Attack of the Killer Slots

By Chris Wright 08/15/12

More states are embracing the easy bounty of the one-armed bandit. Sadly, we can look to London to see the grim future of American gaming, and its name is Steve.

Sometimes, losing hurts

The machine was being kind. A leprechaun had just hopped around on a bunch of toadstools, producing $230 in winnings, and the little guy was doing a merry jig to announce the fact, gold coins pouring down around him. The young man playing the machine did not share the leprechaun’s enthusiasm. His finger blurred above the Play button as before, Space Invader-style, until the money was gone.

The player’s name was Steve. We were in one of the betting shops (or bookies) that dot London’s high streets, on a damp Tuesday afternoon, and the atmosphere was not what you’d call electrifying. A few older guys stood in a cluster, staring at a bank of TV screens, muttering and making dismissive gestures with their hands. The clerks slumped behind their reinforced screen. A guy took his place on the stool next to Steve and started playing video roulette. Neither man acknowledged the other.

Bookies aren't what they used to be. One of the UK’s more venerable betting chains, William Hill, has announced that video slots accounted for $10.4 billion of its revenues in the first six months of this year, compared to a mere $2 billion spent on sports betting. These relatively high-stakes machines (the top payout is $785 or so, with a maximum bet of £2 per spin) were introduced to Britain’s betting shops in 2001, and they have since become a focal point. The time is near, you feel, when the horses will be an afterthought.

Which is where Steve comes in. A 26-year-old “on-and-off” delivery driver from the grubby North London neighborhood of Stoke Newington, Steve is young, male, and not particularly well off—that is, a prized demographic for the video gaming industry in the UK, as well as in the United States. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, compulsive gamblers cost America some $6.7 billion every year. The machines that Steve likes to play—which have been described rather emotively as the “crack cocaine of gambling"—proliferate in the UK, with the government’s blessing. It's only a matter of time before they're in every 7-Eleven in Middle America.

The electronic gaming machines at New York City’s new Aqueduct slot-shop alone took in more than a billion dollars in a single month this summer, compared to the $35.65 billion in revenues made by the entire US casino industry last year. The blackjack dealers may not have had a very good recession, but the slots are on fire.

Steve is a thin, dark haired young man with bruised-looking skin and a penchant for baggy sportswear. He is also, apparently, not much of a talker. The majority of his opinions were conveyed via quick jerks of his shoulders. He did liven up a little when I mentioned that I’d once lived in America. “Bay-rack Owe-bar-mar,” he said, in what was probably meant to be a Texas drawl. "Do they have fruities there?"

They do. As of 2011, there were a total of 837,000 electronic gaming machines scattered around 39 US states, 10 percent of these in non-casino locations. In Iowa last year, slots made up 91.2 of the state's $321.5 million gaming revenues. The machines at New York City’s new Aqueduct slot-shop took in $1.13 billion in a single month this summer, compared to the $35.65 billion in revenues made by the entire US casino industry last year. The blackjack dealers may not have had a very good recession, but the fruities are on fire.

The head of an addiction center in Joliet, Illinois, spoke recently about plans to put video slots not only in the city’s bars, but in places like Papa's Hot Dogs and the Westfield Family Restaurant. "You’re going to have bankruptcies, crime, suicides," she augured. But not everyone falls apart. Most gamblers go about things quietly. Their losses are a source of anxiety and self-abasement, but nothing apocalyptic. The habit corrodes rather than destroys.

When asked how much he puts into Rainbow Riches on an average day, Steve shrugged. “Probably more than I get out of it.” Is it a problem? “Today it is.” The machine slurped another note from his fingers. How does he afford it? He gave me a look. “Payday loan,” he said—£400 in hand, minus £100 up-front interest.

Otherwise, Steve made for a bad gambling-story subject. He’d never suffered any real crisis because of his habit. He hadn’t robbed anyone. He hadn’t abandoned any kids. He gets by, he said, by scrimping on other expenses. He eats potato chip sandwiches. He walks rather than taking the bus. He drinks his beer from the can. And sometimes, hey, he walks out ahead. “Oh!” shouted one of the old men in the corner. “Oh! Oh! Oh!” There was no such excitement at our end of the shop. The leprechaun had stopped dancing. Another 20 went in.

Earlier, Steve had said it would be “yeah, fine [shrug]” if I watched him play for a while. But with every retreating note, the terms of our agreement seemed to be shifting. He’d started to angle his body, blocking the screen from view. “Ah, will you fuck off!” he shouted at one point, banging the machine with his palms as two pots of gold appeared on the reels. A third would have earned him the £253.20 accumulated bonus.

I didn’t know whether this remark was aimed at the machine or at me. I suspect it was a little of both. "Right, I'm off," I said, and Steve let out the tiniest of grunts in response. Outside, the sun was breaking through the clouds, and I had to cup my hands to see the young man’s back through the betting shop window. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I caught the flicker of gold coins cascading down the screen.

Chris Wright is an editor, writer and recovering Steve who lives in London. He last wrote about gambling addiction here.

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London-based writer Chris Wright is a frequent contributor to The Fix. One of his recent pieces wondered if the disease model is an easy way out.