The first time I won $1,000 gambling, I was playing the Enchanted Unicorn game in a small gambling parlor attached to Benny’s, my favorite local bar. Enchanted Unicorn has images of princes, princesses, roses, acorns, mushrooms, pinecones, raspberries, full moons, and roaring lions that pair up with wild unicorns to pay off big. I hit a row of lions crossed by a column filled with an expanding unicorn; bells and whistles ensued.
I got pretty excited. Three years ago, gambling was still a new pastime for me. I’d spent most of fifty-odd years considering it a waste of money, time, and emotional energy, not to mention a vice and a sin. I always said I didn’t “understand” gambling because losing was a strong possibility. Of course, I’d never lived in a small town with more than a dozen legal gambling parlors before moving to West Virginia. By gambling parlors, I mean small establishments called “hot spots” that serve beer and snacks and are filled with homey elements like couches and grandfather clocks. People socialize in hot spots even when they’re not gambling.
I knew several people who worked as attendants at hot spots, a service job between bank teller and bartender, and it seemed to provide a living wage. I learned it was conventional for a gambler to tip 10% of winnings to the attendant, and that could be two or three hundred bucks on a good night. Some gamblers were downright stingy, however, which was one of my boyfriend’s complaints when he took a part-time job at a hot spot in late 2017.
My boyfriend worked the late shift at the Mall hot spot in a retail complex by the interstate. His shift started at four in the afternoon and could end as early as midnight or as late as three in the morning if there were still gamblers at the machines. I always took him food when he was working so we could eat dinner together. The vibe at the Mall hot spot was Victorian man cave with recliners facing a big screen and mirrored tiles veined with gold on the paneled wall behind the snack table. The main attractions were, of course, the seven video gambling machines lined up along the opposite wall. There were four Game Kings, and three “penny” machines: newer, taller, with flashier graphics, and popular games like “Smash the Pig.”
Hot spot gambling has its own language and etiquette. Every gambler has a favorite game and style. When I took my boyfriend dinner, I always gambled a little. At first, I was what they called a “nickle-and-dimer,” making minimum bets, usually fifty cents a spin. My goal was to make $20 last as long as I could and hope to get lucky. If I doubled my money, I cashed out my $40 and tried again. I held onto my stake money like it was gold. I wrote down my wins and losses in a little notebook I carried in my purse, convinced that accounting would help me break even. If I started losing too much money, I vowed I’d quit. My friends laughed at me. They said with my gaming style, I was never going to “lock it up.” In West Virginia, a gambler locks it up when they win $1,200 or more on one spin, at which point the machine freezes because the money is subject to taxes.
If you want to lock it up, you have to bet big, in spite of the apocryphal tale of the poor widow who won $10,000 with a dollar. Betting big is expensive. The maximum bet on most Game King spin games is forty credits, or $2. Ten spins when betting maximum can take less than a minute. Poof! If you don’t hit, $20 has disappeared.
The point is, I don’t always lose right away when gambling. The machines hit—win one, lose one—and when I really hit, the machine goes wild, lights flashing and bells ringing as the credits rack up. Sometimes it’s so spectacular, other people pay attention. When I win, I tip the attendant or bartender and buy a round of drinks for my friends. If I lose, the machine is going to hit for the gambler behind me, or the gambler behind them, or them. This is guaranteed by West Virginia state law, which mandates payout returns of at least 80%. The usual revenue from video lottery gambling is $500,000 a day for the state of West Virginia. Profits from video lottery gaming support social programs and back bonds for economic development endeavors. West Virginia cities and counties receive two percent of the State’s revenues located within their geographic boundaries. Whether I lose or not, the state of West Virginia wins.
When I started gambling, I was a nickel-and-dimer, but my gambling style has evolved over time. I’m more of a recycler now: a gambler who wins, cashes out, and puts some or all of the money back in. Sometimes I gamble for two or three hours. There’s something beautifully mindless about playing video gambling machines. It’s a reprieve from problems, dilemmas, and tasks, and could even be considered a form of self-care. There’s also always the possibility of winning. The behavioral theory of variable ratio reinforcement explains the pleasure gamblers like me anticipate when they receive changing rewards on a random schedule.
Gamblers take pictures of screens when they hit big. I’ve taken pictures of screens and shared them on Facebook. Gambling is a social activity, at least in West Virginia hot spots and bars. Since I started gambling, I’ve visited casinos in Vegas, Milwaukee, Tampa, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans, and they’re not the same experience. Casinos have acres of unfamiliar video gaming machines that make me feel lost. I’ve sat down at a strange machine and lost $20 in five spins because I didn’t understand how to bet. There’s no personal human contact in casinos. There are no attendants to tip because machines cash out winning tickets. On the other hand, casinos are great for people watching, and they sound like a John Cage recording of mechanical music, crescendo stops, rocket launches, bubbles popping, and thundering herds. The smell of casinos is vaguely sweet like a whiff of fabric softener.
One question people ask me about gambling is: how do I know when to stop? Personally, I limit my available cash, so I’m not tempted to go overboard. It’s like when I don’t buy a box of Little Debbie Swiss cake rolls because if they’re in the kitchen, I’ll eat them. People make jokes about degenerate gamblers, those who squander the rent, grocery, utility, or car payment money. Gambling can be as addictive as any other human activity and has caused the terrible loss of relationships, property, reputation, and even life.
On the one hand, gambling is a privilege for those who have money to lose, and the self-discipline not to lose too much. On the other hand, gambling is democratic; the machines don’t privilege a gambler based on identity or social markers. The poor widow with her dollar has the same chance of hitting on a single spin as the rich man who makes the same spin. When I gamble locally, I’m participating in an economy that provides me with community and stress relief, and that supports jobs, small businesses, and programs sponsored by the state of West Virginia. Sure, losing is never thrilling, but I win often enough to keep me coming back. I tell myself when I finally lock up a machine, I’ll quit gambling for good, but who knows? Dostoevsky thought gambling was the only passionate pastime that could also lead to true profit, and the profit for me is more than money. I suppose gambling might begin to bore me someday. Or I might be a gambler for life.