Two Blondes and One “Special”

♣ slot machine junkies ♠

“I’m banging my head against the machines. I cannot give up gambling. I’ll go pledge my last house.”

Aguy calls, he speaks quietly, I can barely hear him. He has been playing the slots every day for the last six months. “It’s like I’m in a dream, I go and pick up money from home and I gamble them at the slots, I lose, I borrow some more, I gamble them away and bam! I wake up when there’s nothing left”.

He called me looking for a cure so to speak, he wants me to give him some kind of a miracle treatment to rid him of this disease. I work for a hotline that deals with gambling addiction in a psychotherapy practice – I get calls from people ruined by gambling, people who lost their house and family, just like after years of doing heroin.

There are about 600.000 slot machine gamblers in Romania; most of them young and poor men from the cities. The economic crisis draws them to the machines, they want to make quick money, but they fall under the spell of the little bright lights on the slot machine screen and some end up losing everything they own.

During a whole year, I had only one call from a gambler who called preemptively – he was playing occasionally and he felt that it was getting out of control. All the others are already pathological gamblers.

pacaleanu

I’ve known Ghimp for about ten years. While in the 9th grade, I thought he was a smart guy, after all he was studying in one of the best highschools in Bucharest. When he was around 18 years old, he was already dealing dozens of grams of weed per week. He would get it on credit, and he would pay the supplier only after he sold it. Business was good, he was getting along well with his friends, and he was making tons of money.

Now he is 24, and he is always arguing with his friends: because he’s going to the slots too often, he’s gambling away his entire paycheck, or he’s stealing from them and lying to them. One night they were trying to find him, they wanted to check the casinos, but in which one could he be? By the time they found him, Ghimp had gambled away all of the weed money.

I’m waiting for him in front of the National Theatre. I roll myself a cigarette, I sit on the steps and hope he doesn’t stand me up. He shows up, and we head to a nearby café. He is tall and very thin with thick black hair that looks like a helmet. He has a bony face, and he’s pressing his lips together to cover his chipped denture that keeps falling out of his mouth. He is wearing a white T-shirt that says Quit Making Sense.

He tells me straightforwardly: “It’s been almost a month since I last played. Last time I lost 600 lei. I realized that I was too stupid and that ruined the whole thing for me”. He places his elbows firmly on the table, and starts spilling his guts, like a student brought to the principal’s office.

Three or four years ago he went to the slots for the first time with a friend. Ghimp wasn’t playing, he was just watching his mate. “I was telling him that he was a dimwit, throwing his money away. He wasn’t going to move, he had 2000 lei in his hand, and he didn’t want to go, no, no, I’m going to play more, I’m going to play more”..”

After going over there five times to scold his friend about throwing money out the window, he played 10 lei himself. And he won. “Oooh, joy! I kept going. Each time you want more. At first you put in 50 lei, you get 150, and you happily run away from the casino. But the more addicted you become, the higher the stakes”. Now he doesn’t stop either if he is ahead by a few hundred lei.

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The girl he’d been with for five years was giving him a hard time for wasting his money at the slots. After a fight he would still end up at the machines, to chill out. He says it’s the slots that drove them apart.

He slouches and accompanies his words with one hand. “When I had a fight with her, I went straight to the casino – so that I don’t get angry anymore, or curse at her, or go and break her window – and stopped thinking about it. Like, when I’m there, my brain is empty… full stop, you don’t think about anything anymore, you have nothing in your head, and I somehow really liked that, at the time.”

He tears the sugar packet and keeps talking: “Like, our anniversary was on the 14th, and I would subconsciously go and gamble away my money every month on the 14th. And I only realized this after three or four consecutive months of doing it. Each month on the 14th I would go and wipe out all the money, and I wouldn’t leave no matter how much I won.”

He is fascinated by the fact that gambling addiction works so well without any chemicals, it’s all psychological. Every time you play, the dopamine floods your brain more than it does during sex. Nothing else gave him this buzz of rage or joy. “Hope drags you to the casino. Because if the next day you gotta pay off a two-thousand-lei debt, and you just got shafted for twenty-five hundred, you just stained your tighty-whities. And all kind of stupid stunts come rushing into your mind, whether they’re possible or impossible.”

His entire family is well-behaved and religious: siblings with college education and good jobs, mother in the monastery, and a retired father.

“My father got really angry with life because of me, but there was nothing he could do. My mother is a fanatic about religion, so she went straight into a covent. Both have no idea what it’s like to have a vice. And don’t get me started on all the drugs that got to my head, and messed up my brain, all the stamps and other shit like that. And there is no way I can explain that to them.”

“In the beginning, I wasn’t taking any money from my parents, but later that changed. That’s why I got really pissed off the last time I lost, because that was my father’s money. He called to talk to a shrink, psychiatrist, whatever… nothing happened though.”

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Ghimp is unemployed and a college dropout. He wants to be a psychologist, but he spent all his school money on slots. Six thousand lei. So he got a job. He was making money from creating fake women accounts on a dating website. “I was talking to all the wankers, and got them to renew their subscription.” He was taking several pictures of the same girl from the Internet, to make it look believable, and was building her profile. “Afterwards, I was using the bitch’s profile to talk to the guys. I was telling them things like: ‘Baby, come to me’, lalala.”

He used his entire salary to pay off his debts and play the slots. Then he also quit his job.

Once he finishes college, he wants to work in an HR department until he saves enough money to open his own private practice. I can’t see myself working in another place. Maybe as a mobster, but I will eventually end up in the slammer, and that’s not good.

He once got 2500 lei out of the machine, a personal record. Anyways, it was a mess… I had to pay off a 1800-lei debt that same day, or they would chase me down. He gave 100 lei to a friend who was with him at the moment, there is this unwritten casino rule, that if you are lucky, you gotta give some money to the brother you are with.

Ghimp has no idea how much money he lost. He takes a short break, during which he visualises all the fruits, blondes and specials rolling in front of his eyes. “All in all… over a billion. I mean, fuck me, 3000 lei every week for the last few years.”

He sighs. Slots are worse than heroin.”  I’m not very convinced, but he insists: “Boss, trust me. If you shoot crack, but you got money, you will never end up homeless. Of course, there’s the health issue. But if you play the slots, it doesn’t matter how much money you got, you can still end up on the streets.”

All day, everyday, all he thinks about are the slots. Sometimes he forces himself to go to sleep, just so he doesn’t go to the casino. “I’m staying here so I don’t think about it, so I don’t go.” He even threatened to hit a security guard in the head with a chair, and break one of the slot machines, just so he would get banned from the place. It didn’t work as planned though. The guy knew he wasn’t violent, and let him be.

If he hits the jackpot, he will quit. The only thing he still needs are five ladies (the coolest combo in the game) and that’s it.. “In the classic game, Lucky Lady, five ladies is the most difficult to score. It pays you out three times more money than normal. If I manage to quit this, I’ll be able to do anything in life. I mean this is the toughest thing I have ever experienced.”

He leans back and lights a cigarette. A few months ago he spoke to a guy who was a casino manager for twenty years, but he changed his life and went to a monastery: “He is a friend of my mom’s, they belong to the same religious group. They are always fasting, and all kinds of crazy shit. The guy used to make loads of money, but religion fried his brains. He left his family, his money, everything, and went to the monastery.”

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The guy’s name is Florin. I found him at a religious items fair in Bucharest’s city center. He was selling icons and small crucifixes. He looked like a good-natured grandpa, wearing a long linen shirt, his hair pulled up in a grey bun.

Seventeen years ago he was managing ten bingo halls and several more slot machine casinos. For him to be able to explain what he did, we need to walk away from the holy things. We arrive in front of a bar: “The purpose of a manager is to tempt people, and create all kinds of special games to lure them in. In other words, bait them. You come up with all kinds of ways to trick people”.

Florin was traveling across the country to see which baits worked best with players. He was doing fieldwork, talking to people, and studying the competition. When profits were weak in a particular area, he was traveling there to try to find out what the problem was. “You had to be there, on the spot, to get a feel for what’s going on, to see if any miracle, any shady bussiness had gone on”.

You can find all kinds of people in the casino: from bums to artists, teachers, or doctors. They get free drinks and sandwiches, and they watch sports on plasma TVs. Everybody ends up the same, “no matter the social status or level of education, in front of the machines they are all like children”.

The gamblers have all kinds of superstitions. They keep an eye on someone who’s lost a lot and then jump on that machine, in hopes of balancing out the karma, and getting the money that the other lost.

In fact, the amount of money you put in has nothing to do with your chance of winning. A slot machine manufacturer says the machine is programmed to pay out 94% of what is put in. Every game is random, you can win a lot or lose everything, but when you play a large number of games the percentage is king. You simply cannot win.

Many times, the customers who lose will blame the casino employees. It used to happen to Florin a lot. They accused him of having a remote control that decided who won on roulette, deliberately dealing a bad hand or ‘fixing’ the machines. He was badmouthed and threatened with a gun. He also had to deal with the loan sharks that were lurking around the casinos every night – “they are eager for you to become broke so that they can whisper in your ear like the devil ‘how much do you want? How much do you need?’. Normally loan sharking is illegal. But there is an unwritten rule that casino managers accept them, in order to cash in”, says Florin in a low voice, staring at the ground.

If you get really hooked, it’s not just money that you’re gambling. He saw people put their car keys and house contract on the roulette table: “there’s even a famous case from Arad, when some guy gambled away his wife. He had nothing to bet with and he said ‘hey, if you win I’ll lay my wife on the line’”.

He quit because he had become a robot, just like the machines he was managing – “From when I awoke until the next day I was thinking of what to do in some city, to bring in more customers. And I got tired”. Something had to change. “I had become a money making machine.”

A nun convinced him to quit. She came to the casino and kept telling him stories about faith: “and so on, and so forth, until she invited me to visit a monastery and then, slowly, I started realizing that the emptiness I felt was actually called God”.

Now he lives alone in a studio, reads religious books, and lives on the bare necessities.

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“The slots are the sign of a problem, like a measles boil”, says anthropologist Bogdan Iancu. “The largest number of casinos can be found in small, de-industrialized towns. Teenagers finish high-school and have nothing to do, so they try to have fun by playing the slots. It’s a sort of boredom management.”

“France and Italy have a lot of football fields and basketball courts, so that people can use their energy in a healthy way. This is how you manage boredom”. Meanwhile, in Romania “anything that is part of the entertainment infrastructure, from cinemas to sports fields, is either in ruins or overpriced. Slot machines – that’s something people can afford.”

Bogdan says that an economic boom means that people don’t have time to mess around; they have a job and a goal. If there is an economic crisis, there are fewer jobs, and the unemployed sit around the house and get bored. “So they go to the casinos to socialize.”

barosanu

Slots, slots
oh, oh, oh
You are the death of me
oh, oh, oh, oh, ooh
You give me no balls and no pearls
And you take all my dough
oh, oh, oh, oh, ooooh!

The manele singer Cocoș de la Călărași wrote a song about how much it sucks to lose all your money at the slot machines. He never played them, but his fans asked him to sing something about the slots. 

His wife cuts in: “There is no way for him to go to the casino. We are paying rent, we’ve got a child to raise, and we can’t throw money out the window. That would mean I’d have to work as a prostitute and have my child beg on the streets.”

On the other hand, a friend lost his family, business and all his money to the slots. “He ended up in a monastery, and God helped him quit, but you know how it is, sometimes you break your vow. He said it was better when he was a drug addict.”

With the song about the slots in my head, I enter a classier, casino, with blinds, mirrors on the wall, and surveillance cameras in the corners. I feel like I’m in a rusty old spaceship with bodyguards and plastic plants.

I sit in front of a slot machine, put in 20 lei and I choose the game – Lucky Lady’s Charm. I lean on the handle and push the button.

START. START. START. START. START.

The machine sounds like a toy rocket that is being launched into an oblivious space. On the screen there is a parade of characters, each of them resembling a celebrity: Lara Croft, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter. If I get two blonde girls and a crystal ball, I win a special (more credit, and some free spins). The lights on the screen make me dizzy. My eyes hurt.

I win a special and my 20 lei become 90. Yay! My fingers fumble trying to find the CASH OUT button. I run around the casino, trying to find an employee. I want to cash out and leave this place as soon as possible. I take the money, and I’m out of there.

The next day, I’m at the helpline again. I talk to a guy who tells me that all day, everyday, he sees only tiny lights in front of his eyes. “Miss, as soon as I leave the house, I get stuck in the casino. My life is on autoplay .”


Five women is the hardest spin.
I need five more women.
I would trade my woman for five women.

 A story by Valentina Nicolae and Matei Bărbulescu.

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