your money, go away. It’s also fun to see somebody win.” But, he added, “You have to learn when to quit.”
Player B stayed in the main room and began working her favorite All That Glitters slot. It seemed to involve gemstones dropping down as she punched the buttons. Player C meandered between Player A and B, finally sliding a cautious $20 into a Triple Diamond. These are dollar machines and simple to play. You deposit your money, decide whether to wager one buck at a time or two, and start pressing the buttons and watching the symbols spin around. Her $20 vanished in 20 pushes.
“Oooh!” yelled Player A. He’d just missed a big score. The slots seem to have a mind of their own, tantalizing players with one near miss after another.
Player B, meanwhile, announced that she was moving on to another of her favorites, the Golden Monkey. I followed her through the maze of slots to the monkey machine. “I got one monkey!” she soon called out and tried to explain how the game worked. I could have had a PhD in math and not understood.
Back in the nonsmoking room, Player A had quickly gone through the $40 and slid in a $100 bill. Money, I learned, goes fast when you’re punching buttons bing, bang, boom. But he was smiling, enjoying himself immensely.
“He has the gambling gene; we don’t,” my wife Sue observed. But I did have a $20 bill in my wallet that seemed to lust for the experience of trying to earn a $1,000 jackpot. It wanted to live a little, have a fling before I could blow it on great-granddaughter Brianna’s diapers.
After all, Player A, right next to me, was soon up $100. Player B was doing okay with the monkey machine and Sue went out to watch, leaving me with that hot twenty. Am I going to go to my grave without ever once risking a double sawbuck?
My parents, who’d struggled through the Depression by pinching pennies, told horror stories about people who lost everything on the nags at the racetrack. They weren’t religious fanatics, but made it clear that gambling was foolish, if not evil, right up there with voting Democratic.
We’d decided to only stay for an hour, and as 60 minutes rattled by and Sue was still in the main room, I made a bold, throw-caution-to-the-wind move. I slid that twenty in and started gambling, I mean gaming. If my parents were still alive, I hope they would have been amused. In about five minutes of spinning, honking, and flashing lights, my twenty bucks were gone. As a group, we’d probably lost around $200, but I can’t be sure because Player B was still there when we left. Maybe the monkeys paid off big-time.
I realized that that the casino was not only reaching out to tourists passing through, but luring regulars. There’s a car giveaway every Sunday and all kinds of gambling specials, like Moneyball Mania. There’s a Fiesta Mexicana feast on Mondays, Lobster Lovers seafood buffet on Wednesdays, and the much-talked-about Chocolate Indulgence buffet on Thursdays.
“Barney,” Sue said as we drove off, “don’t forget to buy Brianna’s diapers.”
“Right. Can I borrow $20?”