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Looking for a lucky break

Will fortune smile on a lifelong long shot during her first visit to Seminole Casino Tampa?

MELANIE HUBBARD
Published November 16, 2003

TAMPA - It's all a cruel mistake, I plead with my editor. I hate gambling. I don't even like fishing. I have enough trouble trusting the universe, and you want me to give it my money? Five months ago the Seminole Tribe of Florida opened Seminole Casino Tampa, and now that the paint has dried I'm supposed take $150 and find out what it's like.

Years ago I was in Monte Carlo with a bunch of Yale men intent on losing their money before they caught a plane back to the States. We tramped into the palace on a red carpet, and I was struck by the sea of vibrant tables, the laughter, the drinks. They gambled, rakish, while I watched and made the mistake of hovering near a blackjack table. I was, I imagined, lovely, flush with enthusiasm, a college coed out for her European tour. But a hardened face turned to me, oblivious of such evident charms, and told me to get the hell away from his table: I was unlucky.

Unlucky. I carried it with me to New York, where I frequented a ceramics shop in the Village. I'd ask to look at a piece quite out of my range, some exquisite Japanese simplicity in black, and the elderly owner would pick it up for me (those were the rules), whereupon with arthritic precision, his hand would tremor, clench and hurl the beauty to the floor. One day I told the man I would never be back: I was unlucky.

The casino, open 24/7, is easy to get to, just off Hillsborough Avenue on Orient Road, but I am nervous nonetheless and only somewhat reassured when I spot a sign at the light that says Seminole Cultural Center. I decide that is a euphemism. I do not equate gambling with culture of any sort. I do not even play the Florida Lottery, on principle. I wonder if there will be a lot of Seminoles there.

I reach the modern two-story concrete facade of what looks like a performing arts hall. Valet parking beckons in the front. It's $2, and I tip $3, already the big spender. Bereft of my car, there is nothing to do but go in. Security guards are dressed like the latest junta - white pants with white pocketed guayabera-style over-shirts - and I make for the women's room, which I instinctively feel will be to my left. Already I'm having fun!

I emerge overwhelmed by the size of the place, a super-sized big box filled with the sights and sounds of hundreds of slot machines, rows upon rows of frenetic kiosks at which sit and stand clots of people pushing big green buttons and watching the pictures spin. I hug the perimeter. I've seen enough. Why did I have to come here alone?

The slot machines burble waves of computer-generated up-and-down sound, an uncomplicated melody consisting of no more than three notes, over and over, for the entire evening, at a volume designed to compete with the warmed-over '80s hits piped in near the ceiling, itself awash in spotlights smoothly blended from green to red.

Finally I approach a group of youngsters - you have to be 18 to play and they're not much over that - and admit that I'm clueless. A skinny woman takes pity and steers me to the nickel slots. There's an open seat, so I sit down. I stare at the computer a long time. I don't want to distract her, but finally I ask the 30ish woman next to me what to do. She looks at me, bored: You put your money in there, and you push the big green button that says PLAY.

Soon I am feeling like one of those laboratory rats you read about, pushing and pushing the lever. Rats are smart. They'll drink sweet antifreeze once, get the stomachache of their lives, and refuse it ever after. But give them a variable reinforcement schedule, in which sometimes their lever-pulling delivers a pellet, sometimes not, and they'll exhaust themselves, burning more calories than they are taking in.

The minute you begin, you are losing money. I find myself sliding in another $20 (the machines won't take the new bobble-headed Jackson, by the way, but you can change them) because a rally gives me the hope that I'll make my losses back. The second time my little pot surges, I cash out. The machine spits out a ticket, which I take to the cheery cashier, who gives me $46 and wishes me luck, a phrase I hear from every employee throughout the night. I've made $26.

On to the quarters. I am, in fact, bored. There is nothing to do but push the button, and I wonder why the elderly man next to me isn't sitting at home watching the nature channel. Surely he's on a fixed income. The casino is happy to take credit cards, personal checks (with ID and a call to your bank), travelers checks, your pension. And ATMs are standing by. The old man's wife (I guess) comes by and yells at him for betting too high, punches a button without his say-so, and stalks off. Peering through his bifocals, he asks me how much he has; he can't read the numbers. I find that I can't keep track of my wins and losses, either, no matter what notes I make. The money doesn't seem real translated to bets and credits, and losing is remedied with a new infusion of cash.

The casino is cavernous, loud, a relentless sensorium designed not for a responsive crowd but for each individual at his or her terminal. Big Joe's Sports Bar, for example, faces a giant TV screen, and the counter top features computerized gaming screens at each stool. Middle-aged men drink ($4.25 for a cocktail), watch football and play the slots all at the same time, and need never address their neighbors. (The bar is named after a 14-foot gator that lived and died on the Tampa reservation.)

Earlier I'd scoped out the tables, cordoned off in a small section, and learned that there was no blackjack. They have Seven-Card Stud, Texas Hold 'em and Omaha Hi-Lo. But I'm terrible at poker. Dejected, I'd put off getting my name on a waiting list to be seated at a table. Now I go back. They take my name. And then I wait. For an hour.

Malingering, I check out the slots where you can choose, using a touch-screen, from any number of games. Everybody is playing Far West, so I choose that, after another bored consultation with a middle-aged woman. Far West is merely another set of spinning icons, this time with a Western theme. There's the wise-guy cowgirl, the humble sheriff, a horse. I find myself longing for the nickel slot at which I won, deeming it lucky or generous, yet all the while telling myself that there is no conjuring a machine, no sway, no luck beyond the random cascade of 0's and 1's in its memory. Besides, it's taken.

I am losing a lot of money. I return to the poker area, eager to play a game in which I'll have some control over the results. The older man waiting to my left swears they're letting in cronies, list or no list. His wife, equally annoyed, turns to her neighbor and says, "He's a man who stands on his principles."

Finally I get a seat. The betting is structured, which means you ante $1 and can bet $2 with at least a pair in your hand, but you can't bet the farm, and it'll take you all night to lose $200.

I play dumb. Okay, I am dumb, but I decide I'll make that clear at the outset. Everyone is either jovial, patient or both. The guy I am most trying to fake out sits next to the dealer and scrutinizes our faces with every card. I have to make sure he can't read me. He's shrewd, a psychologist, even sensitive in a cynical kind of way. Confusing him with a variety of facial expressions I can hardly control is somehow more important than actually winning.

After an hour with a $60 stake dwindling to $20, I decide to leave in the middle of a round. It seems a lot to pay for an evening of false bonhomie. There are no fond farewells. Nobody notices at all, least of all the dealer, a Japanese man dressed in a black collarless shirt like all the other dealers, a fallen priest.

That was it, then. I walk over to the cashier on the other side of the room only to discover the bingo line. I'd had no idea. I count what's left of my money and realize with surprise that I've lost $120. As I walk back through the slots I note the gym shorts, the polyester pantsuits, the gold lame, the retirees, the men in motorized wheelchairs, the thin and young and rich-looking, the black middle class. All of America is here. I think I even saw a Seminole.

- Melanie Hubbard, an Emily Dickinson scholar and a frequent Floridian contributor, teaches English at the University of Tampa.

If you go

The 45,000-square-foot Seminole Casino Tampa is at 5223 N Orient Road, Tampa. It is always open. It has video gambling machines, poker tables and a bingo hall with capacity for 800. There is parking for 1,600. Construction continues on the 12-story, 250-room Hard Rock Hotel that will open next year with several restaurants, a pool and a spa. For more information, call toll-free 1-800-282-7016.

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