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29 June 2023

America has a gambling problem

If you want to understand the rotten state of the nation, head to a casino.

By Kara Kennedy

I was driving through Miami when I saw a huge guitar in the sky. I wasn’t on drugs – I’m petrified of fentanyl and like I said, I was in the car. Anyway, the guitar was big and bright and about 20,000 feet high. It turned out to be attached to a Hard Rock hotel and it was a Sunday; what better day to lose my casino virginity?

I’m not a gambler, unless you count the lucky bet I had on the horses last year or the time I won a 250/1 bet I’d placed drunk and didn’t realise until I checked my account days later. I should have started smaller than Miami, maybe a high-street bookies, but I was already there so I went in with an open mind and some hope – a small but not insignificant hope – that I’d walk out a millionaire. 

Every single other person there knew how to navigate the casino’s rules. I’m not kidding when I say it took me over an hour just to sit down at a table without being reprimanded by some waistcoat-wearing bureaucrat for being in the wrong place. First of all I grabbed a mezcal margarita at the bar but was told I couldn’t smoke while drinking it there. I could however gamble away my life savings on the small screen built into the same bar. That was encouraged.

I could smoke two steps away from the bar on the carpet, but only a cigarette. The nicer smelling cigarillos the very same establishment sold me were to be smoked in some unknown elsewhere. When I sat at the blackjack table with a cigarette I was ushered away by the dealer. Cigars only. I sat on the next table, seventy-five bucks minimum, and was told that there was no smoking allowed at all. Did they have their eyes closed? The dilapidated man slumped over the table with $1,000 in front of him glared at me. Forty-five minutes into this game of cat and mouse and I was convinced that the staff were just messing with me.

After I’d grasped the intentionally ambiguous etiquette, or at least stopped getting shouted at, I sat at a table and looked around. The room was filled with flip flop wearing rain men. Haggard women lined the slot machines, a disproportionate amount of them on mobility scooters. Sleazy men with young women in miniskirts and platform heels fringed the walls, chain smoking as they eyed up any other girl in a mini-skirt that walked past. There were dogs – lots of them. Anything from a yappy chihuahua to an overheating husky. I like to think of myself as open-minded, but the woman sitting against the wall of the smoking area, legs spread, with a toddler attached to her breast was a step too far even for me. Did I mention that by now it was 1am?

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[See also: The death of the social butterfly]

I always thought that the enclosure at Royal Ascot was the greatest example of a moral void that I’d been in, where the rich and the poor come together to engage in unfiltered, unapologetic debauchery, but there was something worse about this casino. It wasn’t filled with people in big hats having fun while they lost money they could just about afford. Instead it was filled with the irrational and hopeful. These people weren’t smiling but concentrating. Like me, but much more than me, they truly believed they would walk out as millionaires. 

I sat next to an attractive man at the Texas hold ’em table and asked if he minded if I just watched. After a strange look and a few seconds he said it was fine, but if he started losing I’d have to leave. “Are you doing well?” I asked. “I always do well,”  he said, “in life.” If he wasn’t two thousand bucks up I wouldn’t have believed him. I have no idea if he walked out a millionaire because it turns out I can’t understand gambling no matter how much people try to explain it to me but he did really cool tricks with cards and chips that made me think he was good.

I decided to play blackjack because it seemed like the easiest one and there’s only so many times you can ask a croupier what the hell the rules are before you have to just pretend that you understand. The entire time he was explaining the game, my brain kept murmuring: “Is there such a thing as a gambling school?” Anyway, I ended up playing because the woman next to me shamed me into not just watching. It turns out other people in casinos really want you to gamble just as much as they do. 

After three or four rounds and some beginner’s luck I decided to call it a night when it was explained to me that I had made $60. I wasn’t a millionaire but I figured I was doing better than most of the irrational-but-hopefuls in the room. One man hadn’t moved an inch from the slot machine in the three and a half hours I was there – and I suspect far longer than that. As I started walking towards the exit I saw the mom breastfeeding her kid again and thought to myself that this whole thing should probably be illegal and vowed never to gamble again.

[See also: The politics of free time]

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