The Gambler

By staff April 1, 2002

If we've learned anything lately, it's that we must stop postponing things. Do the important stuff NOW. Get married. Have children. Add a new master suite. And so, in the spirit of this new life lesson, I have finally gone and done something I always wanted to do. Something I always knew I would do. I went on a gambling junket.

You know, one of those dirt-cheap package tours where you get airfare, hotel room, transfers, meal vouchers, even money to start gambling with. I'm not really much of a gambler, but I do appreciate value. And what's not to like? You're in a big, fancy hotel with virtually free food, vacationers wandering the lobby with drinks in hand, great in-room movies, and the best people- watching in the world. You see one dramatic moment after another.

I used to think, how can these people, these ordinary- looking people who probably have no more money than I, how can they lose thousands of dollars like that and not bat an eyelash? How can they be so calm and collected? Then I realized. They're not calm and collected-they're seething inside. They're undergoing a terrible crisis. And you get to watch! That's what I like about gambling. (Sometimes I would follow the big losers to see where they would go next. The bar? Their room? The roof? No -it was always the ATM machine in the lobby.)

Usually one would head to Las Vegas for this sort of drama, but since I was interested in something cheap, I went to Biloxi. It's on the Mississippi Gulf coast, a shabby old town that they're trying to turn into a mini-Vegas. It's got 10 or so casino hotels, and due to some local ordinance, the casino part has to be on the water. This results in some pretty unusual architecture. The casinos appear to be buildings but are actually giant barges that rise and fall with the tide. To get to them you must crawl over these big hinges in the floor; and if watching the action in the casino ever palls, you can watch drunks trip over the hinges.

I met up with my fellow junketeers at the St. Pete airport and was surprised to find that they were all cut from the same cloth. To a person, they lived in various mobile home retirement communities in Pinellas County; and, frankly, they tested even my enthusiasm as a people-watcher. They conducted long conversations about things like the price of gas and where it could be bought for a penny cheaper than some other place. I listened to them in the departure lounge until I realized that if they went on for one more minute I would begin to tear my hair out.

But after a short ride on a chartered airliner so old the paint was flaking off, we arrived in Biloxi and were bussed to the Grand Casino Hotel; and our tour group dispersed into the throng at the hotel. As for the Grand Hotel, I liked it very much. The style was a sort of contemporary Rooms To Go, tasteful if a trifle bland. My room was very comfortable but not quite luxurious (no mini-bar; shampoo but no mouthwash; a Playstation attachment on the TV.) It certainly seemed a notch up from Casino Magic next door, where the odor of cigarette smoke was all but unbearable, or the Isle of Capri next door to that, which had a strange indoor-jungle motif that made the whole place slightly clammy.

My strategy for the three-day stay was simple. I would spend as little money as possible. I would eat only one meal a day, as that was all I had vouchers for. I would buy nothing. I would take free shuttles everywhere. I would play the nickel slot machines to make my gambling money -$100-last longer. But most of all, I would hang out in the casino and watch people.

Well, it turns out that Biloxi in the dead of winter during the middle of the week was not the hotbed of activity that I thought it would be. The emptiness of the place made you realize how vast the Grand Casino is. The main floor is long and has low ceilings and was here and there dotted with slot machine addicts plugging away, sometimes two machines at a time, a cigarette dangling from their lips. The top floor had the same thing minus the cigarettes, as it was for non-smokers, and thus, I discovered, lacked the proper atmosphere. I pondered the obvious correlation between gambling and smoking-what was it, some sort of self-destructive thing?

I had a hard time finding a satisfactory slot machine. The nickel slots in Biloxi, it turns out, are extremely popular; and the lucky-looking machines go fast. I played some just because they were sitting there empty, but this is always a mistake. Others, which looked promising, turned out not to have enough little gimmicks, like paying on the diagonal or having Wild Cards, so I abandoned these, too. Finally, down on the lower floor I discovered the Mississippi Long Bar, which was a sort of casino within the casino. It was done up like a gambling saloon and had a wonderful slot machine that I just fell in love with. It took almost three hours to lose $20.

Luckily things picked up in the evening; and then the casino took on the form which God intended. It was a mostly Southern crowd, which made for a party atmosphere. The craps table in particular reverberated with cheers and high fives. The poker room was packed with men who looked like truck drivers; and everywhere, a little army of cocktail waitresses dashed around. Many of them, along with the other hotel employees, were Vietnamese, as Biloxi has a large Vietnamese population. I believe the men fish for shrimp. But the women work at the casinos; and they, along with the militaristic Southern macho atmosphere, kept conjuring up memories of the '60s that, frankly, I didn't need.

There is, of course, much to see in the Biloxi area other than casinos. Jefferson Davis' home graces the waterfront; I only wish I could have torn myself away long enough to walk down and see it. And plans are underway for something even more exciting-a museum designed by Frank Gehry of Bilbao fame to house the works of C.E. Ohr, the famous "Mad Potter of Biloxi." You remember him; he virtually invented the field of modern ceramics. I saw a picture of him and he did indeed look mad. His beard was braided into five or six different pigtails, as was his sparse white hair.

I must say that my strategy for the trip worked perfectly, the first time that's ever happened. The trip cost $209, and I spent about $80 more, including what I lost gambling. I really did survive on one meal a day (eat at 3 p.m. in the buffet and sneak out rolls and pizza slices). In fact, there was only one glitch and that was on the return flight. The plane, scheduled to leave at 7:45 in the evening, didn't take off until 2 a.m. This meant I was stuck at the airport with my fellow junketeers for a considerable amount of time. I must say, they were wonderful waiters, calm and patient and uncomplaining. Finally, a man came out and told us to get in line and take off our shoes. Everybody. The sight of 150 seniors patriotically removing their footwear in a deserted airport in the middle of the night-well, maybe I didn't win at the slot machines but when it came to people watching, I finally hit the jackpot.

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