YOU ARE the woman who pawned her pearls and broke the bank at Monte Carlo. Or you are the man who single-handedly bankrupted the Gestapo's deadliest agent at the baccarat tables at Cadiz. Or you are the possessor of any of the million fantasies that flicker every time anyone gets near a casino. You have dreamt of the number nine sailing on a sea of red, and you put the rent on it at the roulette wheel. You get feelings, hunches, impulses. You remember the time you ignored one, and it won, and you felt like you'd sold yourself out by not betting on it.
Ah, the withershins romance, the lure, the love of gambling.
Keep thinking that way.
If you're right, you're getting more and more chances to prove it. Gambling has grown to a $17.6 billion-a-year business in America. There are lotteries in 14 states. Not to mention horse racing, greyhounds, jai alai and off-track betting. Plus legalized casinos in Nevada and New Jersey, a host of illegal ones in Manhattan and future possibilities in New York and Massachusetts, according to the Public Gaming Research Institute, which has organized this convention of gambling executives in Atlantic City.
Big business getting bigger, sexier, Playboy's Atlantic City casino prepares for its big opening. Paul "Billion Dollar Sure Thing" Erdman is writing a novel about the place, to be tied in with a movie that is not to be confused with another movie, the current "Atlantic City," starring Burt Lancaster. Glamor comes to the South Bronx of seaside resorts. It's all good for business.
If the odds don't love you, gambling executives do. They love to see you coming -- the bigger the dreams the better. They'll give you all the chances you can afford to prove that you're right about your luck.
You call it gambling, but at this convention, which is a convention like most conventions, with the name tags and the cocktail party and the luncheon speakers, it's a business.
Big Eye can't get over the card counters. He talks about them as if they just blew their nose in Old Glory. He can't believe it. "See, the way it works in the casino always has the edge on the customer," he explains, while leading a tour of conventioneers along the catwalks over the one-way glass ceiling of the gambling area of the Golden Nugget. "What these people do, is they come in and do this card counting, and they get the edge on the casino."
Card counters are blackjack players with a mathematical system that ensures they'll win if they work long and hard enough at it, rather like a business. He can't get over this, the Big Eye can't. He spent a whole career with the FBI before he took this job as surveillance chief at the Golden Nugget. He looks very sleek and gray. But the very idea that people would come into a casino thinking they had a right to win money? Shocking.
That's why they have the catwalks with phones every 30 feet: so the Big Eye and his boys can watch all the gamblers to make sure they're not doing it as a business. They also keep an eye on the dealers, the bartenders, the stick men and the croupiers. They want to keep the risk out of gambling.
The Big Eye runs a security force that is bigger than the Atlantic City police department. So does the surveillance chief at each of the six casinos here.
He has the catwalks, he has a control room full of television screens, and his technicians operate remote-control television cameras. They especially watch out for card counters. They photograph them. They study them from the catwalks. Then they boot them away from the blackjack tables.
"Most people just play the slots, though," the Big Eye says. "They're afraid of the other game. They don't know how to play. So they play the slots. The slots are the worst bet in the house. They pay back 83 cents on the dollar. But they keep playing. It's pathetic, really."
It's also business.
Since Harold Spony, vice president of the First National Bank of New Jersey, "These casinos do a tremendous public relations job of convincing the public they lose money and had a good time."
Sweet sin! Nowhere is it sweeter than in the slot machines, the endless ranks of them coming at you like a horde of happy robots every time you walk into a casino, each one like R2D2 in his party clothes.
Slot machines seem so innocent. They're such Americana. Remember the one-armed bandit down at the old legion hall, and how your dad would let you drop a nickel in it, and even though you never won, the thrill of sin was more than your money's worth? Slots are to gambling what the old male calendars in gas stations were to pornography.
Slots are man against the machine, faith against science, hope against logic. Except when they're lined up against the wall at the back of one of the gambling convention rooms. Here, they're just machinery, technology, a state of the art that features all the latest electronic/video/computer shtick.
"QUICK, PLAY ME!" says the video screen on the Sircoma Multiplier. "I'M LOOSE AS A GOOSE! YOU LOOK LIKE A WINNER! QUICK, PLAY ME! I'M EASY! COLUMBUS TOOK A CHANCE! TYY IT, YOU'LL LIKE IT! I'M READY TO PAY!"
You pull the handle. Three reels spin in a television picture, the cherries, the bells, the bars, the whole shtick drawn in that curious heavy-outline style, like illustrations in a children's book.
A television picture? What happened to real reels grumbling around in there, real machinery that just maybe you had a knack for coaxing into a jackpot, the same way that you're the only one who can get your car started on a cold morning?
The televised reels clunk when they stop on the Siroma multiplier, but the only thing clunking is a coil whose only job is to go clunk. You notice that it's the same clunk that the handle makes when you pull it.
Down the row at the Bally display, where the reels are real, the salesman talks about them as if they're television. He is explaining how the bell rings for a jackpot: "We've made a video/sound interface."
"Ah," the customer says, pointing from one little piece of computer wiring to another inside the slot machine, "You matrix it from here to the audio."
While the gambling instinct remains unchanged, the technology for gratifying it leaps along. There is no romance of tradition in the inside of a slot machine.
For casino pros, the selling points on slots tend to be words like "microprocessor," and "on-line route operators." For the gambler, there are all kinds of gimmicks such as diagonal payoffs, musical chimes, money payout trays tuned to make the maximum racket on a win. But most of all, there is a handle feel.
Handle feel is to slot machines what door-slam is to automobiles. You want to feel solid, to be tangible proof that you're making a quality investment every four seconds.
Aristocrat slot machines, for instance, even have an adjustable pneumatic device so each machine can be precision-tuned for authenticity, the "Dyna-Torque" model, they call it.
All it does, though, is flip an electic switch, after you get through the pneumatic routine.
Down at the Gamex Industries booth, publicist Don Kaplan says "You see these women down there in the casino hitting the handle in a certain way. It doesn't matter."
What matters, says an executive from GDI, manufacturer of the X-slot Hi Boy and Progressive, is that the customer feel "anxiety, apprehension and release."
Much like the thrill of sin itself -- sin designed by a certified public accountant. That's gambling, as usual, and that's business, as usual.
There's nothing like an industry aborning, such as gambling in North America, to whip the inventors into a frenzy, get them building better mousetraps and beating a path to this convention at Atlantic City.
Such as John Gamble and his random-number generator.
"Lotteries in Ontario are goin' all hog, eh?" says Gamble, who at 25 was making a living as an accountant before he saw his father dumping bingo balls into a paper bag, shaking them up, and then pulling them out to pick numbers for Lottario, one of the lottery games popular with the Gray Lady to the North.
"It just came to me," he says, the glow of cosmic gratitude still on him. He holds out his random-number generator, which is a plastic case full of little steel balls, and columns of numbers. Six of the balls are painted black. Shake up the case, let the balls settle next to the numbers. The black balls tell you which numbers to pick when you play Lottario.
This invention costs 24 cents to manufacture. Gamble sells it for 49 cents. In January he sold 500,000, count 'em, 500,000 of these gadgets to the Ontario lottery officials.
"I was shocked. It was so simple," he says.
Now he wants to sell them to Las Vegas casinos, to make it easier for gamblers there to pick numbers for a game called keno.
Imagine it: being so lazy or insecure that you need a machine to pick numbers at random. Then again, it's better than wandering around with a paper bag full of bingo balls.
Walter Schaffer, who has a Michigan State PhD in business behind him, and an instant lottery machine in front of him, can talk the talk.
"We're selling a total turnkey system for overlay implementation, market segmentation, incremental sales gains and efficiencies of procurement," he tells people.
What he's talking about is a box that looks like a handleless slot machine, a no-armed bandit.
Or, as he calls it: "a vehicle."
It costs a quarter to play, which makes it more popular than the 50-cent or dollar games. Or, as Schaffer says, it's a vehicle "in the 25-cent environment, which provides 127 percent more player base."
It's not as hard as it sounds. You buy a lottery ticket, stick it in the machine, and it tells you if you won or lost. If you win, a siren goes off, like the little electronic scream when you shoot down the flying saucer in the Space Invaders arcade game.
The problem, he says, is that state lotteries, despite all their gimmicks, aren't making as much money as the states want them to. "We can posture this vehicle to allow more interaction to assure desirability," he says.
Leaving the casino, one of the conventioneers wants to buy $100 in Golden Nugget casino chips to take back home for a graphics display.
He wanders across the gambling floor, which looks like nothing so much as a factory, people humping away at their machines, watching wheels turn, sitting on stools playing blackjack hands the way they might assemble semi-conductors when they're earning money, not losing it.
The woman is in the cashier's cage says she can't sell chips, just cash them in. Another woman behind a fancy wooden desk recommends that the chips be bought at a blackjack table. The blackjack dealer calls for a pit boss.
"Listen," says the conventioneer. "These chips may never get cashed in. I don't even want to play with them. I just want to give you free money."
"It's not free, you're taking our chips," says the pit boss, who looks like a barracuda with a bad case of heartburn. He recommends a crap table. The crap tables are jammed. Finally, the conventioneer sits down at a blackjack table and figures he'll play a few hands with the chips he buys. He lays down a $100 bill, and asks for a variety of denominations.
Uh-huh," says the dealer, a woman who looks like she could give a barracuda heartburn. "How about if I give 'em to you the way I'm supposed to give 'em to you. Then you do whatever you feel like. Is that all right?"
No, says the conventioneer, picking up the chips. It's not all right. He walks away without playing.
Casinos don't like people who think they have a right to give away money to a casino any more than they like people who think they can take it away. After all, who knows better than gambling pros that there's no such thing as free money?