As a man who is so bad at games of chance that I was once beaten in blackjack by my dog, I never thought I would be a high roller at a casino. That is why I had never been to a casino until I recently visited Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., where I defied the odds, despite being a bit odd myself, by hitting the jackpot on a slot machine and pocketing a grand total of $11.50.
My bonanza was the icing on the cake of my wife, Sue, and my mother, Rosina, whose shared birthday was being celebrated with a trip to the aforementioned gaming emporium. The party included my father, Jerry Sr.; my older daughter, Katie, and her husband, Dave; my younger daughter, Lauren; and my sisters, Elizabeth and Susan, all of whom had been there before but did not, in case the IRS is reading this, come home in a higher tax bracket.
The first thing I noticed about Mohegan Sun was that it is approximately the size of Rhode Island, which it is near and might invade after a planned expansion. The main differences between the two places are that the casino has: (a) a surplus and (b) a roof.
So it was not surprising that I did what a great many people (including some of those I was with) have been telling me to do for years: I got lost. I must have spent half the day wandering aimlessly, calling or receiving cell phone calls from everyone except my father, who wisely doesn’t have a cell phone. They were all wondering where the hell I was. One time I said, “Rhode Island.” It didn’t help.
Shortly after we arrived, I spotted a pleasant-looking, grandmotherly lady sitting at a slot machine. She looked like she knew what she was doing, so I went over and sat down next to her, hoping some of her expertise would translate into beginner’s luck for me.
“I just hit the jackpot for $750!” she announced excitedly before identifying herself as Frances Ruzzi of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Not only was she indeed a pleasant grandmother, but she was celebrating her 86th birthday with her family, including her daughter, Donna Yantorno of Danbury, Conn., who noted that her mom is a casino veteran.
“We’re celebrating my wife’s and my mother’s birthday,” I said. “Maybe it’s a good omen.” Then I asked Frances, as she kindly allowed me to call her, about her secret of gambling success. She smiled and said, “I have no idea.”
“Neither do I,” I said. “It’s my first time in a casino.”
“I bet you’ll win,” Frances said. “Good luck.”
I got up and, as visions of moneybags danced in my head, promptly got lost.
Eventually I met up with everyone for a late lunch, followed by a round of cocktails to toast the birthday girls. Then it was time to see if I could break the bank.
I accompanied Dave, the best gambler in the family, to a craps table and, as I watched him lose $80, found out how the game got its name. Figuring I would lose my shirt, not to mention my pants, in which I had only $25, I didn’t even bother playing and instead went over to the blackjack tables. Two things prevented me from getting into a game:
• Most of the tables had a minimum opening wager of $25.
• My dog, Lizzie, defeated me in a tournament we played at home one night a couple of years ago. It’s too humiliating to explain how she did it, but I will say that it’s a good thing we weren’t playing for money.
So I went over to a roulette wheel with Dave and won the first game before losing the next two. The only thing left to try was a slot machine. I found one next to Catherine Mitchell, a retiree from Warwick, R.I. Like me, she was making her casino debut. “I just lost $200,” said the mother of 10 and grandmother of 13. “I’m never coming back.”
This did not bode well. Neither did the fact that Sue and Lauren, whom I found at another bank of machines, hadn’t won anything. I put some money in the one-armed bandit and used one arm of my own to pull the lever. Then I pulled it again. And again. By the time I was done, I had won $11.50.
I took my ticket to the redemption window and handed it to a cashier named Dora. “Do you have a wheelbarrow so I can cart away all this money?” I asked. Dora didn’t even smile. She handed me two fives, a one and a couple of quarters. Then she put a sign on the counter that said, “Next Window, Please.”
I felt like a high roller until Sue pointed out that I had spent $25 to make $11.50, which means I actually lost $13.50. I’d love to go back to the casino, but maybe I should quit while I’m behind.
Jerry Zezima writes a syndicated column for the Stamford Advocate in Stamford, Conn. Copyright 2008 by Jerry Zezima.