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Presenter's Notebook

By James Silver

BBC's James Silver

I suppose you could call it a journalist's version of method acting. Last summer, while making a radio series about gambling addicts for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), I became, albeit fleetingly, a compulsive gambler. For 60 minutes, I was overwhelmed by an insatiable and inexplicable urge to feed slot machines like a demented fool with a lifetime's savings to blow.

Apart from two days in Las Vegas while on a pre-college trip around the United States, I'd never set foot in a casino before. In Britain, they tend to be forbidding places, frequented by Rotarian-type, middle-aged males shrouded by cigar smoke. In fact, only about four percent of the population has ever visited a casino and, until recently, you had to hold membership before the doormen would even let you behind the rope. In Las Vegas, as an impecunious student, I could spare about $20 for gambling - any more and I would have been without a motel for that night. Besides, after long hours on a festering Greyhound bus, I remember being more interested in the cheap, plentiful food and free drinks.

But 15 years later, in the shimmering heat of Atlantic City, I had a credit card in my wallet and a spare evening on my hands. In a casino city, that's a dangerous mix.

Let me set the scene for you: I was with my producer Mark Alden and we were staying at Caesar's Atlantic City. Even among the gaudy faux-splendour of casino hotels, Caesar's Atlantic City is something of a peacock. I described it at the time as "Gladiator Chic." The hotel's Web site invites guests to "retreat to the opulence of ancient Rome." There was, of course, little opulence, unless you counted the 3,400 slot machines, and there was certainly nothing ancient about Caesar's. The centerpiece - amid the florid décor, marble and fountains of the atrium - was a large statue of Julius Caesar himself. He scowls down imperiously, and one would like to think disapprovingly, on the queues of shuffling seniors in their mauve tracksuits.

It was hard to know which little piece of phony Rome to check out first. The Gladiator Grille perhaps? Maybe an aperitif in the Forum Lounge or the drearily disappointing Toga Bar? The blurb about The Bacchanal restaurant was certainly enticing. "Take in the ancient Roman celebration of Bacchanalia," it promised. "A legendary feast of fine dining and sumptuous spirits! Named after the Roman god of wine and revelry, the Bacchanal expands the imagination by serving your meal in the same manner Caesar once enjoyed!"

Although the prospect of a scantily-clad serving girl feeding us grapes and chicken legs sounded diverting, we decided to pass on the Bacchanal. So after a long day of interviews in the broiling July heat, Mark and I strolled aimlessly about on the casino floor where there was neither a hint of Rome nor a whiff of Caesar. The first thing that hit us as we wandered like stunned cattle in a slaughterhouse through all 124,000 feet of floor-space was the noise. The awful, inculcating slot-machine Muzak. And the clatter of machines paying out winnings. (Although, interestingly, these days the clatter is electronic rather than actual coins, as it had been all those years ago in Vegas.)

The clientele were mostly on the older side. Many sat droopily on stools sipping cokes, feeding the slots for hours on end. What struck me was how antisocial it all was. There was little conversation. Instead, just row after row of people sucked into their own anesthetized worlds. The bereaved wife or widower hunched over in silence, before going back to an empty Roman-empire styled suite for room service and Letterman.

Mark, a decidedly logical fellow, was instantly bored. "Forget the gambling," he said. "Let's go find us a decent bar and steakhouse." Those may not have been his exact words. At any rate, I ignored him. I'd never had the patience to learn any of the more intriguing-sounding games like poker or blackjack, so if I wanted to gamble, and I was suddenly overcome with an irresistible urge to gamble, it would have to be roulette or slots. For some reason, mainly because it didn't involve talking to a croupier and fumbling for my chips like a jackass, I settled on slots.

I bypassed the $5 machines before taking my place amid the maniacal seniors in their carnival of primary color tracksuits. I picked a 25-cents-a-pop machine, repeatedly stabbing the spin button in a bored fashion while waiting for the cocktail waitress to bring me a free drink that never arrived.

Mark stood watching me pityingly and checking his watch, as I kept prodding the button every five seconds with RSI-inducing monotony.

"Let's go," he pleaded.

"In a minute," I replied, lying.

Then, the worst thing that could have happened, actually did happen. If I'd have lost, say, $50, I would have happily walked away. But instead, my machine went berserk. I'd hit a kind-of sub-jackpot with a baffling alignment of bars and fruit. It chugged out winnings of more than $400.

Suddenly, I was a hero among the blue rinse set. Seniors flocked to me. But instead of walking calmly over to the cashier and cashing out, a little, tiny voice begged me to stay that little bit longer.

"You're not going to put it back in, are you?" asked Mark, horrified.

"Just some of it."

"Some of it?"

"I'll set a limit."

"What limit?"

"$200."

He shook his head. He has a young family and didn't approve.

As entertainment goes, slot machines don't come cheap. I lost the $200 within 20 minutes. A box at the Met is a bargain by comparison. Soon, I'd blown $300.

After 40 minutes, the lot had gone.

It was then that I think I may have spotted one of the seniors snickering.


James Silver is a regular reporter and presenter for BBC Radio Four, Five Live and the World Service and writes for a number of UK newspapers including The Guardian and The Independent. He lives in London.

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