I am in a place with no windows, no exit signs, no closing hour, no clocks, and the atmosphere of a shark with the scent of blood. Welcome to Casino Niagara, Niagara Falls. Within five feet of entering the concourse, an electrical current plugs through my bones as an explosion of visual stimulation assaults my senses: champagne bubbles of twinkling lights, deep hued forest green table tops, and a tumult of voices. North America’s silver and blue-haired cattle have been herded by busload and shuttled from their bingo parlours in upstate New York and beyond to the gilded halls of this adult playground. People are intravenously hooked up to the slot machines via umbilical cord to their Casino credit card. This discourages any human necessities like blinking, breathing or relieving yourself. Even death is probably viewed as an inconvenience – a corpse prevents someone else from gambling. Gamblers at “coin machines” look like
an assembly line of automated junkies as they press the “spin” button with acute
determination, anticipating the clinking excitement of money. You can see the needle
marks of desperation.
The place is like a Bedouin’s tent, filled with shimmering temptations and fleshy cleavages squeezed into sequenced vests serving drinks. Ubiquitous smiling hostesses and tuxedos blur by, while an indistinguishable chatter, all add to the smell of greed and fear. A myriad of manicured blackjack, poker and baccarat tables grace the interior. Big Six and roulette tables cover the areas where the one-armed bandits don’t. “Damn right,” mutters a hefty man wearing a baseball cap and a vinyl Maple Leaf’s jacket as he reads TODAY’S YOUR LUCKY DAY! It blinks hypnotically from a slot machine. He proceeds to drown a large roll of loonies into the mouth of the machine. Within ten minutes, he has lost it all. As he sulks, a woman, three aisles down, squeals as $3,000 worth of coins regurgitates into her metal tray.
The croupier solemnly wins another hand at the blackjack table. The eyes of gamblers glisten with imperishable hope on every bet. The dealer glides her hand over the
Wimbledon green layout like a conjurer. Her hand floats smoothly above the table with
professional ease. All five players watch it like an oscillating piano timer. A new deck is
automatically shuffled from what looks like a small black safety box, and then spits out
a deck from its lip. With deft precision, the croupier flips each card face-up in front of
the opposing players. This prevents anyone from touching or tampering with the cards.
Further scrutiny comes in the form of the floorman, whose taciturn presence almost
blurs into the background. One polished looking floorman informs me that a patron
won over $150,000 at blackjack a couple of days earlier. The croupier looks at a 16
staring back at her, usually known as “gambler’s ruin.” Without hesitation, she deals
herself, another card – a 5 of Diamonds. “Twenty-one,” she announces flatly. A chorus
of groans spread around the table. A blonde, tanned lady of indeterminate age curses
and takes another gulp from her scotch. Despair that had swept the table turns once
more to hope when the croupier deals a new pack and the human frailty called greed is
again restored. Their personalities seemingly as transparent as lit homes at night.
Black Plexiglas bubbles regimentally dot the ceiling like a chessboard. Behind each tint
of glass, a tape is rolling; a cold, metallic eye surveys and scrutinizes each table and
each dealer. It is trained on the tables, the slot machines, the counting rooms, and the
cage where cashiers sell and cash-in chips. The “eye” knows there is a touch of
larceny in everyone. This includes the dealers who make just enough to put up with the
stress from gamblers and the tension from management. After twenty minutes of
observing the blackjack players, three-quarters of them seem deflated. The games
have no start nor finish, but are just continuous – an anxious rhythm.
There is a deathly silence from the gamblers as the roulette ball spins, bounces, tickles
and trickles into a slot on the wheel. “Twenty-five red,” barks the dealer as the table
erupts into a symphony of jubilation and angst. The table is alive with characters:
shady high-rollers, divorcees, newlyweds who assume luck is on their side, voyeurs
who look for excitement, hustlers who look for naïve prey, tourists, old women with
their pension money and men with their welfare cheques, and an extraordinary amount
of Chinese – emotionless and resolute. Most of all, everyone is consumed by the
frantic speed of the action, the “live or die” scenario with each bet. I can feel the
energy peak then wane with each roll of the ball. Their faces read of silent prayers.
Anxiety jerks their movements as their eyes burn through the little white ball. It is
What makes it truly fascinating is watching the various gambling techniques: The
compulsive player who bets heavily on particular numbers, never varying his game,
seemingly unflustered by a flush of hundreds that steadily pour from his wallet, only to
fuel his fix from the nearest ATM machine (he’s determined to win it all back); the
earnest player who jots down numbers meticulously on a pad, trying to outwit luck; the
“safe” player that plays opposing numbers so he never loses nor wins…until the ball
hits “00”, which it does three times whilst I am there; and the compulsive gambler, who
lurks inside most of us, bets with a lack of decorum, never knowing when it is
appropriate to stop. The real winners are usually the same players: the casino, the City
of Niagara and Revenue Canada.
Nevertheless, building and running a gambling facility doesn’t create wealth, it merely
transfers it. It is a bit like a wonderful quote I once read: “But look at Atlantic City. It
used to be a slum by the sea, and now, it’s a slum by the sea with casinos.” The
consequences in whether or not gambling benefits or hurts a community can be
addressed: The benefit for a region is if the transfers are from outside of the region.
This stimulus could occur two main ways: First, tourists from abroad spend more time
and money within the region. And second, local residents who used to travel outside of
the region to gamble now stay within the region.
There are also ways that building a casino could result in no increased benefits for the
region: Local residents who used to go to restaurants now spend their money in the
casino. Then the casino has no net economic benefit. Tourists who used to spend
money on other activities within the region now go to a gambling facility within the
region. Constructing a casino could be pejorative if either of the following occurred:
Local businesses go bankrupt because consumers have changed their expenditures to
casinos that happen to be owned by out-of-province interests. Casinos buy more
products from out of province than the businesses they replace. Finally, casinos result
in increased social costs including police and other public services as well as the costs
of pathological and problem gamblers. A correlation between convenient access to
gambling and high bankruptcy rates might also occur if distressed communities are
more receptive to the introduction of casinos than prosperous communities. This leads
me to question the proliferation of TV commercials (and Internet gambling games),
which pander to an audience to gamble. According to the American Psychological
Association, Internet gambling could be as addictive as alcohol or drugs. It remains to
be seen what kind of deal the future holds.
Check out Clive Branson’s illustrations here