MY GIRLFRIEND and I did a staycation a few months ago, back in June. Staycation, staycation — whenever I say the word in my head, it’s always autotuned with an apologetic eye-roll, or a little self-conscious bray of irony. Like I’m making an excuse or deflecting embarrassment. Maybe it’s because a staycation is sad in the same way going on a cruise is: It’s more not-something than something.
But this staycation at Circa would be different. I had a purpose and a goal. My goal was to gamble as an adult — to gamble for real. See, it has been a deep and long-standing shame of mine that I am a terrible gambler. It’s not even that I merely lack a gambler’s proper instincts — that ability to intuit risk, to muster mental arithmetic on the fly, to assess probabilities in real time. Instead, my thing is: I can barely remember the rules and basic strategies. I don’t know what happens. I sit down at the blackjack table, and it all falls out of my head. I’m hitting on 15 and sending waves of dismay through the casino floor.
My goal was to finally get into craps. I’ve played craps for decades, but only ever just infrequently enough (doing the irregular tour guide thing for visiting friends and relatives) such that it’s a Groundhog Day proposition every time.1 This time, though, I had a regimen. In our hotel room, I’d watch at least four YouTube craps videos at least 17 times each, and then I’d hurry down to the casino floor to play, as though I were carrying precious basic craps strategy liquid in a sieve. I did okay. I had a convincing semblance of fun. I felt a little like Danny Ocean, but also a little like that meme of Nazaré Tedesco with the complex math equations floating around her head.
AFTER MY NIGHT was over, my night began. I wandered out of the table games to meet up with my girlfriend, and I tried to play penny slots with her. Tried. Only tried, because something has happened with penny slots while I wasn’t paying attention for like 20 years. They have evolved into something sleek and monstrous, super-predators, grotesque and gorgeous at the same time. The polarities at work in the realm of penny slots are mesmerizing: This elaborately senseless yet highly sophisticated forest of flashing and humming consoles with their criss-cross, multi-line options and arcane bonus formula systems is premised, wut, on mere pennies and a single button to push. The collage of themes and franchises is itself paralyzing in that postmodern, everything-at-once way: Willy Wonka, Buffalo Princess, Dune, Conan, Jade Kingdom, Caribbean Gold, Autumn Moon. I can type random words and it is probably a penny slot.
I did not enjoy playing penny slots until I stopped trying to play penny slots, and instead gave myself over to their bewilderment, their throbbing oblivion, and simply played. More like succumbed. Does that make sense? I did not win, I did not lose. Money migrated between me and the machine in the way of a current or mysterious transmission. I’m convinced that nobody really understands penny slots and that we are basically paying ritual money to be in the presence of an uncannily entertaining form of inscrutable technological sophistication. I’m really trying to resist finishing this blog with a sentence like, “To play penny slots in 2022 is to pray to chaos” because it is pretentious and terrible, but it feels deeply true in the way that penny slots in 2022 feel so deeply, stirringly true.