Does any sound set the heart to beating quite like that of dozens of coins cascading into a steel slot machine hopper?
I don't think so. And it was the first sound I heard as I entered Hollywood Slots at Bangor on opening night. Call me Pavlov and park me at the nearest slot! The sound provokes in me an utterly reptilian urge to find a machine and feed it coins, fueled by the hope that I'll get even more coins in return.
So you can imagine my deep confusion when I rushed up to the nearest slot machine and discovered that neither this — nor any one of the 475 newly minted machines in Bangor — actually accepts or dispenses coins or tokens.(Coins are heavy things, it turns out, and can lead to worker's comp problems.) The slots instead silently ingest paper coupons, and if you end up with any winnings, they silently excrete a little paper coupon, which can be exchanged for genuine cash money. The bar-coded slip is as plain and unadorned as the discount coupons for Purina Dog Chow your grocery clerk hands back with your change.
I wasn't hallucinating the sounds, though. When I reclaimed my bearings, I realized the realistic chunka-chunka-clang-clang of tumbling coins was coming from speakers on slots all around me, a sound deftly mixed in with much electronic whooping and sirening. The coins I heard, it turns out, were no more real than the gunfire or screeching tires you hear in a movie theater.
I already felt conned, and I hadn't even started betting yet.
We're an entertainment-based company," said Scott Olive, a game designer at Aristocrat Technologies. Aristocrat, the Las Vegas-based division of Aristocrat Leisure Limited of Australia, is one of three companies that manufacture the slots used by Penn National Gaming, which is the Pennsylvania-based firm that owns Hollywood Slots at Bangor and eighteen other North American operations.
Last fall, just a few weeks before the Bangor racino's gala opening, I happened to be in Las Vegas and so I stopped by Aristocrat's tidy corporate office building, a short drive off the Strip. I wanted to find out more about how the slots industry worked and how it might make Maine more entertaining.
Entertainment is a word I heard a lot during my visit. ("We're in the entertainment business," said Kent Young, vice president of marketing.) And that's an echo of what you hear throughout the industry. It's as if the gaming industry had proposed for Bangor a multiplex with 475 screens and wholesome family amusement. (In the same way, casino owners almost never refer to "gambling," which brings to mind damp basements and dice, but always "gaming," which suggests Whist or Scrabble enjoyed in front of a crackling fireplace.)
Slot machines are entertainment only in the way a three-card monte sharp is an entertainer. His deft hand moves may amuse, but his goal is not to amuse you. His goal is to steal your pants.
Hollywood Slots at Bangor features a number of old-style reel games, in which players set the reels spinning and root for sevens or grapes or "bars" (BAR was an early advertising logo) to come up in a row. Nationwide, these old-style games — called "steppers" in the industry — account for about two out of every three of the 378,000 slots at commercial casinos across the United States.
These, it turns out, are the creaky calliopes of gaming, increasingly seen as yesterday's amusement. Video slots with crisp, colorful graphics and lively animations are the future. Steppers are for an unsophisticated audience. And from the slot-makers' point of view, they don't draw you in and keep you there. ("Video provides more entertainment value," as Young noted.) And keeping you there, feeding in money, is the goal. As a columnist wrote in a recent issue of Casino Enterprise Management magazine, "The object is no longer just customer excitement. In today's gaming industry, the object is increased loyalty, high traffic, and a better bottom line."
And that's where mathematical artistry comes in. One of the trends toward making slots more entertaining is "random bonusing." Bonuses are the occasional interruptions of your regularly scheduled losses to grant you extra spins or other added chances for a win. How the bonuses are designed can subtly alter the perception of how you're faring, creating the false sense that you're doing better than your wallet is telling you. Think of Hitchcock and those misleading plot devices he called McGuffins, directing you down dead ends and building suspense. "The game should seem like it pays well," is how Olive described it.
In truth, the denouement of every spin is tightly scripted. A computer chip inside the machine determines the spin's outcome a nanosecond after you press the button or pull the lever. The ending was actually written by the Maine state legislature. Maine decreed that, if you play long enough, for every dollar you put in, you'll get back at least 89 cents. (Your actual mileage may vary, and higher denomination machines tend to return higher percentages than the penny or nickel slots.) The remaining eleven or so cents — the vig — is split between Penn National, harness tracks, the city of Bangor, and various dependencies of the state.
The director, the writer, the set designer, and the producers have put everything in place. The only element that remains is the actor.
And who's the star? The announcement is right on the Hollywood Slots brochure: "Non-Stop ACTION Starring. . . You!"
Hollywood Slots at Bangor is (for now) housed in the former Miller's restaurant on Main Street, a low, unremarkable building of yellow stucco capped with an oversized commercial mansard. The grandest thing about the property is the parking lot.
Inside, the slot parlor is as cheerfully innocuous as a shopping mall video arcade. It's all bright colors, chirpy sounds (wholly proprietary, I learned in Las Vegas), and teeming with people of all ages, with the preferred wager-wear being sweatshirts and jeans. It has low ceilings studded with video camera domes, and not a single exterior window to let any daylight in or any views out. On the basement level are more slots, and a small bar and restaurant that has the efficient ambience and cuisine of an airport food court.
I suppose it's a bit unfair to critique the present building, which is just a chit, a marker for a more ambitious facility that Penn National is planning to open late next year down the street where two motels now stand. The new slot parlor will have three times as many slots and will leave a substantially larger footprint on the city.
But might it be fair to suggest that the buildings themselves are a bit of a con? When Mainers voted, they voted for a racino. This griffin of a word is the ungainly marriage of racetrack and casino, and I suspect that many voters envisioned they were approving a few slots tucked in the recesses of Bangor's Bass Park racetrack, where gambling already took place. Who could that possibly hurt? Maybe it will bring in more race fans, maybe it will help out the horses, and, I mean, who doesn't like horses?
But the referendum giving the racino the go-ahead slyly allowed the licensee to place the "racino" anywhere within 2,000 feet of the racetrack. So there it sits on Main Street, with no practical or visual link with the track itself. This is not a racino. It's a casino. In the con game world, I believe this variant is called "bait and switch."
Perhaps more insulting is the bland, Tinseltown-related décor. Here are few actual props from movies, and there are some pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra. (Where are the harness racing photos?) It feels like a cheap outpost of Anywhere, America, another strip mall directed and produced by someone who has never been to Maine. When the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies sought voter approval for a casino in southern Maine, at least they had the good grace to make a nod to local history and promised a quality facility modeled after one of the grand Victorian resorts that made the state famous more than a century ago. Instead, with Hollywood Slots another bit of cheesy pop culture has come to Maine to roost and breed.
Naturally, those concerns fell aside at the first sound of clanging coins. Who could resist that? I lost my first five dollars to tiki gods, who snookered me before I had a chance to figure out precisely what it was I was betting on. (I wasn't the only one confused. Two slots down, an attendant wearing one of the parlor's spiffy brown Nehru jackets approached a middle-aged man in a lumberman's shirt and solicitously asked, "Do you know how to play this game?" "No!" he replied with great cheer, having gone though ten dollars in two spins and having no idea what just happened. "If you press this button," the attendant explained, "you're betting all your credits.")
Helen of Troy and her bristle-helmeted minions took my second bill, and a penguin lightened me of my third — and then a fourth because I liked his antic waddle and happy music. The Kona Gold machine (another fiver) had pleasing hula dancers that moved in a beguiling fashion, which kept me hitting the buttons.
I developed a special rapport with certain machines — and here, members of the academy, I'd like to thank the coy geisha with her fluttering fan for allowing me to build up 340 credits from the 100 I'd started with. Then, like a trout slowly tugging an angler into the river and over his head, she eased me back down to nothing during the next half-hour.
In the end, I burned through a relatively modest fifty dollars in several hours of slot playing — about five dollars less than the average customer spends per visit at Penn National's properties nationwide, according to the company. Even with the stakes rather small — my IRA remained untouched — the last pull for the last nickel had all the wrenching drama of a big Hollywood finale, where the star gets himself into a bad pickle and you can plainly see the way out, and you want to shout out, "No! Don't pull that lever!"
But you pull the lever anyway, because you never know. And up comes an acorn, a jumping salmon, a nut, and a couple of unidentifiable berries. In short, nothing. Game over. (Note to Penn National: It really would be more fair to everyone involved, I believe, if the slots made big, flatulent sounds when someone lost their last nickel, rather than only clanging and blasting sirens for the jackpot winners.)
After all the rancorous debate over how the new casino would affect Maine, the place didn't feel in the least like Armageddon — not even a suburb of Armageddon. That doesn't mean it won't became a steadily growing cancer on the state, breeding gambling addiction and family problems, with the first infected by it those who can afford it least.
I may be more optimistic than most, even after learning that Mainers wagered about a million dollars a day in the first few days after the betting parlor opened. I like to believe that Mainers are an eminently sensible lot, and I'm guessing a majority will gamble responsibly. I didn't see any wild-eyed hammering of buttons, nor hear anyone shouting "Come on! Baby needs new shoes!" At least not on opening weekend.
What I saw was a characteristically stoic acceptance of fate as those around me mechanically pushed buttons and dully watched the screens flicker. No one wore the expression of someone enjoying a movie. Everyone had the look of someone discovering that their mailbox has been demolished by snowplows yet again.
After losing my fifty dollars, I was pleased only that no one took notice of my dismal performance — everyone around me was engrossed in their own small dramas. I got up quietly and walked out the door, unobserved by anyone except those monitoring the ceiling cams.
Actually, I didn't mind losing the fifty dollars. But I would have minded less if the show had been better.