Posted September 27, 2008 in New York

What does gambling mean to you?

To me, gambling is a lark. Last night I won sixty cents on a horse named Pacific Flora: my tactic was to select the horse with the slowest-sounding name, and after searching the big book of small numbers in vain for a name along the lines of Bro-Can Leg, I decided seafaring algae might be comically slow as well. Pacific Flora somehow managed to evolve its way to first place.

Then I saw the slot machines.

Insert $1 to $100.

I inserted $1; I pushed a button a few times; I eventually lost every penny; and I went to a different machine.

I inserted $1; I pushed a button a few times. This time, I did not even bother looking at the screen. I already knew how the story would end, and the flashing lights and electronic sounds were distracting me from a conversation I was having. Sure enough, after pushing the button a few times, the machine diplomatically encouraged me to pay up or leave, refusing to illuminate its bet button.

Bored, I decided to walk around.

But I could not walk: I could only swim in a sea of slot machines. I came to realize I had been gambling at the fringe of a venture 5,000 machines across. As I delved deeper into the building I lost sight of all landmarks: only row after row of blinking lights and losing betters greeted my eyes, stretching to infinity—a financial infinity for those shrewd enough to design it.

I got lost.


Ordinary people devise systems to beat these machines: simultaneous bets, fluctuating antes, and strict, superstitious mathematical formulas, hopelessly created to compete with mathematical formulas which (and you would think committed gamblers would pause to consider this at some point) are invariably designed by smarter, more educated, wealthier people who themselves do not bet with their creations.

At the corner of the complex, adjacent to the exit, sits a small, underused row of counters labeled REDEMPTION. It lent a biblical tone to the evening: with deliverance so convenient and well-advertised, evidence suggests the vast majority would prefer to sacrifice money, time, and sometimes souls to mechanized thieves and their devious designers.

What does gambling mean to me? In this instance, it means the aggregation of poor people's money in rich people's pockets.

But I am still missing a sense of scale. In the coming year, Yonkers Raceway will triple its number of machines, effectively tripling its ability to accept $1 to $100.