Not a Winner This Time, Try Again

by Michael McGrath

This guy comes into the news stand most days and peels bills from a cartoonishly thick wad of cash. He buys scratch tickets and strips them expertly with his lucky coin, leaving curls of silver dust all over the place. Sometimes he plays for two minutes, other times an hour. He wears a Bluetooth and carries on competing conversations with me, the voice in his ear, himself, the tickets. Other customers call him The Robot. My manager has known him a while. He says The Robot has won several five-figure jackpots over the years. Last week I sold him a $20 ticket and he won $20,000. He generously tipped me a small percentage that amounted to over a week’s pay and left the store with barely a bounce to his step.

Another frequent customer, a sweet, batty and embattled middle-aged woman, plays a few days a week. She doesn’t risk much and has yet to win more than a dollar or two. During her visits she outlines various financial woes (someone mugged her at the mall, friends taking advantage of her generosity, a looming lonely retirement) and daydreams about hitting it big. She often asks after her nemesis. I don’t have the heart to tell her about the $20K. I wouldn’t even have the heart to tell her about my tip. In her mind he’s stripmining the roll, leaving nothing for anybody else. But their strategies are completely different. He accepts that 99.9 % of the tickets will be worthless and he can afford to sift through them. She just crosses her fingers and picks one. He plays for fun. She plays for salvation.

I was first introduced to gambling as a six-year-old, when my grandmother took me to Disney World. After the “Captain EO” matinee we returned to the hotel, swam, ate dinner and played poker in the shade. I knew Momma was something of a card shark but I’d never seen this side to her: cold, calculating, manipulative. She kept track of my debts on a crisp sheet of hotel stationery.

My first time at Foxwoods I kept to the dollar slots, wary of the bulbous pit bosses orbiting the tables. My friends and I were underage and largely broke. I lost coins absentmindedly, staring sideways at the hunched seniors with long cigarettes in their free hand and tubes taped to their nostrils. After dropping $5 on an uncooperative slot I gave up loudly and jumped to another. A man immediately appeared out of nowhere and began to feed the machine I had just abandoned. Two cranks later it began to bleat and gush. I watched the man celebrate, woozy with grief. At that time $800 was an incomprehensible amount of money. That was Marshall stack money, Spring Break money, used Nissan Maxima money. Someone said these people are called “vultures.” They wait until you give up and then swoop down and eat your remains.

Things have barely improved over the years. On my last visit I lost $8 on a $2 blackjack table while chugging complimentary vodkas. On the long walk back to the garage I passed Vince Neil, lead singer of Motley Crue, riding the escalator, puffy and glazed, two haggard groupies hanging from his shoulders and nibbling his ear.

I’m too cheap to gamble and, perhaps unfairly, I consider myself an unlucky person. Not so much unlucky in life — I enjoy a supportive network of family and friends, I’m tall — so much as ignored by larger forces. Markets, magic, whatever. And I’m not really zoned for windfalls, so I don’t feel the need to tempt fate, even if I am generally my own crooked dealer. This complete lack of desire is a puzzling vacancy, like waking up to a lost tooth and rubbing the fresh gap with your tongue. I’ve never encountered another vice I didn’t immediately wield manically in an attempt to hack away at some core loneliness. A breakthrough: Others feel about gambling the way I do mind-altering chemicals.

The Lotto machine at the news stand records and scans all purchases and redemptions, everything from Powerball tickets to dollar scratch-offs. Elderly or otherwise immobile customers bring envelopes full of them to be checked every few weeks. If it’s a dud the machine says “Not a winner this time, try again!” in a feminine robotic singsong.

When The Robot won the $20K I asked if I could scan it.

“Why?” he asked. He was reluctant to part with it for obvious reasons. I suppose I could have bolted out the back door.

“I want to see what happens,” I said.

“Nothing happens,” he said, but he handed it over.

I scanned the ticket but the machine stayed mum. There were no bells, no booming confetti cannons or balloon drops. I’m sure it triggered some State House bureaucrat’s silent alarm, but the screen just flashed “Return to customer” as the store stereo played Heart’s “These Dreams.”

The next day he came back and started all over again.

Michael McGrath tweets as @marcomcgrath. He has a tumblr.