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Playing with house money at the casino


These names and more whirled and blinked and flashed brightly at me as I stood transfixed at the entrance to Black Bear Casino, in Cloquet, Minn. A carnival of lights called to me. Several sources of music assailed me. I felt like they wanted me to jump on a carousel into fun and adventure.

And, of course, lots of money, which I would win as soon as I had spent just a little. I was hesitating because I had never gambled before. Oh, sure, we as kids had a penny poker game going year around with dad at the breakfast table, a technique he discovered was sure to get us up and out of bed.

But these machines. There were so many of them. And people. There were so many of them, too, sitting before these blinking, babbling thrones of promise, intent on what they were doing, still there at 7 a.m. the next morning when I left to attend the training I was there for. Still there. Been there all night. This was baffling behavior, too much to comprehend for a farm boy like me, as I stood there and wondered how to do this.

I had my free five bucks in my hand, which I had gotten from the front desk of the hotel. "You know you get five dollars for every night you spend here, don't you?" asked the woman behind the counter.

No. I didn't. I thought about telling them I'd been there seven nights already, and could I get my $35. Instead, she wrote me out a chit for the five, and instructed me to take it over to The Player's Club. I did. There, they wrote me out another chit, and instructed me to take that over to the cashier.

By the time I got to the cashier, I had walked completely around the place. Maybe they were trying to sort out those people who weren't in good enough shape to do this all night, but now I had the money, and I was standing there looking at all those machines.

"STRIKE IT RICH!" Yeah, that was for me. I walked over, looked it over. I couldn't even see where to put my money in.

"WHALES OF CASH! Here was a good looking game, one in which a whale evidently delivered my fortune to me, an odd concept, really, once you thought about it.

I looked around for a clock. I was supposed to meet some of the other attendees at this conference at a certain time, and couldn't see one clock. But once you think about it, if you're running a place like this, the last thing you want people to do is think about what time it is. Fun and time really have nothing in common.

I looked over to my left, and saw four silver-haired elderly ladies who looked like they had just come from a minister's meeting at a Methodist church. They were clustered around a game called Sea Monkeys, all pointing at something at once, and having a good deal of fun doing it.

The mystery of these hundreds and hundreds of machines in this huge room, with twirling lights flashing and spinning over them, was quite a sight. But all mystery aside, I couldn't figure out how to run one. Somehow, I had thought there'd be a place to put in, say, a quarter, and a lever to pull, and a basket to catch my millions. Computerization had bypassed me, somewhere up the line.

I walked over to a security guard and asked, "Does the management ever put on an introductory gambling session for new people?"

He looked at me. Oooops. Apparently I had asked a stupid question. "Noooooo, I don't think so," he replied. Oh.

Another young fellow came by pushing a cart filled with refreshments, and I cornered him.

"Do you work here," I asked him.

Uh huh, he did.

"Look, would you please tell me what your favorite game in here is?"

And he did. He led me quite a chase over and through all these machines to one called Ducks in a Row.

"This one pays out pretty good," he said. He kind of touched it tenderly. Respectfully. He sighed. True love.

Now the trick was, how to figure out how to run it without telling him I didn't know how to run it.

"These rows of lighted numbers are how much you bet," he said, "and these rows of lighted numbers underneath that row of lighted numbers is the multiplier, and you put your money in here." With that, he was off.

I fed in my fiver, the machine ate it, and blinked. The ducks lit up. I hit the 25 and the 2, which was a 50-cent bet. The ducks didn't line up. Then they did.

Bottom line, I was up to $7 once.

Then, my ducks not only didn't line up, they mostly disappeared.

Along with my five bucks.