I spent the past weekend with my cousin Carol and my Uncle Graham in beautiful Madison, Indiana. We had, as expected, a wonderful time together, mostly staying at home and talking, but also going out and about to see some sights and taste some food and best of all, drive up and down on the hill that I used to refer to as "THE MOUNTAIN" when I was a child. To be frank, it still seems pretty mountainy to me, but Carol assures me -- as she's whipping her SUV back and forth around the switchback curves -- it is nothing more than a gentle slope, practically just a bump.
We were driving down that very bump (me hanging onto my purse with a white-knuckled grasp) on our way to a very special treat the two of them had cooked up for me on Saturday afternoon: a trip to Belterra casino in Vevay (pronounced, Hoosier-like, "VeeVee" and all of you of Swiss heritage can burst into tears right about now...) to play the penny slots.
I, raised in a home that eschewed all forms of gambling, cussing, chewing and hanging around with unshaven men, had never been to a casino before, ever in my life. The most I've ever done, casino-wise, is drive past the one that looms large in my city while on my way to Wal-Mart. But Carol's been telling me stories about those penny slot machines for many years and she decided that this was the very weekend for me to find out for myself.
So, Belterra is pretty much a heeeyoooge castle-like structure with a beautifully manicured golf course and grounds, set down in the middle of some cornfields, right? It rears majestically above the flat prairie, all white façade and fountains and flowers and glittery lights. I admit to goggling at it like a straw-chewing tourist from the sticks and even though I've traveled abroad and seen the Roman Coliseum and the ruins of Pompeii and the view from the pinnacle of Capri, I don't recall seeing any big signs with flashing lights welcoming me to those places and offering me a free Diet Coke. And besides, Pompeii made me light-headed and ill, what with all those plaster casts of ancient folks writhing in their death agonies and all. Yuck.
Once we'd obtained our free soft drinks, Carol started showing me around all the different penny slots. This was quite an education for me, who had thought up to that point that there was one kind of slot machine: one that turned up triple cherries if you pulled its arm the right way. Imagine my surprise at finding shiny, happy computer graphics covering every subject matter you could imagine, but all operating on the exact same principle; it was kind of like food from Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee. You know, the exact same food, just shaped differently. There were cowboys and cops-and-robbers and mermaids and howling wolves and knights-and-ladies and Greek myths and more and everything was flashing and beeping and singing in this whole enormous room and it was just too fun for words.
"!!!!!" I said, looking at Carol, wide of eye and open of mouth.
"I know," she grinned back at me. "It's fun, isn't it?"
Carol encouraged me to find a game that looked interesting and then she and Uncle Graham sat down at machines near the one I chose. She pushed a twenty dollar bill into my hand, her treat, and showed me where to feed it into the electronic money slot.
"And by the way," she added, "these are just penny slots, so when the machine says you've won 'eight' that means eight cents, but my friends and I think it's more fun to holler out 'eighty dollars!' and if we win, say, twenty-five cents, we shout out 'twenty-five hundred dollars!' It makes it more fun."
"Oh, yes! That does sound like fun!" I exclaimed, drinking in her every word and all I can say is that I hope Carol never takes it into her head to offer me some crack because I will undoubtedly be scrambling for a lighter before she can say "instantly addictive."
"Except for this one time," she mused, "when this snotty woman next to my friend Tracy told her, 'You DO KNOW that you only won a QUARTER, don't you?' What a killjoy."
So Carol showed me which buttons to push, and because she is one of those people who understands mathematical concepts, she explained to me WHY I should push certain buttons, but to tell the honest truth, I didn't understand a word she said, except for the "press buttons" part. As it turns out, I can do that just as well as the next chimp, so I started pushing away.
"Bleep! Bleep! Bleep!" sang my slot machine, and lo and behold, Carol shouted, "You just won one hundred and thirty dollllllaaaaarrrrrrrs!!!!"
Elated, I said in an eager voice, "Does that really mean I won one hundred and thirty dollars? Or does it mean I won thirteen cents?"
"Thirteen cents," said Carol patiently. "Don't ruin the magic."
It was very exciting to win money, but after a time, I began to notice a trend: I'd go up some, but then I'd go down more. Pretty soon, I was alarmed to see that I was down to thirteen dollars out of my original twenty.
I got up very close to Carol's ear and whispered, "I'm beginning to suspect that these machines are rigged to benefit the casino."
Her eyes got very big. "You can't be serious. You mean, you think they may have built this huge place with all the expensive overhead in order to get people to come here and spend a lot of money? Why, that's.....unthinkable!"
"You don't have to be such a smarty-pants about it," I said huffily, and we wandered off to find some other fun machines.
On my second machine, I was sitting there happily pushing my buttons when a lady came up and sat next to me, holding both a drink and a cigarette. Instead of plopping down in front of her own penny slot, she kept scrutinizing my screen, which I thought was very nosey of her.
"Lookere," she finally said, gesturing toward my buttons. "If you keep making those little tiny bets, you're never gonna win anything. You need to play more lines, like twenty-five at a time. And press that button there" -- she indicated a button that read "2X" -- "and that'll double your bet and give you a better chance of a playout."
"Oh," I said faintly. Despite what you might think, I can add small numbers and it was clear to me that this woman wanted me to bet FIFTY CENTS AT A TIME, and considering that I was down to about nine dollars, that concerned me a little. So I didn't want to hurt her feelings, but with a strong feeling that she was not the boss of me, I pushed the "25 lines" and the "2X" button and lost fifty cents and felt very indignant that she'd cheekily offered me unsought advice. I got up from my chair without looking at her and went to look for Carol and tattle.
"I was sitting next to a woman who made me bet fifty cents," I said crossly. "She kept talking about how I'd make more money with bigger bets."
"Oh, one of those," said Carol, staring deeply into her slot machine's screen and pushing buttons like a pro. I couldn't help but notice that she was up to about thirty-five dollars.
"What one of those?"
"The kind that are here to make money instead of here to have fun," Carol explained. "Don't let them distract you. Just play the way you want to and enjoy yourself."
A few minutes later, we all wandered over to a bank of machines called Block Party and sat down. I'd liked all the games I'd played, but the Block Party slot was really fun. It had flashy lights and noises and horns and bells and all kinds of clever graphics and it cleaned me out of money in no time flat.
Sadly, I watched Uncle Graham and Carol, who were both still playing. I felt kind of guilty for losing all of the twenty dollars Carol had given me, although she pointed out that the money still would have been just as gone if we'd gone to a movie and bought popcorn and sodas. They were having fun and I didn't want to look like the turd in the punch bowl, so when I remembered that I had a dollar bill in my pocket, I decided to play it.
The Block Party machine LOVED my wrinkled dollar bill. It sucked it into its innards and the lights began to flash and horns honked and the screen glowed. I pushed buttons and buttons and buttons and could do no wrong at all, because all of a sudden, the machine nearly exploded and Carol was shouting, "OH MY GOSH YOU JUST WON THIRTY DOLLARS!!!!"
"Thirty dollars?" I asked suspiciously, "or three dollars? Or three cents? Which is it?"
"Thirty REAL dollars," she said in excitement. "Thirty dollars and seven cents!" She and Uncle Graham smiled at me proudly and I clasped my hands to my ample bosom and squealed, "REALLY!!!'
"Yup," said Carol. "Now. Do you want to keep on playing, or cash out?"
"I definitely want to cash out," I said fervently. So I did. You can see my voucher in the photograph above. I put my voucher in one of the cash machines and obtained my $30.07 and today I went to Wal-Mart -- passing my city's huge casino on the way -- and bought a nice new Crock-Pot because my old one broke last week.
I shall think fondly of Belterra every time I use it.
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