All Night Gamble
“Have a good evening, folks.” Joe stood, stretched and looked at his watch. It was 2:30 a.m. For the last hour-and-a-half, he’d been sitting at the high stakes blackjack table. “Thanks,” he said, tossing the dealer a $25 chip. “See you again real soon.” He smiled and sauntered over to the cashier’s window.
“That guy really knows how to play,” the dealer told the rest of the players once Joe was out of earshot. “He wins a certain amount, then leaves.” The dealer nodded. “And he almost never loses.”
Outside, Joe (not his real name) and I discuss gambling. An affable 26-year-old born and raised in Auburn, he now lives in the next town over from the casino. He usually plays blackjack twice a week at the Oxford, and wins, on average, about $600. On the rare occasion he gets a bad run of luck, he’ll go home after losing a couple hundred.
“There’s a basic mathematical strategy to blackjack. Tons of info on the ‘net about it,” he said. “Doesn’t mean you’ll always win. But a good player can do well.” He shook his head. “Smart players don’t lose big. Big losers don’t play smart.”
He’s been gambling since he was 16, starting on-line and playing with his pals. He also makes frequent trips to Foxwoods for real poker. So he was pumped when the casino opened in early June, practically in his veritable ‘hood. And he hasn’t been shy about teaching his friends how to play and win since the game came to town.
“It’s been awesome because there’s nothing to do around here. Plus, the casino has created tons of jobs.” He smiled widely. “And for western Maine, that’s big.”
As for the relatively easy money?
“I feel kinda bad. ‘Cuz lots of my family and friends have to work pretty friggin’ hard to make twelve hundred bucks.” He shrugged. “But gambling isn’t for everyone. You gotta have some discipline, or you’re always gonna lose. A couple weeks ago, I watched a guy dump five grand.” He shook his head. “I hoped he learned a lesson.”
I had walked through the Oxford’s doors earlier in the evening as a skeptic, mostly due to my distrust of the corporate nature of the industry. Plus, I’ve always been instinctively reluctant to consider games-of-chance as a part of economic development. But after spending a full night anonymously observing the gambling parlor, my tune changed. Casinos in Maine, with some sensible limits, have the potential to pay off big.
I arrived at the Oxford, about an hour to the northwest of Portland, on a warm Saturday night in early July at ten p.m. The meticulously-landscaped, giant parking area was more than half-full, mostly with vehicles sporting Maine plates, though there was a healthy smattering of visitors from away. Architecturally, the outside of the casino resembles a cross between Cabellas and a franchise steakhouse. The design is aesthetically-appropriate, considering the 24-hour-a-day gambling palace’s location on Route 26, a commercialized corridor already inhabited by Wal-Mart, Tractor Supply and the Oxford Plains Motor Speedway.
Inside, a couple hundred, mostly-smiling players surrounded the dozen tables that make up the “pit” in the center of a large room about the size of the local Hannaford. Gamblers of all shapes, genders and ethnicities were wagering on blackjack, roulette, craps and pokeresque-games. Walls and islands of video slot machines encircled the pit and gave the casino the bustle and buzz of a mall arcade merged with the ambiance of a well-lit, super-sized chain hotel bar. Cheers and laughter often rang out from the tables of card players, perfect strangers becoming quick comrades in the shared mission: beat the house.
Looking beyond the clientele, I saw jobs. Greeters, guards and state gaming commission employees. Dealers and slot attendants. Floor supervisors, pit bosses and money-luggers. Cashiers and cleaners. Cocktail waitresses, bartenders and bar-backs. And these are just the peeps working the front of the house. Counting the restaurant staff, maintenance crew and digital surveillance department, plus the office and management team, over 400 people currently work at the joint. The casino – now open for a little longer than a month – already has its first expansion completed and continues to hire more full-time employees.
Compared to all the so-called economic stimulus schemes touted by the corporatists in recent years, the casino seems to be generating real money spread among many hands. Even though I’m not a gambler, I’d bet that Mainers will benefit more from gaming jobs than all the gigs answering telephones at call centers. And I’d be willing to wager a million bucks that the energy speculation industrial complex won’t create nearly as many permanent positions as the Oxford eventually will. And the casino adds jobs without blasting the tops off mountains or blazing through sensitive ecosystems in order to install high voltage power lines.
Critics often complain that the house always wins. So what? Usually, in capitalism, profit is considered good business. (Except for the crony capitalists suckling on the teat of government subsidies and bailouts for banks too big to fail.) Provided the paychecks don’t bounce, a large chunk of the Maine-owned company’s income will return to the community via salaries, taxes and payouts. Can’t say the same for the money sent to Central Maine Power (owned by Iberdrola of Spain) or squandered on Poland Spring Water (owned by Nestle of Switzerland).
Besides, as far as I could tell, not a single person in the casino was being forced to gamble against their will.
By 11 p.m., the joint was jumping. I stationed myself near the high stakes table to watch the big money action. Two of the seven seats were taken by a pair of middle-aged Asian women who intensely slapped the table each time the dealer gave them a new card. Another pair of ladies in their early sixties, (western Mainers from the sound of their accents) sat together in the middle chairs. Two more seats were occupied by fellas. One, clean cut and 30, was blissfully aglow from drinking whiskey. The other dude, wearing a Harley baseball cap over a mane of scraggly gray hair, kept his lips pursed bitterly. Because he was losing.
It seemed like everyone else at the table was winning. Or at least, not losing as badly. But the dude with the Harley hat couldn’t catch a break. If he stayed on a 19, the dealer had 20. If he tapped his tattooed fingers to take a hit on 12, he’d get a ten and go bust. His scowl grew meaner and meaner. One of the pit bosses asked him – by name – how he was doing. The sourpuss grunted and shook his noggin back and forth in defeat.
But one of the local ladies (I’ll call her Peggy) was winning big. In less than a half hour, her pile of chips must have tripled. Obviously, she was playing a system and knew what she was doing, but the cards were treating her right, too. Three hands in a row Peggy was dealt blackjack on a hundred dollar bet. Each time, she grinned happily and tipped her dealer generously in gratitude.
Meanwhile, Harley-head kept losing until just a single $25 chip remained in front of him. Then a jovial black dude, wearing a New York Yankees ball cap, sat down at the table. Somebody made a joke about him wearing the wrong hat. Everyone but Harley laughed. Was his scowl permanent? Or just an extension of his losing streak?
The new player landed a blackjack on the first hand and Harley went bust again. Out of chips, he rose from the table and walked away, never looking back.
For the next half hour, Peggy kept on winning. Then she stood and stretched.
“Smoke break,” she said, smiling at the dealer. “I’ll be back.”
On the other side of the Oxford, the four fellas wearing Red Sox regalia acted like they were probably frat brothers twenty years earlier. Only two of ‘em – Dick and Baldie -- were serious card players. The other pair spent their time in the forest of slot machines, occasionally wandering back to the blackjack to see how their pals were doing. Baldie was all smiles, ‘cuz he was winning big. Two piles of hundred dollar chips added up to a cool grand. Plus, he had several stacks of smaller denominations readily available.
Dick, however, wasn’t doing so well. He hadn’t won a hand in awhile, it seemed. And after blasting through a fistful of hundreds, his pockets were empty. Except for his credit cards. I watched him shuffle his plastic, looking, I imagined, for the one that still had some funds available. A cocktail waitress approached him for a drink order. Last call was coming soon.
“Gimme another Bud and get the money from Baldie,” he said, pointing. “He owes me one.” He waved to his friend with his credit card and gestured to the cashiers’ booth. “I’ll be back.”
A couple minutes later, he returned and eagerly tried to hand the dealer some crisp bills. The dealer shook his head and pointed to the table. Dick was obviously new to gaming, ‘cuz everyone else knows that in a casino, people never hand each other money. So he laid a couple hundred bucks on the table. The dealer picked up the bills and stuffed them in a Lucite box, then counted out the appropriate chips just as Dick’s beer arrived.
“It’s on him,” he said, pointing at Baldie. “Thanks.”
And then Dick’s luck changed. He won a hand, then another. Then he lost. He took a long swig of beer, then bet $50 on the next hand. And he landed blackjack.
“Yeah!” he whooped, making back a tiny fraction of what he’d lost. “Right on!”
He won a couple more hands, then the rest of the posse arrived, ready to go home. No more beer because the bar was closed. And someone mentioned a phone call from the wife.
“Noooo,” Dick cried. “I was just starting to win.” For a second, it appeared he was gonna throw a temper tantrum like a toddler. But then he shook his head. “One more, okay?”
He didn’t wait for an answer and slid fifty bucks in chips forward as a bet. His cards arrived: a queen and jack. His face was beaming, until the dealer drew a five to tie his 20. Called a “push,” he got to keep his cash, but didn’t increase his winnings. Crestfallen, he looked over his shoulder to his pals, hoping for another game. But they shook their heads “no.” Time to go.
By three a.m., the crowd had thinned and the roulette wheel and craps table – both games requiring multitudes of players to keep interesting -- were closed. This time of the night – or morning, depending on your perspective – blackjack was the focus. Four of the seven tables were still active and busy. A shift-change had occurred and the new dealers were fresh and awake. The players – mostly Asian -- were just as alert. No one seemed drunk. Most were drinking coffee or Coke, taking the cards seriously now that the amateurs had gone home to bed.
Growing bored with watching Peggy continuing to win and other folks losing, I turned to one of the pit bosses who was also observing the game.
“I was wondering,” I asked, “why are the dealers always wiggling their wrists and tugging at their cuffs?”
“They’re showing the cameras,” the boss said, “they’ve got nothing up their sleeve. Another way of ensuring no one is stealing or cheating.” He nodded. “Dealers have lots of rules to obey. They’re not allowed, for example, to shake hands with the customers. Fist bumps, that’s okay. But shaking hands is an opportunity for something to be passed between two people. And that’s not cool.” He smiled. “When I was a dealer, even in social situations outside of work, I’d find myself avoiding handshakes. And whenever supermarket clerks gave me change, I’d always ask ‘em count out the bills onto the counter. ‘Cuz you never take cash in your hand.” He laughed. “It’s actually a good habit to have.”
“What do you say to casino critics?” I asked. “Like people who think that gambling causes all sorts of problems in the community…”
“Two words,” he said with smile. “The Crusades.” He laughed again. “I mean, organized religions have caused lots more trouble than gaming. But seriously, I want to tell them to look at this casino as economic opportunity. But they refuse to.” He shook his head. “Name any other industry in Maine where an 18-year-old boy or girl – even with just a GED – can get a good job, and, if they play their cards right and work hard for two or three years, they can end up getting promoted. Either as dealer or a supervisor or another good job making $20 an hour.” He nodded and laughed again. “I have a hard time understanding how people can’t see the benefits.”
“Do the employees like working here?” I asked. From all appearances, the staff acted like they were having a good time. “They seem happy.”
“Listen,” he said. “We’ve had people here who couldn’t handle the more stressful parts of the job. When the place is really busy and lots of demanding people are bitching at you, it can get pretty intense. So they quit and go out into the real world.” He pointed towards the door. “Then they realize that flipping burgers or bagging groceries or, worse yet, not finding another job, can be even more stressful. Plus, the pay for other jobs around here is pretty lousy. That’s the truth.”
By 5 a.m., it was almost time for me to leave. I still hadn’t placed a single bet. Blackjack wasn’t in the budget, especially since I didn’t understand the system. So I started to explore the video slots that had been driving me crazy all night with a steady cacophony of whistles, bells and chimes accompanied by pulsing lights and screens.
My mom and dad always loved the slots and had done pretty well over the years, but I never understood the appeal. Especially since the pit boss had mentioned that even though huge amounts of cash were wagered on the card games, the house earned about 60 percent of its take from the video slots.
I found myself standing in front of the most traditional game in the joint, featuring sevens and fruit. The robot gladly accepted my ten spot. I sat down and pulled the bandit’s one arm.
Throughout my evening at the casino, I kept thinking about the many years of Maine’s moralists preaching and complaining of the evil lurking within gaming halls. (While conveniently ignoring church-sponsored bingo and the state lottery with its odds stacked against players.) And yet, perched on my stool in front of the so-called devil, I realized that compared to the drunks and fisticuffs I’ve oft-witnessed at local sporting events and concerts, the gambling hall felt more like a modern mega-church than a den of iniquity.
The only danger of gambling in Maine is the onslaught of a “gold rush” mentality that always seems to plague desperate humans. When other communities see how the Oxford folks have created well-paying jobs and added to the local tax coffers, everyone is gonna want their own honky-tonk betting house. And that would be terrible, since too much competition will kill the industry, cheapen the experience and attract the lowlifes that are the bottom feeders of the gambling world.
My gut – and a map of Maine – tells me that the state can handle a total of four casinos. (Hollywood Slots in Bangor is already servicing Central Maine.) I think the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Washington County would do well to set up a gambling palace in Eastport to lure Canadian traffic to Moose Island. Aroostook County would be another appropriate place for a casino, perhaps run in conjunction with veterans groups to help employ returning GIs having trouble finding work. And as a way to avoid PTSD flashbacks -- while attracting noise-sensitive gamblers -- the vets’ casino could put the slots on mute.
Just when I came up with a potential name for the County’s casino -- the Potato Chips -- my machine started to flash and sing. Suddenly, my ten dollar investment had been transformed into two hundred bucks. Elated, I cashed-in and took the money, ready to run.
I stopped at the blackjack table where Peggy continued to sit and add to her pile of chips. For a moment, I considered playing a couple hands. But since the winning strategy was still a mystery, I ignored the temptation and walked out into the dawn.
The Crash Report appears Saturdays in the Portland Daily Sun.