I’ve been a gambler my whole life, ever since I started pitching pennies and shooting marbles. I hate to lose, so most of my education came on the cheap, and I’ve stayed with games I could beat, and steered away from people and games I couldn’t.
Near the beginning, I was a nine-year-old kid playing a Superior Jackpot Bell slot machine in the basement of my great grandparent’s house in Oakland, California.
We’d made the trip in from the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel, my parents and I, and my older sister, but I could only visit so long before my little brain got bored.
When that happened, I’d go through the kitchen to the little porch in back and head down the stairs. Then, I’d pull the latch on the basement door and flip the switch to the dirt-floored, musty old room and check things out. It was creepy in there, but it was always exciting.
Once, I found old magazines from the 1950s like TV Guide and Time. I moved on. Only the Playboy magazine kept me interested for more than a few minutes. But what really got my attention was a big metal thing with a handle.
I saw it hiding under a bunch of old boxes filled with papers and Christmas ornaments that I shoved aside. Once exposed I realized this wasn’t a candy machine. It was an old slot machine. I’d seen newer ones at the casinos in Lake Tahoe, the place where my Aunt Val once hit a 10-cent Keno ticket for $500.
My heart was thumping as I pushed some rolled-up rugs further away so I could turn the machine around. It was no easy task since it weighed about as much as I did. It scraped noisily against the coarse wood and slowly swiveled as I huffed and puffed. The back revealed a door that came off once I turned the key. Inside there were big spools with colored-fruit symbols, springs, gears, and a small square box with a hole in the top.
I pulled the box out and opened it. Talk about a jackpot! It was filled with dimes. Old ones, made of silver. I played with them while my mind traveled with me to the local Seven Eleven I rode my banana seat bike to that sold packs of baseball cards and Slurpees.
Sometime later I managed to get my hand out of the cold hard cash and turn the darned monstrosity around again. Then, I started putting the dimes I had taken from the box, back into the machine, one at a time. Mostly I hit cherries on the first reel, which paid back a few coins. I must have played for an hour before I heard my mother calling me to “Get up here!”
I felt an enormous temptation to take a handful of dimes with me to buy candy or (sound of harps in the background) baseball cards. I was a San Francisco Giants fan, and Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry – holy cow, they were all there, just a few minutes away at Candlestick Park – and a dime bought two packs of cards that offered a chance (slim, mind you) of getting one of their gum cards. So much temptation for such a simple mind. But no, no, I wouldn’t do it; not even for baseball cards.
Over the years I may have taken a few dimes, but not many because that slot machine was the best thing in the world. It was sacred, even if nobody in the family remembered it was down there in the basement. And for a long time, all I wanted was a slot machine of my own.
My First Casino
The best I could manage was a tiny 35-cent machine from a strange little store in town with lots of trinkets from Japan and around the Orient. My math skills were still developing, but my curiosity pushed me to count each stop on the wheels (10 total) and the Bar-Bar-Bar jackpot symbols that only appeared once on each reel.
In addition, a cherry and two cherries only came up once each, and there my friends, was the beginning of my understanding of the magical properties of gambling.
I let my friends play my little slot machine, for a penny a pull, and I paid them a penny for a cherry, two-cents for two cherries, and 5-cents for a jackpot. They were happily playing an 80% payback machine, and the next week I bought two more machines (all in pennies, to the cashier’s dismay) and had my own casino.
My gaming joint, located in our extra bedroom, also offered a small roulette wheel and a pachinko machine. A few days later my mother came into my little casino and busted me. I was shut down; out of business, but richer for the experience. I learned to figure some percentages with those little slot machines.
I also learned to calculate baseball player batting averages (divide their hits by at-bats) and a pitcher’s ERA (earned run average) from the back of those old baseball cards. So, those early cards and slot machines taught me math, and sent me on a path that included playing baseball and lots of poker with buddies through high school and college, and finally spending my adulthood in casinos – on both sides of the tables.
The casinos have been a good gig for me, and the history of Nevada and how the early casinos were legalized and grew from their original spots in basements (like that old 1928 Caille slot I played a Grandma’s) and second floors to become the lifeblood of Nevada’s 20th Century economic base has been a lifelong learning for me.
In confession, I’ve also taught math to some of my daughters with coins paid by slot machines, since they grew up with slots and crane machines in the house. I even have a photo or two of them playing the slot machines in their jammies, occasionally with a bottle of milk in the other hand.
The photo above is one of those slot machines, a cool double reel or “piggyback” that I bought from the old Overland Casino in Reno, but that’s another story.