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Rollin' on the River

These Parts: Dennis Rodkin tries the casino boats so you won't have to.

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Forget these two words: Las and Vegas. The riverboat casinos docked in a dozen dumpy little towns around the Midwest are not the new Las Vegas. They have no Siegfried and Roy, no fabulous show girls, no artificial volcanoes or pirate ships, no all-night-buffet-till-you-puke, and saddest of all, no Wayne Newton.

Since April 1991, when the first modern riverboat casino opened in Iowa, comparisons to Vegas have been as common as cheesy "Guys and Dolls" references in all the talk about the boom market in gambling. But the riverboats aren't Las Vegas. They're something else entirely.

They're the Gap.

The evidence:

New riverboat casinos pop up almost as often these days as new Gap stores did a few years ago. Riverboats dock in nine locations in Illinois now, and a tenth will open later this year; nationally, there are 22 riverboat casinos and 30 more scheduled to shove off by December.

Just like Gap salesteens, all casino workers share one mantra. If it's "That looks great on you" at the Gap, it's "Good luck" at the casinos.

Every Gap on this and other planets looks alike--same must-have $34 shirt in this week's colors, same coordinated socks for $6 a pair. Beyond a few decor and costuming flourishes, all casinos are built around the same tangle of slot machines and gaming tables.

There's always the chance that this week's featured shirt might be the one that finally makes you look like John F. Kennedy Jr. And there's always the chance that one more spin of the roulette wheel will finally make you rich like John F. Kennedy Jr.

You never go into the Gap expecting to spend much money, and you come out with the impression that you hardly spent anything on that $200 bagful of T-shirts and shorts. Ditto at the casinos, where you can feel you did well on a night when you lost a couple hundred.

James Dean wore khakis. While playing poker.

And like the Gap, the casinos get old after a few thousand visits.

I confess that I'm not yet certain about this last point, because I've only racked up six casino visits so far. And all in two short weekends. One Saturday my friend John and I did the two casinos in Joliet and the one in Aurora. The next weekend I took my wife on a road trip to sample the casino riverboats in East Peoria, Rock Island, and East Dubuque--a trio of perfectly enchanting destinations for a young couple who can never see too many soggy cornfields and combined pancake house piano bars.

My main qualification for doing this tour is that I have gambled several times a day for the past five months. My wife is pregnant, and her delicate condition sends strange new hormones caroming around in her bloodstream, leading to severe mood swings. So every time I speak to her, I'm gambling that it won't be my last.

The odds gods seem to have smiled on me for five whole months, so it seemed like a good time to try gambling with the only thing that is worth more to me than my life: cash. But somewhere on the road to Joliet--about midway between Stateville prison and the huge hand-painted sign on a garage that said "U.S. will kick Saddam's Ass!"--I remembered a painful truth about myself, and it would nag me through the rest of the grand tour of Illinois casinos. I'm a wuss.

Which is why it was fortunate John had come along. John is an experienced and willing gambler, and besides, he once went to a Grateful Dead concert in Las Vegas, which is sort of like Las Vegas squared. John would have to do the gambling for both of us.

He was glad to. I had prepared for the trip by singing "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" really loudly and badly while driving to pick him up, but John was taking this event more seriously; he had decided that a certain chunk of his bank account was the maximum he'd feel okay about losing. He wouldn't say how much that was, and 11 hours later, near the end of our third casino cruise together, I figured out why when I found John in line at an on-board cash machine that only dispenses $100 bills. He had lost every single penny of that chunk.

The loss didn't bother him. In fact, in the 15 years I've known John, I've rarely seen him so pleased with himself, so Kathie-Lee-Gifford happy, as when he was sitting at a blackjack table on the Empress Casino in Joliet losing hand after $5-minimum-bet hand. John was not only pleased but entertained by losing all that money. He'd probably get a big thrill out of selling "Quayle in '96" bumper stickers.

John has the same attitude as many people in the casinos. Many nongamblers have a hard time understanding the thrill, but after watching over the shoulders of several dozen gamblers on my recent tour, I think I finally get it. It's like riding a roller coaster: first comes the long slow joy of rising, rising, rising, knowing all the way that eventually you have to faaaaaaaaall.

Then it's up and down and down and up until you lose hold of that internal mechanism that tracks how far up and how far down you've been. When you finally give in to the ride, that's when the real thrills kick in.

I haven't been able to enjoy a roller-coaster ride since the one at the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, where my little brother wet his pants and mine. Gambling gives me that same uneasy feeling of "Uh-oh, Billy, did you . . . ?" But gamblers embrace the uncertainty. "People bring an amount of money and they expect that they are going to lose it but have a good time doing so," says David Hall, marketing director of the Hollywood Casino in Aurora. "This is an entertainment facility, and the smart way to do it is to say, 'I'm prepared to spend this amount to enjoy myself.' You know going in that a casino is in business and is not operating at a loss. You know you're probably not going to be the guy who becomes a millionaire, but it's an entertaining dream to have while you're playing."

Which is to say everybody shows up at a casino knowing they won't beat the system, the system will beat them. But they like the way it beats them. When the blackjack players say, "Hit me," they mean where it hurts--in the wallet.

It's the pot of gold waiting just out of reach that makes this way to let go of a couple hundred dollars a night more fun than spending the same money on tickets to watch Donny Osmond roam the stage of the Chicago Theatre wearing as close to nothing as we're ever likely to see.

Some people sling quarters, a harmless enough pastime that will not require them to contact an investment manager anytime soon. Others play bigger games. After midnight on the Hollywood Casino, my knees became Jell-O as I watched a guy react to losing two $1,000 stacks of chips in a hand of blackjack by calmly pushing one more stack into place for the next hand. And he lost that one. In four minutes, the man had lost $3,000. If I'd known he had come aboard wanting to lose big piles of money really fast, I'd have invited him to bet that I wouldn't eat a puppy.

One big surprise is that there's nowhere near the oversupply of big hair I'd expected to find on those boats. What riverboat gamblers lack in big hair, though, they make up in big bellies. Riverboat gambling skews older, as demographers say, and although enough crew-cut college jocks ride each boat to keep the high-five from going extinct, the over-40 crowd seems to keep the age-to-waistline ratio just about 1 to 1. That's why all the casinos offer valets who, for a dollar, will drive your car the 50 yards or so from the front door to a parking space. It also shows why the decorators of the Silver Eagle in East Dubuque were smart to use a mostly gray-and-blue color scheme. Goes with the clientele's hair.

Some gamblers bring their own ambience. They're the ones who make gambling into pure show. Lots of guys come loaded with too many memories of swinging Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra Rat Pack movies. Six guys in their late 20s with haircuts out of magazines took over a blackjack table in the nonsmoking room of the Empress in Joliet minutes after we boarded. From their smooth, pampered skin, I guessed they'd be spending all their winnings at the Clinique counter. The leader of the pack--you could tell he was the one because he had the two biggest gold rings--told the dealer five or six times, "You got some fockin' good-looking guys at your table tonight." The dealer showed amazing command of her poker face.

After about 45 minutes, I circulated back into the territory marked by their stud-guy cologne just in time to see four of the six get dealt aces in the same hand. As each new ace showed, they screamed a little louder, until on the fourth ace everybody in the room had turned to look at them--a rare moment in the leave-me-alone atmosphere of the casinos. One of the pack, a guy with a box of cigars poking out of his polka-dotted shirt pocket, told everybody at once, "I'm dizzy," while the ringleader shouted at the dealer, "You've got a lot of fockin' aces here tonight."

She laughed, probably thinking she'd have pronounced "aces" differently.

A few hours later on the Hollywood Casino, I spent half an hour watching a bovine middle-aged man at the craps table who, if he isn't Greek, at least buys big bottles of Grecian Formula. In one hand he held a huge cigar and in the other a girlfriend who will surely turn 25 by the time his first social-security check comes. She wasn't gambling, apparently having already spent all her baby-sitting money on the halter top she was wearing. But he was gambling, and he put on the best show of the night.

For those who haven't seen one before, a craps table is a mind-boggling thing that is only slightly harder to figure out than a chart of President Clinton's health-care reform plan. Painted lines divvy up its felt top into spaces with labels like Don't Come Bar, Horn High, and Hardways. Most of the casinos hand out little brochures that explain the game, but the action is way too fast to follow with your nose in a rulebook.

Mr. Grecian Formula evidently knew the rules, because he was tossing $25 chips all around the table and barking out orders for his various bets. Before rolling the dice, he had to get through an elaborate ritual that entailed rubbing his palm on the pink felt long enough to sustain a serious rug burn, then touching each face of one die with his middle finger, then grunting a few times before hurling those dice the length of the 15-foot craps table. He must have had half a dozen of Marlon Brando's scenes from Guys and Dolls playing in his head, even though he looked less like Brando the manly young screen god than Brando the parade balloon.

Julie, one of four casino employees working the table, could hardly contain her contempt for the man. She rolled her eyes and cringed each time the dice were handed to him. Julie told me Mr. Grecian Formula had already hit her with the dice twice, and she hissed to another gambler, "We get one roll every five minutes out of this big shot." A man at the other end of the table was openly taunting him--"Just roll the dice, idiot, we're not here all night,"--but Mr. Grecian Formula didn't care. It was his night to play high-roller, and even though other gamblers were packed all around him and the rather bodacious girlfriend was pressing all the best parts of herself against him, Mr. Grecian Formula was all by himself playing one game on the table and another in his head.

"The long and short of it is people don't care that you're there beside them," says Jim Murphy, the Empress marketing director. "It's a one-on-one form of entertainment, it's an individual sport. Even though they're respectful of you standing there, you're not occupying their minds at all."

It's hard to imagine that anything occupies the minds of the automatons who pump tokens into what used to be called a one-armed bandit but would be more aptly described as a channel-changer without a television. It's a mindless, endlessly repetitive and numbing game, probably a lot like the jobs many slot players come to the casinos to forget. Playing at the roulette, blackjack, or craps tables requires strategy, attention, and math skills. All it takes to play the slot machines is a butt small enough to fit on a stool. Or two stools if the boat isn't crowded.

Within minutes of being allowed to board, nearly every butt has found a stool, and the slot machine slaves are hard at work feeding tokens to their preferred masters. The slot machines usually line the perimeter of the gambling floor, making it seem as though the ancient sea ships propelled by slave oarsmen have evolved into today's riverboats powered by drones pulling on the arms of slot machines. Some slot players are literally chained to their machines; regulars plug in frequent-player cards that are tethered to their belt loops or bracelets.

There's something else you should know about slot machines: They're filthy. Play one for a while and you'll be grateful to discover that those tiny square packets lying around everywhere on the Silver Eagle and Harrah's in Joliet aren't condoms but moist towelettes. You'll also understand why if you go into the women's room, as my pregnant wife did every 17 minutes, a woman emerging from a stall will say something like, "No sense in washing my hands." It's not a sign that her personal hygiene is substandard. It means she's an experienced gambler. Not that this should stop you from washing your hands.

"The people who play table games probably do it because they feel they have a little more control over their destiny in the game," says Hollywood's Hall. "If you're a good blackjack player, you have an idea when to stand on your cards and when to ask for another, whereas with a slot machine you just get comfortable and play it out."

Gaming tables are great spectacles. Blackjack held my attention for hours, something that very few things besides other people's nudity can do. The dealers' finely choreographed hand motions look like hula for card players; two-handed deals that evoke a wave rolling over itself, open-palmed poses for the security cameras in the ceiling, quick raps on the tabletop and a sudden jittery hand dance as the dealer sorts the winning and losing chips. On the Par-A-Dice in East Peoria, a dealer whose name tag says he's Rob from Waukegan has slipped his own custom gestures into the otherwise standard routine. When a player makes a smart move, Rob does a little elbows-on-table-thumbs-up move that is delaers' hula for "Fonzie lives."

Craps and roulette tables provide their share of spectacle, especially for people who are impressed by the supreme efficiency of a bunch of serious anal-retentives working as a team. After each play there are huge piles of chips to be sorted by color and distributed to winners and the house; the teams working these tables pile, count, and slide messes of chips to their proper spots faster than you can say, "harsh potty training."

The players are just as focused; most wouldn't bother to look out the windows. Which is OK because some decks don't have any. "We initially thought that the cruise experience would be a big part of the appeal, but it isn't," says Casino Rock Island's marketing director, Nancy Donovan. "People don't come to see the river, they come for the games. A lot of them say, 'Oh, we left the dock?' and 'Oh, we're back?' I see the industry trending away from the idea of a cruise." Passengers have mostly trended that way already, as I first detected on the Harrah's boat, where the outdoor promenade deck is about five feet wide. I gave up wondering how more than a few people could comfortably stroll along it when I saw how the gamblers inside use it. In the span of three minutes, two different gamblers came out onto the promenade deck just long enough to flick their cigarette butts into the water and duck back inside.

Still, a handful of people come for the view, and the boats' open-air top decks are nice places from which to scan the midget skyline of Peoria or the blemish that is downtown Joliet.

They are also good places to escape the lung-killing volume of cigarette smoke that hangs indoors. Some of the boats have designated nonsmoking areas, but even so the biggest gamble you make when cruising on a riverboat casino is that you won't go home with emphysema.

One more thing you can escape on the roof decks is the scary decor inside. Two themes are particularly enjoyed were Hollywood's hokey heydey and Mark Twain goes to the whorehouse. The most alarming decor is at Casino Rock Island, where swooshy-patterned wallpaper or red velvet with gold tassels is plastered over everything that stands still, including the paper towel bins in the men's room and the piano. It looks like the Northern Illinois office of Tacky Kaki, the woman who re-did several rooms in the White House for the Clintons in a style known as Arkansas Catsick.

Casino operators like to say that the real winners in this industry are the local people who find new jobs, but I wonder. The biggest profits seem to have gone to the makers of ersatz period light fixtures, tin roofs, garish carpets and costumes from a high school production of Showboat.

The sad part is, few gamblers notice any of the fine faux amenities. The Empress's Murphy says that "a craps table is a craps table; it's the atmosphere you build around those tables that sets you apart," and it's his job to know, but I disagree. Gamblers concentrate on their games like Rush Limbaugh on Bill Clinton's sex life. The Empress could redecorate with the theme "Huge Bloody Roadkill Carcasses" and the customers wouldn't notice the difference.

At Harrah's gambling areas and the outside trim drip a 1980s shopping mall color scheme--turquoise, purple, mustard-yellow and still more turquoise--but the boat's stairways, bathrooms and other nongambling areas are all bland beige. The message: "Isn't it dull out here? Why not rush back inside where all the action is?"

I was especially worried about the Silver Eagle because of its location 10 miles northwest of Galena, the Midwest's capital of country quaint gone overboard. I was deeply grateful, then, to find out on the last day of my grand tour that the Silver Eagle developers hadn't used a theme at all. Instead they picked a few easy-to-clean and tranquil colors, built a clean, crisp land pavilion and a riverboat without a fake paddle wheel or even tin smokestacks that have to be folded down to go under a bridge. They'd put padded benches in some spots on the boat where hungrier developers like Harrah's would have jammed in another dozen slot machines.

And here we are back at the slot machines, as always. I was drawn to them like a rubber-necker to an expressway crash. On the first round, the day with John, I had learned that watching the table games was an enjoyable way to spend time--more fun, even, than dreaming up baby names (I offered him an ice cream cone to say he liked the name Bennett Jerry). I liked second-guessing the players, calculating their winnings, wondering if the plainclothes security guards had noticed me lurking aimlessly around the high rollers. But I always felt a tug in another direction.

The slot machines were calling me to get on their quarter-swallowing, hand-dirtying, brain-damaging roller coaster ride into oblivion. As we embarked on the second round of casinos, I knew there was only one thing I could do.

Make my wife go first.

She decided to start with $20, enough to get a feel for the game without dipping into junior's college fund. As complete novices, we had no idea how long that much money would last in a 25" slot machine. Eight minutes. That's all it took to plug 80 tokens into a "Midas Touch" slot machine, but by the end of that time she had won 91. She was up $2.75 in eight minutes--that's $20.62 an hour, not a terrible wage for brainless work that requires virtually no physical effort and that you can drink beer while doing.

And then the roller coaster started its crazy, careening ride. She was down a lot, up a little, down, down, up. A win of two or four quarters didn't even register; she barely slowed down to see how much she had won, just went on feeding the machine quarters. She started to develop a theory: "This machine sucks unless you play three quarters at once. You don't want to miss one of the big jackpots just because you were so cheap you only played a quarter at a time. See that woman over there? She's been winning a lot. I ought to find a machine like hers."

Gradually my lively young wife faded from sight and in her place appeared a 58-year-old frump in a home perm and a sweatshirt appliqued with big-eyed kittens. She had been sitting at this lucky slot machine every Saturday afternoon for 25 years. She'd been on the same roller coaster all that time and had yet to get tired of the ride. She hadn't lost much over the years, hadn't won much either, but she still got a tiny charge out of hearing a jackpot of 50 or 100 tokens plink into the catch-basin at the bottom of the machine as she talked baby talk to her lucky troll doll and gnawed the lipstick end of a Tiparillo.

I was just about to throw myself overboard when I heard the youthful voice of the happy young woman I used to know saying, "This is so boring. I'm down $9.50 and I need something to eat."

Thank you, Lord.

For more information on the East Peoria, Rock Island, and East Dubuque areas, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnell.

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