From Sugar to Shit



A friend is telling me how she got caught up in gambling, and I, who use a crowbar to pry open my wallet, am trying to understand. She was lonely at the time, working at a hard and boring job and in desperate need of diversion. She tells me about her favorite machine, Road Trip, and how it felt like you were really going somewhere.

I get that—I am starved for travel—and when she reaches the part about free drinks, limo service, and your guest dining free in the VIP room, I feel a tiny tug. Making $350 with $7, that also intrigues.  And a hypnotic trance would be welcome about now.

My own gambles have been less choreographed. I quit a good job to earn a Ph.D. in a subject entirely unrelated to my field. Sick of rational discussions, I told my husband I was throwing away the birth control pills to see if we were meant to have a baby. These days, we must live so carefully and suspiciously, locked down even when we are not, that it maddens me at regular intervals, and I go to the grocery store commando or leave the front door unlocked just to break routine, the risk acknowledged and part of the game.

I will wind up the old lady who gets scammed, but not for credulity, just for being foolhardy. Tempting fate, they call it. Cocky. And I promise to own the consequences. The risk-taking that troubles me is the sort manipulated by someone else, engineered by their greed.

“They bring in psychologists,” my friend says. “If you are a person who is attracted to gold, they have machines with a lot of gold. They do everything to make you want to stay there. And then it goes from sugar to shit.”

Chilled by how fast that could happen, I confine myself to the margins, deciding that with winter coming and COVID back on the rampage, I should steal some casino tricks to make staying home more compelling. Put all the little clocks away; close the heavy drapes; make sure all the chairs are ergonomic; add warmer, richer colors; screw in red light bulbs (they encourage risk-taking); pump in ions, pure oxygen, pheromones, and fragrance; ring bells to signal a win. This could work. I already ring a little Tibetan bell to call my husband downstairs to dinner. . . .

But somehow I doubt it is the ionized air or the burgundy velvet or even the bells that keep people peeing into a bottle or a pair of Depends, renting a locker, emerging days later depressed and in debt. The smoke and mirrors have less to do with décor than with brainwashing, and the real tricks stay behind the scenes.

Casinos used to buy direct mail lists that identified people with “unquenchable appetites for all forms of gambling.” Now, some manage to buy data for the ATMs on site, and all have computerized loyalty cards that show just when and for how long each customer plays, how much they bet, what times of day they visit, how often they hit that Spin or Deal button.

“There used to be a counter on the side, so you could see how many rotations before the machine paid again,” my friend tells me. Now all that is computerized, and the machine does not stop spinning when the force of your pull exhausts itself. The machine stops spinning when and where the computer tells it to. As a result, you win less often.

You come this close more often, though. Near misses are programmed into slot machines, because the combination of hope and crashing disappointment is cruelly seductive. I even rage at Wheel of Fortune, because they end, after that impossible last spin, by showing the winner how much they could have had. Fanning the greed, the capitalist’s dream of more, never letting anybody rest in contentment with a nice fat prize that they did not have an hour ago and that ought to be enough.

Casinos have no shame. The patent application for “virtual reel mapping,” which made all this computerized manipulation possible, stated that “it is important to make a machine that is perceived to present greater chances of payoff than it actually has within the legal limitations that games of chance must operate.” Why not? We have an entire socioeconomic system that works the same way.

Now you can watch spinning symbols on a video screen (a bit like the New York Stock Exchange) and simultaneously bet on, say, five different patterns of paylines. Place a $2 bet on each. One wins. The machine goes crazy, bells and flashing lights, everything but sweaty guys hoisting you on their shoulders to wave at the crowd. You have just won $6! (And paid $10 to do it.)

You will not notice that $4 loss; you are moving too fast, jabbing at buttons like you are trying to unstick them. This is the “state of suspended animation that gamblers call the zone,” Natasha Schüll writes in Addiction by Design. Zone, as though there is skill involved, and the euphoria of performing at your peak. Break off to bang the machine in frustration, setting your neighbor’s machine vibrating with the impact, and if you are one of the chosen deemed extra vulnerable, a host will materialize with soothing encouragement—“You’ll win it back!”—or offer a casino loan, or hand you a voucher for a free something that will make you feel flush, important, lavish. And soon you will be back in the zone, “a state of ongoing, undiminished possibility” that you will come to covet as much as you do the cash.

Anybody who shops or socializes online practices an ersatz form of gambling, the clicks and hits and likes and loves creating psychological cravings. “When you’re at home and you can hear the music on the machine, you know you’re addicted,” my friend says. Turns out people also “hear” their phones ring or vibrate with phantom notifications.

Both sorts of gambling physically alter the way your brain works, messing with the dopamine-greased reward system and leaving you more susceptible to depression and anxiety. Both use the same mechanism: the “ludic loop,” a repeated cycle of uncertainty, anticipation, and feedback, with just enough rewards to keep you going.

But never enough to satisfy you for good.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.