Doubling Down

Nearly two decades after voters rolled the dice on casinos, has the city and state hit the jackpot or is it even money? One safe bet: The house always wins.


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On a clear, cool, and dry Christmas morning, the valet parking line at the MGM Grand Casino in downtown Detroit is short and moves quickly. The man who opens your door is exceedingly polite, as is the security guard at the front door.

Parking is free, although tips are customary. “Welcome!” the parking guy says with a smile. At the door, the security inspection is quick and cursory. “Good luck!” the guard says.

With a nod and a wave you’re in. Your eyes adjust to the dim light as your ears sort out the clatter and the muffled music beneath the “Bloop-bloop!” and “Ding-ding-ding!” of the slot machines. 

The speaker system plays the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” In a few hours, you see outside the casino a ragged man with a hand-lettered sign that says “Homeless Veteran. No Family.” Homeless people sometimes compete for prime intersections near the casinos. You roll down the window and give him a dollar of your non-winnings. 

Inside the casino, the mood isn’t quite as grim — but more serious than you’re led to believe by TV commercials that show groups of beautiful young people celebrating their good luck.

Many customers come alone and sit at slot machines with fixed expressions for long periods of time. It’s the same at MotorCity and Greektown, the other two casinos of Detroit’s other “Big Three.”

More than a few senior citizens bring canes or walkers. Signs by the escalators warn them to use elevators instead.

According to a Greektown Casino spokesman, the average customer age is 53 years old with females making up 55.6 percent of the players.

On Christmas, one woman in this demographic sits alone at a row of slot machines at MGM Grand. She wears a Santa Claus hat on her head and a blue surgical mask on her face. Perhaps the mask is to filter out the tobacco smoke that clings to your clothes and hair despite sophisticated ventilation systems. (Yes, casinos are exempt from the state’s non-smoking laws.)

Her red-and-white cap and some red clothing on other patrons offer the only clues that it’s, in fact, Christmas. But not in here. There are no holiday decorations, no calendars, no clocks, no windows. For all you can tell, it might be the Fourth of July. 

You’ve been pulled like a paper clip to a magnet into downtown Detroit’s casino world, where money flows like snow in a glass ball, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of every year.

 

Winners and Losers

As of Dec. 31, 2015, the Michigan Gaming Control Board reports that aggregate revenue for the three Detroit casinos grew 3.3 percent last year to just under $1.38 billion compared to $1.33 billion in 2014. 

Eighty-three percent came from slot machines, the rest from table games like dice and cards. For the year, Detroit collects $174.3 million in taxes.

Christmas Day alone, adjusted gross revenue for the three casinos was $4,572,005. For New Year’s Eve — “Our Super Bowl,” one executive called it — the figure soared to $8,309,095.

Although they’ve been around for about 15 years, these flashy civic cash registers seem to hide in plain sight, even at night when their lights are bright in a city still recovering from bankruptcy and hoping to renew itself from downtown outward.

All three draw most of their customers from the immediate area. Although Detroit is rarely thought of as a wealthy place, some big money passes through these buildings.

“Some of the high rollers we’ve had have lost over a million dollars in one day,” says Richard S. Kalm, the retired chief of staff for the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office who is the MGCB’s executive director. “They play $25,000 to $50,000 hands of blackjack, or whatever. It’s just off the charts. You and I don’t even live in that world.”

Indeed, a footnote in the MGCB December report reveals: “Table game patron lost $3 million on ‘Mini Bacc,’ ” which sounds like baccarat. However, the document is unclear as to which day it happened and at which casino.

None of the casinos wish to discuss it, although they readily promote stories about big winners, as happened at Greektown in December when a woman won $2,005,393.85 on “Wheel of Fortune.”

“The machine went dark,” the winner said in a statement issued by the casino. “I thought I just killed the machine. The machine then lit back up and revealed I had won over $2 million and I thought ‘Wow, I really did kill it.’ ”

 

Getting Pulled In

Detroit isn’t exactly Monte Carlo or Las Vegas — or even Atlantic City. On this Christmas morning in the MGM Grand, there are no suave men in tuxedoes or slinky women in glittering gowns smoking cigarettes in long holders.

But you do see all shapes and sizes of middle-aged people and senior citizens in Tigers hats, Lions jackets, and Red Wings jerseys. A woman wears an orange T-shirt that says “Detroit vs. Everybody.” A guy at a craps table takes a cellphone photo of his big stacks of chips.

Among them walk young, slender women who carry trays of non-alcoholic drinks served for free. 

“Beverage?” they ask. “Something to drink?”

It makes sense. A customer looking for a water fountain isn’t wagering. But if he or she can quench their thirst then and there at the slot machine, they can keep playing.

As some gamblers sit or walk from game to game, they clench burning cigarettes in their teeth to use both hands. When ashes fall to the carpet, employees with brooms and dustpans quickly sweep them up. 

Most customers play the slots, which require little thought beyond button-pushing. Instant gratification … or not. You can lose a penny or 25 cents at a time; or you could win $2 million on one pull of the lever.

“It’s all luck, that’s all it is,” says a blackjack dealer. “Sometimes, when they’re winning, I tell them ‘Your moon and stars must be lined up.’ ” 

The same thought occurred to me on Christmas when a slot machine “called out to me,” as some gamblers say, at MGM Grand. The machine’s name: “Moon Goddess.” And this was the night of the full moon. Born in July as a Cancer Moon Child, I take this as a sign.

Based on these scientific calculations, I smelled money: five full moons coming my way, yes! Just wait and see! Like the sign says inside the parking garage at MotorCity: “Momma needs 20 new pairs of shoes.” 

I put $20 into the machine and began to push buttons. Moon Goddess’ large face enchants me — framed by blue-black hair, that far-away expression, all that jewelry around her forehead, and those big blue earrings. Oh, look! She gives me four moons but — (sigh!) — not five.

I’m so enthralled I barely notice the steady and rapid dip in my funds. It feels Pavlovian. The more I lose, the faster and harder I bang the repeat button to hear the recorded sounds of bass, drums, and bells go “Clang-clang-clang!” even if you “win” $1 on a $5 bet and the house keeps the other four.

But someone is winning, by the sound of it. From two or three rows away you hear a solitary “Whoo!” and applause. Next comes the recorded sound of coins cascading into a metal tray. Winnings are officially tabulated by computer and printed out on a card to be redeemed at the cashier’s cage, but people still love to hear that old-time slot machine sound.

Soon I, too, will hear that winning sound … I just know it. I head to Greektown with a strategy. I insist my official casino tour guides take me to the same “Wheel of Fortune” machine where the woman won $2 million.

Eagerly, I shove a bill into the little opening at 3:13 p.m. It’s the Detroit area code. A good omen? The machine records my $20 credit.  I start pulling the lever — faster and faster as I lose. By 3:17 p.m., 70 cents remain on my cash-out card.

Certainly, I think, my luck will change if I change casinos, so it’s over to MotorCity. There, so many machines beckon me. One displays the Rolling Stones, “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.” 

Certainly the boys will reward my 50 years of loyalty. Instead, they take $20 in about 10 minutes, which, pro-rated, is about what I paid for their two-hour concert last summer. All I get from the machine is a few bars of “Beast of Burden” and a glimpse of Ron Wood playing guitar.

As I leave my chair, I am startled by the Robot Woman who rolls up and starts a conversation. (As a rule, very few people start conversations with strangers in casinos.)

But she’s different. She’s made of a wheeled base that looks like the bottom of a vacuum cleaner and a body that looks sort of like a ladder. At the top is mounted a TV monitor showing the face of a young woman who is talking to me through a closed-circuit television camera from elsewhere in the casino.

It’s like one of those calls on a cellphone … except bigger and right in your face.

“How are you?” the robot asks.

“Not so hot,” I say. “I need a winning machine. What do you suggest?”

“Wonder Woman,” she replies. “Behind you.” 

I spin around to see Wonder Woman and sit down to spend a few minutes with her. Very few, it turns out. Before I get comfortable, I’m out another $50. I bump into Robot Woman and tell her Wonder Woman wasn’t so wonderful.

“Sorry,” she says, with that earnest empathy one finds among nurses, clergy … and robots in gambling casinos.

 

Under Watchful Eyes

Robot Woman’s camera is one of hundreds in each casino; most are used for more serious things. Matt Buckley, vice president of marketing at MGM Grand, demonstrates on his office monitor what he can see across an extensive closed-circuit network. 

He tilts and pans a camera to a man playing video poker. He zooms the lens. You can see the man’s cards and even read the time on his watch. Another camera shows a medium-distance ceiling shot from above a cashier’s cage.

The cameras fight crime. Here’s how one scam works. One person distracts a customer at a slot machine. The partner in crime takes the cash-out ticket, collects the money, and heads for the parking garage.

They think they’ve gotten away with it, Buckley says, but cameras have recorded the theft, the footpath of the thief, and also his car. The video zooms in to read the license plate number. The perps eventually get popped. 

The MGCB’s Kalm says State Police coordinates with Detroit Police and casino security, and perform law enforcement activities inside the casinos — including plain-clothes stings on predators. Outside, there are Detroit police officers in city police cars, their salaries paid by the casinos. 

Sometimes people pass counterfeit money, Kalm says, intentionally or not. 

 

Happy to Work the Crowds

As I cruise the casinos — alone and on guided tours with executives — I get a sense of employee morale.

Although a strike threat was recently averted, employees at all three operations seem happy with their jobs and love to talk about the perks: good health insurance, up to four weeks of vacation, a free meal every day, and help with college tuition, among other things.

And they enjoy talking about their jobs, even the bad moments. One woman working a craps table says a man once threatened her life. 

Another woman at a blackjack table says people tell dealers their life stories and often weep. “I find it sad,” she says. “When they lose, they get even more depressed. You can’t help but feel compassion in your heart, especially when you lose money you shouldn’t even be betting. 

“Sometimes a guy’ll say, ‘Well, there goes this month’s mortgage.’ ”

Most casino workers ask not to be named. But Dave Weiland of Westland — who retired recently after 13 years at MotorCity — says he really liked getting to know regular customers. “Talking to the dealer is like therapy for them.” 

Once, a conversation was interrupted by an unexpected noise — a gunshot. “Three tables over,” he says. “I was doing roulette. First thing you do is cover your money, real quick. Then I hit the floor.”

No one was injured. A man reaching into his wife’s purse for cigarettes accidently pulled the trigger on her gun. 

Weiland says he served many Major League baseball players in the casino owned by Marian Ilitch, wife of Mike Ilitch, who heads the family that also owns the Red Wings and the Tigers.

One day, a Tiger player Weiland won’t name rolled dice that helped three young guys win big. In gratitude, they flipped the ballplayer a $100 chip as a tip.

The athlete had just signed a multi-year, multimillion-dollar contract, but the young men didn’t recognize him. The athlete flipped the chip into Weiland’s tip jar.

Another sideshow he remembers was a man and a woman making love on an empty craps table in plain view. He says some people have urinated in their clothes rather than leave the tables.

“That happens all over the place,” Weiland says. “They’re afraid to miss the hand they’ve been waiting for.”

 

Losing Streaks

For such problem gamblers, there are exits on the highway to hell. One is Gamblers Anonymous, a 12-step recovery program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. 

The man who answers the phone at GA goes by the name “Jim,” and he lives in Michigan. Although vague about his full name and precise location, Jim’s story rings true. 

Jim didn’t get infected by the gambling itch until he was in his mid-50s and nearing retirement from a well-known Michigan company. He and his wife had 401(k) accounts and were planning for stable golden years.

“We were on Easy Street,” he says.

Until he started visiting casinos.

On his first day, he won $8,000. “And I thought ‘Oh, man, this is my life.’ ”

His luck didn’t hold. “You see yourself slipping into poverty,” Jim says. “So you think you’re going to gamble your way back. It became my life. You leave your body and you become someone you can’t recognize. You think you’re smarter than everybody else.”

Jim invented reasons to tell his wife he had to stay on the road an extra night. He contemplated suicide. “The worst part of gambling is lying, usually to somebody you love,” he says. His wife forgave him, he says, and they’ve been married for 48 years. 

“A gambler will not stop until there’s a disaster,” Jim says.

Jim’s disaster was getting fired from his job — and humiliated when escorted out by security guards two days before Christmas. 

He says gambling can be worse than alcohol addiction because drunks eventually pass out — gamblers continue until they’re broke.

Jim’s gambling spree lasted eight months, but he adds: “I haven’t had a slip in 16 years.” Still, he says, there isn’t a day when he isn’t tempted.

“I remember the excitement,” he says. “Today, I’d like nothing better than to sit down at a blackjack table.”

He takes many phone calls not from gamblers but from women about to marry men who borrow money from them to pay debts or to gamble anew. He counsels extreme caution.

He says many gamblers are lonely people — some widows or widowers. But few find new friends at the casino. This isn’t a singles bar. “It’s you against everybody else,” Jim says.

For people who feel they have a gambling addiction, the casinos and MGCB allow them to voluntarily put their names on a list of “disassociated” persons who can ban themselves from entering the casinos. 

“Even then, the State Police arrest probably 10 or 11 a month, people who have banned themselves and go into the casinos anyway,” Kalm says. “I’ve always found that odd.”

They are discovered when they hit a big jackpot and try to redeem the card at the cashier’s cage. When they’re detected, they are denied the money they thought they had won. 

Rather than prosecute them, Kalm says problem gamblers are steered to a recovery program. “Because when you sign up, we fingerprint you,” he says. “You ban yourself for life.”

These are the extreme cases.

 

The Casual Approach to Winning

A more typical customer might be Georganna Cartwright, an energetic widow with red hair who lives in the suburbs and knows her way around the Detroit casinos as well as Caesars in Windsor. 

“I go at least once a month, sometimes twice,” she says. “I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t go to parties. So this is what I enjoy.” She goes enough to get complimentary hotel rooms and meals from some of the casinos.

“I’m not a screamer who gets up and dances like a lot of people do,” she says. “When I hit, it’s like ‘Oh, my God!’ It’s the thrill of winning, like when a Tiger hits a home run. It’s exciting!” 

Like many gamblers, Cartwright defines a daily budget and stops when she loses that amount.

“I know my limits,” she says. “Never bet money you can’t afford to lose.” 

She says casino etiquette requires customers not to walk around with cash in their hands and spectators should not look over the shoulder of another player, even on the slots.

“And it’s best not to say anything to anybody,” she says. “People are defensive.” 

Big winners have to pay taxes, but those people can produce some exquisite moments. Weiland recalls one a few years ago when he was working the overnight shift — 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. — late Christmas Eve through early Christmas morning.

Business was slow and a young couple came by around 2 a.m. to talk a lot and gamble a little. “You could see they were in love,” Weiland says. “And you could see they didn’t have much money.”

They told Weiland they just got engaged that night and she showed him a little, inexpensive ring he’d given her to seal the deal.

“Congratulations,” Weiland said.

The future bridegroom began to play a complex poker game called “Let It Ride.” He made a $30 bet by putting $10 chips on three circles, and “he caught a five, six, seven of clubs,” Weiland recalls. “He said to me ‘Aw, man, this is like a devil’s hand. I’m not sure what to do.’ ”

Weiland didn’t answer, but he pointed to the sign showing the name of the game “Let It Ride.” So the man did.

“I turn over the next two cards,” Weiland says. “Eight and nine of clubs! Straight flush! He won $6,500 on a $30 bet! The guy actually fell backward off his chair.”

Weiland says the man got up, kissed his fiancée, “tipped me well,” and said: “I’m going out right now to buy her a better ring. We’re leaving. 

“Merry Christmas!”

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