"Free To Bet Now!" David D. (Spring 2014)

At 7:30 on a Friday night, Dusty and I joined the stream of cars exiting Highway 101 for the casino, following the official road signs that no half-sober motorist could possibly miss. Between the two of us, we were exactly half sober, Dusty having downed a couple of beers on the way, in preparation for her first casino experience. As the new Graton Resort and Casino came into view on our left, she gestured out the passenger side window to a smattering of free-range cattle: “The cows are like, ‘What the hell are all you people doing here?’” It occurred to me that we humans were the ones being herded at that moment, and that if had to justify our presence to a bunch of cows, I would tell them this is like a gigantic feeding trough for people. I would not divulge that most of us actually leave here hungrier than when we show up. I wouldn’t want to give cows the idea that they are smarter than we are.

The $800 million Graton Casino opened in November, just five months prior to our visit, and instantly became a hugely popular tourist attraction, and a major source of tax revenue for the adjacent city of Rohnert Park. By mid-morning on its first day of business, traffic on 101 came to a standstill as crowds overwhelmed the place (Berton). Days later, this initial surge of enthusiasm relaxed into a consistent and profitable stream of both locals and out-of-town visitors to the destination billed as a “full-amenity gaming resort” (Graton Resort and Casino).

Driving up the road, the casino’s four-story parking garage was its most salient feature, rising up in beige, right-angled glory from the green pastures on which it was built.

Pulling into the shopping mall-scale parking lot, our attention was inexorably drawn to the building labeled “CASINO” in prominent capital letters. Finding this place could not have been easier. We parked in the first available space, and Dusty trotted ahead of me, ready for fun, toward the elegantly curved roof and rugged stonework of the entrance. I trailed behind, reviewing the notes I had made that afternoon on the “basic strategy” of blackjack, my best hope for walking away with a few extra dollars that night. This playing method, based purely on statistics, was revealed in 1957 by a quartet of U.S. Army mathematicians in their self-published book, Playing Blackjack to Win (Baldwin, et al). Their system still offers the diligent gambler the best possible odds of any casino game, leaving the house with a less-than-1% edge (Blackwood 14). I had practiced for a few hours that afternoon, drilling enough of the strategy into my head to give me just a trace of confidence.

The brightly-lit, covered valet entrance had the mixed atmosphere of a bus station and four-star hotel. Downtrodden-looking individuals leaned against pillars, drawing deeply on cigarettes, eyes unfocused, like they were waiting for some inspiration as to their next move, while glistening luxury SUVs and sports cars sat conspicuously out front. They could have belonged to high-roller players, currently receiving the VIP treatment I had heard exists in casinos, but to me the expensive cars looked like props meant to draw our attention away from the beleaguered-looking bus station-types weighing their limited options nearby.

Like moths to a flame, Dusty and I were drawn across the entranceway to the dazzling spectrum of light and movement glowing through the oversized glass doors, and we floated inside. My senses drowned in a fusillade of vitality and celebration from every direction. The 3,000 slot machines before us emitted a carnival-like, chaotic, but harmonic music. High-pitched bells, sirens, and songs of jubilation rang out. Occasionally, during our visit, we would hear human cheers from some distant region of the slot machine jungle, but it was really the machines that would celebrate wildly throughout the night.

Once adjusted to energy of the casino, we began to explore, making our way in a counterclockwise direction around the perimeter of the 18,000 square foot main room. Dusty had seen on the casino’s website that a drawing for a $10,000 prize would be held at 9:00, and with an hour to go, entering the drawing became our first priority. Strolling along, I looked from the room’s perimeter, which is the main concourse for moving about the casino, into the jingling electronic fire of slot machines at its core.

Most of the players were working class, over 50, and alone, as they stared with focused expressions into the high-definition video screens that have replaced the mechanical designs of the pre-digital age. Their wrists were settled into positions comfortable for repeated pressings of the button for their chosen bet amounts. Cigarettes were perched in many hands, but the smoke was barely detectable to us, either by smell or sight. The ventilation system here is amazing. Wheel chairs, walkers, canes, and an occasional oxygen tanks on wheels where common accessory items. Waitresses in short skirts patrolled the area for thirsty customers.

About halfway around the perimeter, we arrived at the “Rewards Center,” with its glistening marble countertop of a size suited to a major hotel. Video screens, mounted above, advertised the $10,000 drawing, alternating between English, Chinese, and Vietnamese. This must be our starting place, we thought, and sidled up to the waiting attendant. With wide-eyed and infectious enthusiasm, she gave us the details on the drawing, explaining that all we had to do was sign up for a free Graton Resort and Casino Rewards card, loaded with five dollars in complimentary slot play!

We gladly handed over our driver’s licenses, which she swiped to copy our personal information onto her computer. She then gave us our new Reward Cards, attached to springy plastic lanyards, with which we instinctively adorned ourselves, as if they were leis. With almost an hour to go before the drawing, and five dollars in free slot play dangling from our necks, the next item on our agenda was obvious.

Slot machines are the simplest games to play (a cat walking over its keys would operate one flawlessly), they offer the worst odds in any casino, and are by far the most popular game (Blackwood 12). Sinking into comfortable yet supportive chairs in front of Paco and the Popping Peppers, Dusty and I inserted our cards, eliciting almost-simultaneous mariachi flourishes as the games presumably began. Aware that there was absolutely no skill required, we pressed random buttons as our five dollars in free slot play dropped in 30- and 60-cent increments to zero.

As if on cue to suggest that the party is just getting started, a waitress appeared, offering to take our drink orders. Moments later, with a nine-dollar, neon-colored cocktail in hand, Dusty inserted a ten-dollar bill into a Lucky Lemming$ machine, while I paused to wonder about the intended meaning of that title. She pressed random shapes on the touch-screen a few times and finally, unable to figure out the goal or even whether she was winning or losing money, hit the “cash out” button to see her results: Twenty dollars!

For lucky lemmings like us, Graton Casino offers an assortment of eating and drinking establishments where player winnings can be hastily returned to the house. There was still time left before the big drawing, and I needed to nourish my brain for my debut at the blackjack table, and supply more drinks for my cheerleader. $73 dollars in pizza and beer later, we migrated with hundreds of other Rewards Card holders toward the giant screen and the microphone-wielding announcer to hear the winning number.

As we waited for the big moment, I overheard a woman tell her friend that she was off by just one digit in last Friday’s drawing. That this memory had lasting significance for her might say something interesting about how her mind works. Research psychologists using real-time MRI scans of gambler’s brains have demonstrated that there are two possible, very distinct neural responses to near-misses like the one this woman experienced (Habib, et al.). In most people, the brain responds like it would to any other loss, as they experience disappointment. By contrast, images of the compulsive gambler’s brain show it responding just like it would to a win. In other words, by offering the experience of “almost winning,” casinos (as well as the State of California, on scratch-off lottery tickets, I have noticed) take the money of pathological gamblers, while rewarding them with the feeling of being winners.

When the winning numbers were announced, and in no way resembled ours, Dusty was ready to see me hit it big at the blackjack table. With a stomach full of pizza, the encouragement of my friend, and the right strategy ingrained in my head, this was clearly the right time to give it a shot, but I was ready to walk out the door, get in the car, and go see what those cows were up to. I was ready more than ever to breathe unfiltered air, make uncalculated moves, and believe in nothing at all.

Works Cited

Baldwin, Roger, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott. Playing Blackjack to Win. Las Vegas, NV: Cardoza, 2008. Print.

Berton , Justin. “Thousands swarm Graton casino on opening day.” San Francisco Chronicle N.p., 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.

Blackwood, Kevin. Casino Gambling for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Pub. Inc., 2006. Print.

Habib, Reza and Mark R. Dixon. “Neurobehavioral Evidence for the ‘Near-Miss’ Effect in Pathological Gamblers,” Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 93.3 (2010): 313–328. Print.

"Graton Resort & Casino." Graton Resort Casino. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.