Recently, work took me to Las Vegas, where I lodged at an off-strip hotel with a casino. I was there for a popular culture conference, and I found myself paying attention to the most popular activity in town. The casino, with its roulette wheels and blackjack tables, its keno screens, and its rows and rows of video slot machines, occupied a sprawling first floor. From the front lobby, you moved down to the Starbucks and then on to the gambling floor. Just beyond the final slot machines, the vast hall extended into restaurants and bars. Even gamblers require nourishment and a nightcap.
A casino is a timeless, windowless realm, crashing with cacophonies: bells, buzzers, electronic fanfares, and random human voices. It’s a world apart, a space outside of time. The gamblers in today’s Vegas aren’t the tuxedo-sporting spies and villains of a James Bond movie; they’re your aunt, your uncle, your grandmother, and your neighbor. This is especially true of the customers hooked on slots and video poker, who are older and often alone. Sitting on stools, they press the same buttons over and over. It doesn’t look like an amusement. You can study the rules on the slot machines to figure out which image combinations are winning, and how much each pays off, but the details are irrelevant and hard to care about. No playing skills are required. The only decision is how much money to feed the machine.
I observed a woman at a video slot machine that used the imagery of the new Wonder Woman movie. Starting with 40 dollars, she saw her stake drop to 24 and rise into the 50s. All the while, Wonder Woman stood there, hands on hips. When she hit a jackpot that raised her total to 78 dollars, I wanted to warn to stop while she was ahead. From there, the total began to sink again. Not being a sociologist, I didn’t have the heart to go on watching.
For the average gambler, play in the casino seems to follow a logic of compulsive optimism. You see this best at the craps table, where players will encourage one another to continue betting. Believing in streaks of good luck, they hope always to build on their winnings. At the slot machines, this means that a gambler will view his winnings as a plateau from which to reach higher, increasing his bets with the hope of truly striking it rich. As his total builds, his estimation of what it means to strike it rich also rises. The result is that winning only provides the means of extending one’s opportunity to win more—until the funds run dry. What they purchase is a stretch of time during which they can feel optimistic, with maybe rushes of excitement when it feels as though their dreams could come true, little tastes of eternity. Because only eternity would be enough.
If you combine legal and illegal gaming, American bettors lose over a quarter of a trillion dollars per year to gambling operations. Everyone has his or her reason for gambling, but viewed in aggregate, gambling is a continually expanding crisis. That’s the America we live in, where government encourages gambling instead of promoting the health of the communities that gambling tends to erode. Some gamblers are geniuses who find ways to win and to make a steady living at the tables. For the rest, gambling is the flailing hope of people who are actually hopeless and bored, maybe largely because they are striving alone. It’s part of the American nihilism that looks to unlikely heroes and lucky breaks instead of to the rewarding communal political work of building a better life together.
Music: "Money" by Pink Floyd