Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Here a slot, there a slot...

By Annette Dashofy

Several weeks ago, we took a vacation trip to Erie. I can’t tell you how many wide-eyed people asked, “Are you going to the new casino?”

My answer was NO.

Let me just say that I am neither for nor against legalized slots. I don’t have even the slightest interest in feeding my hard earned nickels, quarters, or dollars into some flashy machine.

Yet I can understand the intrigue of the world of casino gambling. My first suspense novel (the one locked away never to see the light of day again) was set in a fictional casino in Las Vegas, although I’ve never been there. I did my research at Mountaineer Racetrack and Gaming Resort in West Virginia where slots have been legal for years. Rows upon rows of mechanical bandits cast an eerie glow onto the faces of mostly elderly gamblers. The massive rooms have very little illumination except for that emitted by the slot machines. The folks pushing the buttons (you don’t even have to pull a lever anymore) appear to be hypnotized by the lights and the constant otherworldly musical tones that hum in the background. One thing I found especially curious was the way many of the gamblers feed the machines. You don’t necessarily have to pump coins into them. Instead, these folks had plastic cards attached to their clothes by a coiled plastic cord. The cards then fit into a slot in the machine. They virtually PLUGGED themselves into the mechanical beasts and let them bleed them dry electronically.

It’s definitely an interesting way to spend an afternoon. We spent one whole quarter. But my husband, ever the tightwad, refused to spend any more when the machine ate that one coin without spitting more out as a reward.

And now slots have crossed the state line into Pennsylvania. Have I been to any of the new casinos? No. Why should I? I hang out at the barns of Mountaineer racetrack all the time. If I were inclined to gamble, it would be easier to drive across the parking lot while I was there than to make a special trip to one of the new ones within my own state.

Apparently, no one thought to spend much time in West Virginia when planning the invasion of slots to Pennsylvania. Otherwise, they’d have learned a few things. For example, when legalized gambling came to West Virginia and the old Waterford Park evolved into Mountaineer, promises were made to improve the facilities and to increase the purses of the races. For a time, money did flow to the horsemen. But then it gradually dwindled. Recently I overheard a conversation on the backside (barn area) in which a trainer grumbled that behind the casino, it was still just Waterford. Barns crumble; the track surface leaves much to be desired. The money just doesn’t make it that far.

And lately the Pittsburgh news has been filled with North Side residents screaming because, not only is a casino planned for their neighborhood, but now a gentlemen’s club or two is in the works. Hey, folks, take a drive to West Virginia. The property across from Mountaineer is gradually becoming glutted with strip clubs. One thing just naturally follows the other.

If there is one thing that Pennsylvania seems to be doing right, it’s limiting the amount of slots licenses it’s handing out. At least so far. In Weirton, every neighborhood bar is now a “club” lit with neon and filled with slot machines. Even the local ice cream shop closed down to make way for more slots.

As a mystery writer, the world of gambling offers a myriad of possibilities. However, I’m really happy that for the moment, it hasn’t invaded my own backyard.

What do the rest of you think? Will slot machines eventually result in tax cuts? Or will the moral fiber of our fair state erode with their presence here? Have you been to one of the new casinos yet? Do you plan on going?

(As a footnote, not to be outdone, the folks of Hancock County, West Virginia approved table games for Mountaineer.)


Tory said...

Sometimes I wonder who is more engaged in wishful thinking: the individual gamblers, hoping to "strike it rich," or the public who is voting to bring in the casinos, hoping that Pittsburgh will, "strike it rich."

Annette said...

Exactly, Tory. And from what I've witnessed, the only ones making it rich are the casino owners.

Nancy said...

You're right about those owners, Annette. Why would a businessman go through all the hell of permits, meetings and investment if not to make gazillions back? They're certainly not motivated by doing good for neighborhoods.

Considering how the PA state lottery "benefits senior citizens," how come everyone over 65 doesn't have a chauffeur by now?

Gina said...

I think the big flaw in the pro-casino thnking is that everyone looks at Las Vegas and Atlantic City, seeing a vast influx of cash-bearing visitors, without realizing that, when everyone can gamble close to home, that money's going to be divided. It's like when one pizza shop moves into a community and does a booming business. Six more open up and they all end up in bankruptcy, because there really aren't that many people who want pizza.

Personally, I don't have anything against gambling. It's like drinking -- enjoyable to some, addictive and life-destroying for others. But having spent some time in Las Vegas (where I limited losses to $10/day), I realized that all those old folks dragging their oxygen tanks from slot machine to slot machine seemed to be having fun. And how many places are there where you can go to have a good time for a few rolls of nickels when you're old and sick?

Joyce said...

When we went to Harpers Ferry last year, we went to the casino in Charlestown. It was the most boring hour I've ever spent in my life. I can't imagine being in one for hours on end. And from what I could see, the people at the slots looked like the people who could least afford to be there.

I had a big issue with the casino that was proposed for Gettysburg-right next to East Cavalry Field, on land where J.E.B. Stuart's troops had camped. I'm glad that one was voted down.

PA residents will never see a dime of any of that money that's supposed to be for property tax relief. When the state proposed bringing in slots, ALL the money was to go for property tax relief. The state has made millions on the slots so far this year. Where is it? (Probably paying for the governor's meals--one estimate states his food budget tops two million per year.)

Annette said...

Joyce, I actually edited a little diatribe about the proposed property tax relief out of my post. Thanks for putting it back in for me by way of your comment.

Yes, I'm amazed at how many people seem surprised that we haven't seen that grand reduction in our taxes that was promised back when the powers that be were pushing for the legalization of slots. Ha!

And, I'm glad they failed in their attempt to put a casino near Gettysburg, too. Casinos and racetracks? Yeah, those go together. Casinos and historical battlefields? No way.

Annette said...

Gina, if blowing a roll of nickels is all they're doing, more power to them.

Anonymous said...

I'm most definitely not a gambler. I'm a struggling writer, remember? I don't part with what little money I have by chugging it all into a slot machine.

When we're on vacation, we do spend a day in Atlantic City, but it's not to gamble. My husband may play for a little while, but I cringe every time I see him stuff a dollar bill into the slot. My whole reason for going is that we eat lunch at a great sub shop and dinner at the cool Rainforest Cafe restaurant. Yes, I just go for the food.

I'm not a fan of casinos coming to Pittsburgh because I know that the city residents won't see a dime of the money it's supposed to bring in for tax relief. I think it's just going to bring nothing but problems.

Cathy said...

An interesting topic. I must admit, casinos don't do it for me. I'd be very curious to know where the slot money is going. Maybe we need a Sisters investigation. Thanks for the information, ladies.

Annette said...

Kristine, what do you mean, you're not a gambler??? You're putting your heart and soul and a large chunk of time into writing a novel and then gambling that an agent will like it and an editor will like it and the readers will like it. I think all of us writers are gamblers. It's just a different game we're playing.

Annette said...

I was just talking to someone (who wasn't aware that I had posted on this topic today) and she was pleased to tell me how much money she had won playing slots in West Virginia. But when I posed the question to her of how much money she'd spent to "win" that big, she admitted that she didn't know. From the expression on her face, I'm guessing the numbers didn't balance out in her favor.

By the way, this was someone who could NOT afford to lose money. She was trying to win money to make her mortgage payments.