Tuesday, August 21, 2007

But Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels

I didn’t do much after arriving at the lake the first evening. Just a disappointing dinner at a family restaurant where the surly teen-aged hostess (sometimes I hate summer) acted like one single grown-up can be safely ignored.

After breakfast the next morning I started driving around the lake. One of my first stops was at the Cal-Neva resort, in Crystal Bay, Nevada. This casino/hotel used to be owned by Frank Sinatra, and it still has a retro coolness to it without actually being stuck in the past. It looks sort of like the Ahwahnee Lodge would if the Jetsons did the decorating. There are all the usual casino favorites, like blackjack and craps, and of course, lots of slot machines.

Now, I know there’s no such thing as a professional slot player, and I know why: Because the house always wins. But I like slots. I can’t help it. I like pulling the lever. I like handling the coins. I like it when the one-armed bandit flashes and chirps at me like a pinball machine. I just like the whole sensory experience.

The Cal-Neva didn’t disappoint. I bought two rolls of nickels (that’s four dollars, folks) and made them last almost an hour at a particularly shiny machine.

At the end of the hour, I had exactly five cents out of my original $4 left. But the one nickel left was a buffalo nickel. I can only remember one other time that I’ve gotten a buffalo nickel in change, so this was quite an event for me.

If you can get yourself into this frame of mind, where you can lose 79 out of 80 coins and still feel like a winner, then you too can be a slot machine champion.

Later, when I visited some of the casinos at the more developed south end of the lake, I realized that I’d had a very unusual experience at the Cal-Neva. The slots in the south all seem to be virtual. You give the machine a bill or a credit card, and when you’re ready to cash out, it prints a ticket for you that you take to the cashier. You’ll never see a real coin. I understand that cashless machines are cleaner, safer, and more convenient, but they make me sad. Sad enough that the next time I’m in Stateline, I probably won’t even bother stopping.

In fact, you can bet on it.

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