ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- I have just won 800 of Donald Trump's dollars. I should be singing the praises of Lady Luck, who gave me blackjack four times in a row. Instead, I am walking through the Trump Plaza's parking garage at 1 a.m., searching for my car and wheeling my eyes warily from side to side, like a tailgunner. Someone may have seen me win. Someone may be about to roll me.
Ten minutes later, unrolled, I am cruise-controlling down the Atlantic City Expressway and listening to Larry King on the radio. He is having a lot of fun interviewing George Burns. I have just won more money in an hour than most Americans make in a week -- and it wasn't fun at all.
Atlantic City these days almost never is. A sense of gloomy routine hangs over the gaudy casinos. The buses full of old pensioners come and go. The cocktail waitresses do the same. But the light-up-the-night sparkle of Las Vegas and the crisply tuxedoed elegance of Puerto Rico just aren't here. Gambling in Atlantic City is a little like renting a sex movie at the video store. You hope you don't run into anyone you know.
I am not an Atlantic City regular. I have been there seven times since the first legal casino opened in 1978. I have never stayed for more than 36 hours. The most I have ever bet on a single blackjack hand or roll of the roulette wheel is $100. I have never won or lost as much as $1,000 in a single visit. Publishers are not knocking down my door for a book on how to beat Atlantic City in 10 easy lessons.
But I am employed, married and comfortably paid. I put on a clean shirt every day. I own a car that works. I have an appetite for card games. I live three hours and five minutes from the green felt and the chips. I am exactly the sort of customer Atlantic City needs to attract if it wants to thrive.
And I am not attracted.
That is not a vow never to return to what the brochures call "The Queen of the Coast." The next time I am driving to New York by myself, and have six hours to kill, it's quite possible that I'll take the U.S. 40 East turnoff just after the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
But I won't do it with any bounce in my heart or extra enthusiasm in my accelerator foot. Winning money is nice, but Atlantic City has not made it as nice as it could be -- or should be.
This comes from a guy who has visited casinos in steamy San Juan, sophisticated London, exotic Nairobi and saucy Las Vegas. A guy who dazzled his friends at age 14 by teaching them chemin de fer around his living-room table. A guy who likes casino gambling so much that he took on some heavy Freudian baggage: He taught blackjack to his mother.
I wouldn't say that the need to bet sings in my veins. But whenever I sit down at a blackjack table, I know enough to count aces and I know that you don't split sevens when the dealer shows a nine. I am no babe in any woods.
I'd like to like Atlantic City. I'd like to feel comfortable as I march onto the floor and start reaching for my wallet. I'd like to feel what I have felt in other casinos -- that even if I lose, I will have been entertained.
In Atlantic City, I don't feel that way. I feel hurried not welcomed, tolerated not embraced.
Story from several years ago: I have just driven up from Washington in a snowstorm, so I am not in a high-rolling mood. I decide to spend the first 15 minutes of my stay playing blackjack for the minimum of $5 per hand.
I can't lose.
I win 17 hands in a row.
It's the kind of streak that gamblers dream about. Even at the modest rates for which I'm playing, I'm soon ahead about $250.
I figure I should do two things: Stay a while, and start betting more. So I call over the pit boss and tell him that I'd like to be rated.
This is gamblerese for, "I'd like you to take note of how much I'm betting, because when I'm through, I'd like you to give me the free meal and/or free show tickets to which I expect to be entitled." The pit boss discreetly nods, and discreetly makes some notes on a piece of paper.
Over the next three hours and 15 minutes, I go up some and down some, and end up about where I was after the 17-hands-in-a-row. It's time for a break. So I call over the pit boss and ask him for a voucher so I can get a free dinner.
He informs he that I have to have bet $25 a hand for at least 3 1/2 hours before I can get a free dinner.
"You mean betting $25 a hand for three hours and 15 minutes isn't close enough?" I ask. "I mean that it isn't close enough," he says.
So I am forced to pound it out for another 15 minutes. During which time I get pounded out. I lose everything I had won.
Sure, a rule is a rule. But you refuse to bend a rule in a factory, not in a pleasure palace. The pit boss could have left a good taste in my mouth (pun intended). Instead, he came on like a drill sergeant.
Atlantic City has shown steady growth in gross gambling income (it raked in more than $2.28 billion in 1986). It has shown a steady increase in gambler-visitors (more than 25 million in 1987). But those numbers should be twice as large, given that Atlantic City is within an eight-hour drive of 35 million people. The numbers aren't larger because Atlantic City is suffering from a marketing failure, in three parts:
Lack of gloss: That's an unusual charge to level against an industry known for bright lights, snappy shows and slot machines that imitate ambulances every time someone hits a jackpot. But Atlantic City is so busy worrying about profit margins that it has forgotten how to shine.
Part of the problem is the way gambling in Atlantic City evolved. Essentially, 11 casinos were plopped down in a dying town. But the corpses of crumbling apartment houses and long-closed businesses still have not been removed a decade after they took their last breaths.
The result is the oddest juxtaposition of buildings you will ever see -- spanking casino-hotels worth hundreds of millions of dollars directly across the street from grungy flophouses.
Just east of the Trump Plaza, for example, there is a seedy luncheonette. The most expensive thing in the place is $3.50. The packets of M & Ms beside the cash register have dust on them. Thirty feet away, through a picture window, you can see women walking along a hotel corridor in furs.
The non-casino local business establishment seems less than delighted with the influx of gamblers. Cynicism is obvious, weariness common.
An instant cash machine at a bank near the Sands has a sign across the top that reads: IF THE MACHINE WON'T GIVE YOU CASH, YOU ARE BROKE. IT IS NOT. An Italian restaurant three blocks from the Atlantis Hotel Casino has a sign on the cash register that says: YOU WANT TO CASH A CHECK? YOU MUST BE A COMEDIAN.
When I made an illegal U-turn in the middle of Atlantic Avenue, imperiling absolutely no one because there was no one within half a block of me, a cop stopped me and gave me a $60 ticket. Looking for invidious comparisons, I called the Las Vegas police. A secretary in the chief's office said she couldn't even remember the last time a tourist there had been stopped for something so Mickey Mouse. If one ever was? "Ten buck fine," she said.
Staff burnout: Last year, I sat down to play blackjack at the Golden Nugget, on a weekday afternoon, with very few customers around. A good day for schmoozing with the dealer.
"Hi, how ya doing?" I said to him, as he shuffled up the cards.
He simply nodded and looked away, toward the next pit.
"Kinda slow today, isn't it?" I said, as I reached for my addiction, a stick of sugarless gum.
"Hey, do me a favor and don't talk to me," the dealer said.
Later the same day, I was playing blackjack at the Tropicana. About 100 feet from my table was a bar. A singer was offering up Hits of Years Gone By.
In Atlantic City, that is usually a very good reason to get up and move. But for some reason, this singer was superb. He could handle the pulsations of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." He could reach the high notes in "Summertime." Mercifully, he did not try to sing the number that bar crooners always mangle, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." All in all, he was a pleasant surprise.
I called the pit boss over and asked what the singer's name was.
"Couldn't tell you," he said.
"Could you find out for me?"
"Hey, these guys, they come and they go," the pit boss said. In other words, the question -- and the questioner -- weren't worth the trouble.
All right, maybe these two casino employees were just having a bad day. But making small talk with the customer is the first skill that every salesman learns. And whether they like it or not, the dealers and pit bosses are Atlantic City's salesmen.
True, the urge to gamble might bring people to Atlantic City if automatons were handing out the cards. True, the odds on "splitting eights" don't change according to how well a staffer treats you. But if we are talking about repeat business -- and Atlantic City would die tomorrow without repeat business -- employees must realize that they are actors in a show, not drones in a packing plant.
They must also realize that their bad vibrations rub off on the customers. The last three times I have gone to Atlantic City, someone has gotten into a hassle with a dealer and has started shouting at him. Security guards have been called. Hundreds of bettors have wheeled around to watch (and they've stopped betting while they did so). It wouldn't mean much in a court of law, but here it is: In 27 years of casino gambling, I have never heard a bettor's voice raised in anger anywhere except Atlantic City.
The tension once ruffled even normally unrufflable me.
One of the Unavoidables in casino gambling is dopey fellow gamblers. One of the Recurring Unavoidables is the dopey gambler (often female) who simply can't shut up.
If she wants another card at blackjack, she doesn't tap the table once, silently, with the tip of her index finger, as the house likes you to do. She makes a big deal out of it. She'll say: "Mmmmmmm, welllllll, give me a seven." When the dealer gives her a king and "breaks" her, she'll say, "Oh, you treat me as well as my husband does." Or occasionally worse.
On one Atlantic City visit, I found myself next to a woman who announced to the entire table that she had never played blackjack before. I came close to telling her that was obvious from the way she had played the first six hands, but I restrained myself.
On the seventh hand, I bet $50. I drew a pair of fours. The dealer showed a six. I doubled my bet and split the pair of fours into two separate hands. When I drew a seven to each hand, I had 11 twice -- a magic hand in blackjack. So I doubled both bets again. When I drew 21 twice, and the dealer "broke," I had won $200.
As I was raking in the chips, my neighbor said, "Oooooh, I never would have had the nerve. How did you have the nerve?"
"Because I know when to shut up and concentrate," I snarled. I have never come close to snarling in a casino anywhere else. Greed: Early on, Atlantic City casinos were content to zing the betting masses for whatever they had in their pockets. But in the early 1980s, the casinos won permission from the state Casino Control Commission to install instant-cash machines right on the betting-room floor.
The machines are seductively easy to use. All you need is a major credit card. You run its magnetic strip through an electronic scanner. It tells you to wait a second. Then, once you pass electronic muster, it asks you how much of a cash advance you want. On most machines, you can order up as much as $2,000. And the service charge is only about 6 percent.
The machine gives you a voucher. You walk over to the casino cashier and turn the voucher into $100 bills. Just like that, you are back at the tables, fighting to recoup what you have already lost -- but probably losing even more.
Yes, Las Vegas has these machines, too. But according to a tourism official there, the machines are used about one-fifth as often as they are in Atlantic City. The reason? "People come here on vacation, to relax," he said. "People go to Atlantic City the way the Marines went into Grenada. To make a quick score and get out of town."
Why does Atlantic City tempt its customers with instant-cash machines? "Hey, people want to gamble," said a pit boss named Archie at the Trump Castle. "And if people want to gamble, that's why we're here."
That's true enough, as far as it goes. But to walk outside any Atlantic City casino is to recognize The Tapouts -- people who have lost not only what they came with, but another couple of thou that they obtained through the instant-cash machine.
I passed a man on my last visit who was standing on a streetcorner and mumbling to himself, "I should have quit while I was ahead."
Just as I was remarking to myself that gamblers' laments never change, this guy proved me wrong. "And I should have quit before I ran my wife's Visa card up to the limit," he said, to his shoes.
How can the Atlantic City gambling industry improve? It can rotate employees so they don't get stale. It can diversify so it offers attractions for the entire family, not just for cigar-chomping craps players trying to hit a hard-way eight. It can use its political muscle on local officials to build a new convention center, and to knock down buildings that are falling down.
Atlantic City '88 is trying to grind its customers into submission. It needs to realize that even the most hardened gambler can use a smile.
Bob Levey is a Washington Post columnist.