by Aaron Mondry
For six short months beginning in the summer of 2010 I played poker for a living. I left my previous job disgruntled and had no interest in acquiring another regular job. Playing poker seemed like a radical choice at the time, though considering the sluggish job market and my own poorly defined goals, it ended up being a successful, if unfulfilling, stint.
The experience I gained playing against high school classmates in the few basements owned by parents who tolerated underage gambling was my rather weak basis for thinking I could win at poker. I bought a couple of books, subscribed to two poker websites, watched hundreds of poker videos on YouTube, and then hit the tables of Detroit’s casinos.
The Irresistible Attraction
Beating the casino is impossible. Either gamblers are there for reasons other than profit, or every one of the millions of people who frequent casinos willfully ignore the fact that the games are rigged. The latter cannot be entirely true, since the casinos do little to conceal the odds of the various games. If you can count and do simple math, you’ll realize that every single game in the casino makes the house a favorite.
Take the game “craps,” for example, which is one of the most favorable games in the casino. Players will regularly make even worse bets which intentionally lower their odds, such as the simple “snake eyes” bet that requires the dice to both land on 1. The bet generally pays off 30:1 (for every $1 you bet, you receive $30 if you win) but the odds of rolling snake eyes is 35:1. This means the house gets an average of 14 percent of every bet. Even if the house only paid 34:1 they would earn money in the long run, but they are able to fleece gamblers for more without a significant decrease in betting frequency.
Why do people give away their money to casinos? To answer this question you need to take a walk around one. I spent all of my playing-time in the poker rooms, but there were other times when I couldn’t help circling the casino floors overwhelmed by the cacophony, sights and even smells. The machines seem to be at war with one another, blaring victory music and ejecting coins. Every object emits or reflects light, none of which is natural since there are never windows in a casino.
Casinos are one of the few exceptions to Michigan’s smoking ban. The smell of stale cigarettes and a light haze of smoke pervades even the open expanse of the main floor. The smell of smoke is overpowered, however, by a neutral chemical scent which seems piped through the ventilation. Walking down Trumbull you detect a distinct, unpleasant casino-odor and one only hopes that smell is the only sense affected by the chemical.
The biggest emitters of noise and light have to be the slot machines. Slot-players are often overweight, old, cigarette smokers, or some combination of these three attributes. Since all you need to play slots is a bag of nickels, players tend to be of a lower income than table-game players, which have higher stakes. Whether the slot-machine theme is salsa dancing, underwater adventure, or Greek gods, the mindless premise is the same—pull and hope. Nevertheless, most of a casino’s floor space is filled with slot machines because over 70 percent of casino’s patrons play them. During peak hours, which is any day after 5 pm, many of the hundreds of people will be cranking away at the slots.
All Detroit casinos are loud, artificially lit, smoky, patroned by many depressing people, have terrible food and terrible events. Advertisements line the walls for has-been, second rate acts such as KC and the Sunshine band, Rick Springfield, and Joel McHale. The food is exorbitant: $14 for an overcooked, triangle-shaped burger. But the most flummoxing feature of all is that they are designed this way. It makes one wonder how anybody can stand being in them for very long.
But let’s walk again, this time noting the excitable lady jumping for joy at winning $40 while energetic music blares from the speakers. As you pass the table games you see the tension just before the last card is turned or the die comes to a stop. Either an exclamation of victory or an expulsion of defeated air follows. Combine the screeches and groans, the alarms and music with the iridescence, drinks, sophisticated dress of the staff and contest winners announced on loudspeaker, and it’s pretty easy to get sucked in.
This picture is a stark contrast to people’s domestic lives, and many undoubtedly come for a change in scenery which they knowingly “pay” for. But behind the slick exterior, and at its essence, casinos prey on people unable to resist the gambling temptation. Sure, casinos offer an escape for some, and a few come for the Wolfgang Puck restaurant or concerts, but most come because they must.
One regular at the poker tables was a Hispanic man with a pencil beard who loved to tell the story of his gambling addiction with a hint of pride, saying he had lost over a million dollars at various casinos. Addicts like him must love gambling more than money. Without this core demographic of chronic gamblers casinos would simply not be in business.
Poker, the Other Game
Poker is perhaps the only casino game where skill can translate into winnings because players compete against other players instead of the house. Since I planned on paying my rent and bills with casino money, I spent my time in the poker rooms. There are HD televisions placed in every corner of the rooms, the chairs are comfortable, scantily-clad servers make regular rounds taking drink orders, and friendly floor managers make small talk.
I saw casual players come with a newspaper and read while they played. Several retirees came for the company alone, it seemed. The “loungers” were the easiest to read and I rarely had a difficult decision against them. Poker addicts are a different matter, often distinguished by several features. They are reckless, as money is a secondary concern to the rush of a big risk. They experience great swings in chip count. They hate to fold and will often chase for cards with slim drawing odds.
While this kind of hyper-aggressive play is not advantageous in the long run, these players can be incredibly tough to read, and they tend to put a lot of pressure on others. Once I found myself in a hand with a tall, broad-shouldered man with an Eastern European accent. He intimidated people with his bets and physical presence. Practically before the final card was turned over he raised me all-in for a large amount. Fortunately I had a strong hand and won. After calming down, he said he didn’t think his hand was better, but simply “felt like betting everything.” This nonsensical thinking is widespread, but his brutal honesty made him an outlier.
It is more common for people to rationalize or self-deceive. One of the regulars was an amiable middle-aged man who seemed to love two things, the Detroit Lions and gambling. He always wore his Lions hat and Chris Spielman jersey for good luck, which considering the downtrodden state of the Lions franchise, I found amusing. At first I noticed the signs of poker addiction and assumed he was a weak player. After losing a few hands to him, I realized that he had good knowledge of the game, but occasionally became undisciplined and made bad bets. He could do the math required to play poker, and he often played well. Gambling made him act irrationally for some reason.
The gambling rush is a powerful force which turns some sane people into florid addicts. This rush is often evidenced after a hand. It is not uncommon to see victors flaunt their win by screaming for joy or taunting the other player. People who want to win consistently know that results-based poker is a poor method. Attributing winning to skill, saying “I won, I must have played well,” is common thinking among gamblers. This is precisely the mentality that gambling engenders and casinos want.
Detroit casinos actually represent the fifth biggest citywide concentration of gambling establishments by revenue in the country. The casinos are a big business, and even though Las Vegas is the first association for everyone when thinking about gambling, it only outpaces Detroit by less than 5-to-1. The casinos make over one billion dollars yearly, a staggering figure. A city built on gambling naturally has to support itself through tourism. Most Las Vegas residents are probably in some way associated with the casinos or the tourism it fosters. Consequently, in order to assess the casinos’ economic impact on the city, a key indicator is the amount of outside residents who come because of the casinos. If they are merely feeding off their own residents, then this is counterproductive.
While playing I did encounter a number of people from out of town. But over 95 percent of the people I saw were from the Detroit area. The most common patrons were from the suburbs or downriver. Ohio and Ontario, especially Windsor, were the next most common geographic region. Others were few and far between. There were people who gambled a little during a business trip, and I met some from Florida and Texas. The number of out-of-towners who come to vacation in Detroit and are drawn because of the casinos are slim. If gambling and casino-related entertainment is your main concern, why would you travel to Detroit over Las Vegas?
Residents of Detroit proper seem to go to casinos less frequently than others. I heard a dealer talking about his struggles with finding the right house for him and his fiancé. I advocated buying a house in the city since there were so many nice ones and real-estate was low. He and others laughed like it was a joke. Regulars included a business owner from Wyandotte, a police officer from Pontiac, several retired suburbanites, a restaurateur from Dearborn. The more I went, the more isolated the casinos felt; it was as if I was the out-of-towner.
But even people who do come to Detroit for the casinos only experience the city through its interior “glitz.” Each casino has its own parking garage with entrances leading straight to the casino floors. There is no attempt, except maybe for Greektown to integrate with the city at large. Motor City Casino is the worst example of this. It is a couple of blocks south from a 50,000 square foot abandoned building, an empty lot of development to the east, and a public housing neighborhood further north. If players wanted to take a break from the casino-artifice where would they go? Since there are no windows, there is no need to even look at the city.
Casinos do employ a great number of people: dealers, floor managers, hotel staff, janitors, waitresses, bartenders, electricians. But you need thick skin in order to work at a gambling establishment. After a day of losses, players often take their frustration out on dealers, accusing them of trivial or imagined mistakes, criticizing their attitude, or as being the cause of their bad luck. I have seen dealers get insulted, threatened, cursed at, and take other kinds of abuse always at the hands of irascible male gamblers. Since people lose far more frequently than not, dealers must be able to withstand a lot of punishment.
The dealer’s work isn’t glamorous either. They have a number of things to pay attention to, they must do them quickly, and they must do them many times over for hours. If they make a mistake, they get criticized by both the players and managers. There was one dealer I always chatted with–he had a wry sense of humor and shared my taste in music. One time he even told me a heartbreaking story about his struggle with alcoholism. While dealing a big hand he blundered by flipping a card over too early. There was yelling between the two players involved and himself, the manager was called over and the poor guy was sweating bullets over his gaffe. I had a morbid thought of him hitting the bottle after he returned home.
I quit playing poker for several reasons, despite liking the game. As the reader can probably tell, I didn’t enjoy my time inside the casinos much. After spending eight hours at a poker table, I’d lurch to my car exhausted by the mental effort of playing and trying to block out the overpowering sensations in the casino. Maybe I’m too sensitive to the lights, noises, smells, chatty floor managers, and sad rationalizations of the gamblers.
Then there’s the casinos’ exploitation of addicts. I, too, preyed on those individuals to make my living, and I couldn’t criticize the casinos without being hypocritical. If someone could think rationally about their play it was unlikely that they were an addict, therefore less likely that I could win consistently against them.
Though playing poker for a living felt pointless, it is a great strategic game. What’s most unique about poker is the psychology. Mind games involving multiple levels of thinking occur when two adept players face each other. “He touched his ear, but I think he knows that I know that’s a tell, so is it a real tell or is he faking? He bet in this pattern last time and I called his bluff, so would he make the same play?” But after six months, I realized that I can only enjoy games as an occasional mental exercise.
I got burnt out on poker, but part of me (the addict?) is itching to return. Anyone want to hit the tables?