Saturday, August 12, 2006

Bright Lights, Small City

Following that link to the RGJ story about the fire, I encountered an extremely annoying casino ad, which reminded me that I should probably say something about casinos, since everyone from Somewhere Else who knows that I live here always gets around to asking.

Q: Do you spend a lot of time at the casinos?

A: No.

For me and Gary, and most of our friends, casinos are the equivalent of the Empire State Building in New York: the tourist attraction you only visit when you have out-of-town guests. When we first moved here, we were startled by the slot machines everywhere (the airport, gas stations, supermarkets), but at this point, we don't even notice them. We've attended concerts at some of the casinos, but that's it.

I don't consider gambling inherently evil. Britt Olson, the former rector of the St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Sparks, once commented that churches claim to welcome everyone, but that casinos are the only places she can think of that actually do. (I'd add public libraries to that list.) International Gaming Technology, the huge slot-machine company headquartered here, is an extremely good corporate citizen. IGT employs a number of my friends -- including one of my parish priests -- and they sponsor everything: arts events, charity events, community-service programs, you name it. They pull in a lot of money, and they're very generous with it. And while I wouldn't choose to work in a casino myself, many of my students over the years have supported themselves by working as dealers or cocktail servers.

I don't happen to enjoy gambling. It just doesn't appeal to me, partly because casino decor is always so deliberately tacky. The carpets and ceiling are invariably hideous: they want you to focus your eyes on machine- and table-level, so they make everything else ugly. There are very few windows and no clocks, because people tend to gamble longer if they aren't aware of the passage of time. And casinos are designed to be mazes leading you inexorably back to the gaming floor: just trying to find your way out of those places can be an epic adventure. Also, they're filled with smoke and flashing lights and noisy slot machines, which means that I inevitably get a migraine within ten minutes of walking in. Casinos make me sick, literally, but it's nothing personal.

I do have to admit that whenever I see people shoving quarters into a slot machine, I want to say, "If you really don't want your money, why don't you give it to me?" But most people are able to gamble responsibly, just as most people are able to drink responsibly. The key to responsible gambling is knowing when to walk away. Accept that the house always wins in the long run, decide how much you're willing to lose, and when you've lost that much, leave. For people who find blackjack or the slots entertaining, spending $20 or $40 bucks in the casinos is no more harmful than spending the same amount on a movie and dinner; they've had a good time and stayed within their budget, so it's not a problem. When my sister visits, she likes to go to the casinos and play two dollars at the slots, and since it's very easy to lose two dollars within my ten-minute migraine window, I don't mind going with her.

Casinos do pose some health risks, however. Here are a few things I've learned from volunteering in an emergency department:

* Eat at the coffee shops or other regular-service restaurants, not at the buffets. The restaurants are fine, although service tends to be slow. The buffets are risky. Yes, all casinos advertise their wonderful buffets. If you define wonderful as "all-you-can-eat mountains of really mediocre food that's been sitting in a warming dish for God knows how long," have at it. But in that case, please be prepared to spend entirely too much of your vacation in the bathroom, and another chunk of time in the ER, where the staff will hook you up to IVs to rehydrate you after you've lost a large percentage of your body fluid to unpleasant intestinal upsets. Between the desert climate and the altitude, dehydration's a constant danger here anyway; Nevada's the driest state in the country. You didn't come here to gamble on your health, did you? Stay in the coffee shop.

* Make sure that you do get to the coffee shop, or at least that you keep a supply of power bars on your person. If you become so entranced by the slot machines that you forget to eat -- and this is especially true if you're elderly -- you will collapse, and the casino will have to call an ambulance, and your distraught spouse will accompany you to the ER, where everybody will be really worried about whether you're having a heart attack, until the emergency physician ascertains that you haven't had a meal in twenty-four hours. At that point your nurse will order a hospital meal tray for you, and you'll gobble it down and feel much, much better, except that you'll be really embarrassed. Hospital meal trays are extremely expensive and far from gourmet fare (although they're better than casino buffets). If you want to spend a lot of money on food outside the casino, I'd be glad to recommend a few excellent Reno restaurants. Finding a good restaurant that's neither in a strip mall nor in a casino is a bit of a challenge, but anybody who lives here will be happy to share the Secret Knowledge.

* If you have asthma, hanging out in a smoke-filled casino isn't a good idea. Really. Trust me on this one.

So there you have it: Susan's Pocket Casino Guide. I like casinos best from the outside, at night; I think all that neon's pretty, especially from a distance. Many people disagree with this. But we all agree that there are a lot of other things to do here. Reno offers easy access to excellent mountains (where you can hike, bike, or ski), stunning lakes (Tahoe and Pyramid), and a lovely river, the Truckee, that runs right through downtown. You can sit and drink coffee and watch kayakers and kids and dogs frolicking in the river, or you can frolick in the river yourself. For my money, that beats slot machines any day.


  1. Gambling - I'm ambivalent about it. Working on the principle of gambling only what I can afford to lose, a couple of pounds on the Lottery is my limit. The last time I made (and won) a bet was when Doug Williams won the Super Bowl.

    On the other hand, my brother supplements his income by astute betting on horses and football (that's what you call 'soccer') Mind you, he has been studying both for forty years, so he knows a bit about both.

    It all depends what gives you the chills and what gives you a thrill. The chill of losing the rent money far outweighs, for me, the thrill of winning not enough to make any meaningful difference to my life.

    So I will check my pink ticket and have the occasional glass of wine, and be grateful that neither are that significant for me.

  2. Hey, Martyn! Yep, I'm pretty risk-averse too, especially when it comes to money. And my post wasn't, obviously, meant to apply to professional poker players or anyone of that ilk. I admire folks who are astute enough, and have sufficiently steady nerves, to make good money on this stuff: I'm just not one of them!


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