With my husband off work on New Year’s Eve, we did something we’ve never done before: we went to a casino. I have never had a desire to gamble, but I was curious as to what goes on. Oxford Casino in western Maine is less than an hour from my home, so my husband and I decided to take a look.
This is not a casino for high rollers, based on the publicity shots. “Betty from Orono won $3000! George from Portland won $1500!” Photos and these types of testimonials littered every corner of the casino, although frankly they didn’t sound like particularly big numbers to me, based on tales of fantastic winnings I’ve been told about in Las Vegas. I was soon to find out why: even though there were a few $25 slot machines, you could play a huge number of slot machines for as little as one penny – – but the payout was correspondingly poor. We decided instead to visit the tables where various card games such as black jack were in full swing. There was also roulette. Everyone moved very fast and the games were paced too quick for novices such as ourselves, so we merely watched. Yes, we saw people winning – – the amounts were $60 or less – – but we saw much more losing. We decided to return to the slot machines.
Originally we agreed to waste – I mean spend – no more than $20, which is what one might spend on a cheap date elsewhere, like the movies, and look at it purely as entertainment rather than as a means to get rich or even come out ahead.
But it seemed incredibly foolish to drop $5 into a single play of a slot machine for only 4 attempts at winning. So I ventured to the $1 machines, but even this seemed outrageous (yep: I’m cheap) given the likelihood of loss. So I settled in at the penny slots, and put in $2.
Now in the old days (from movies I’ve seen), you pulled a lever. There must have been something satisfying in the physicality involved in pulling a lever, making you an active part of the process and feeling like you were actually doing something to get those 3 cherries to align. Today, however, it seems that most slot machines are like giant computer video games. The commercialization of these machines is incredible. At Oxford Casino there are themed machines based on Disney characters, on Star Wars, and even the Ellen Show (who knew she gets royalties from gamblers?!). You simply press a button – again and again and again. The machines emit a hideous amount of noise and flashing lights. Multiply this by a casino-ful of 850+ machines, and you get a deafening cacophony of lights and sound and over-stimulation. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to my quiet Maine woods, but the commotion repelled rather than excited me and my head began to throb.
I started hitting the slot machine button. Once, twice, three times. By the twentieth time, I was not only bored, I was frustrated by the utter mindlessness of it all. I cashed out my remaining $1.80 from the $2 and decided to call it a night (I’m probably the only person in the history of mankind that went to a casino to spend twenty cents!). The machine said that it could only refund my money if I went to the cashier, so I stood in line for 20 minutes waiting for my money. It was there in line that I saw all the hopes and dreams of desperation. There were some people who had won a few hundred dollars. There were people who, like me, had gone purely for entertainment. But there were also people who were clearly addicted to gambling, who lived for the next win to pay bills long overdue, and were deeper and deeper in trouble, but they were sure next time would be different. I spoke to many people that night. I truly wanted to fathom the lure, because I simply couldn’t tolerate the mindlessness of it. I couldn’t understand how it could be fun, even as I watched the show. My husband felt as I did.
That is not to say I don’t gamble. Every so often I throw away $1 on the lottery. Yeah, I know – – I am unlikely to ever hit it big. My “rationale” is as follows:
- If I play, I have an extremely minute chance of winning. If I don’t play, I have no chance of winning.
- I limit myself to one ticket. Two or more tickets won’t increase my odds; if G-d wants me to win, one will suffice.
A week after my visit to Oxford Casino, I spent a few hours at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, where I was doing volunteer research on behalf of a non-profit organization in search of grant money. The Maine Philanthropy Center maintains an office there. Its purpose is to direct grant-seekers to public and private foundations through a national database where they can apply to procure funding for just about every cause and purpose known to mankind – – religious, secular, social, environmental, educational, animal welfare, etc.
That’s where I came across the Narragansett Number One Foundation.
According to an AP news article written in 2006, way back in 2001,
Ed Wales, 70 years old, was living a simple life in Buxton, Maine. He worked odd jobs and loved tinkering under the hoods of old cars. He and his wife Pat bought a Powerball lottery ticket, and to their astonishment, won $41 million (after taxes). The Wales vowed that their lifestyle would remain unchanged, and they were true to their word. Two weeks later, after donating $100,000 to their local fire department, the Wales committed $5 million in seed money to their newly-formed Narragansett Number One Foundation. They disburse 5% of the foundation’s assets each year and invest the rest to preserve capital and provide for its continuation.
The foundation has awarded hundreds of grants to churches, schools, children’s charities, and other nonprofit organizations in southern Maine, with most awards going to groups in the Buxton area.
I thought about how this contrasted to the scene at the Oxford Casino.
I don’t think anyone is immune from fantasizing about what they’d do if they won the lotto. I used to joke, “Please, Lord, test me!” But how inspiring to think that someone actually did something good with money that was, after all, not earned, but won.
Mr. Wales died five years after winning the lottery.
Perhaps he did not change his lifestyle with the winnings, but he and his wife changed the quality of countless other lives in Southern Maine.
I guess you could say they hit the jackpot.