Cheap thrills

A trip to the casinos where locals play with handfuls of nickels and pennies

Photo by David Robert

There once was a time when my diet consisted almost entirely of frozen corn dogs, generic soda and Cup O’ Noodles, and I have the scars to prove it. One scar, to be precise. A blotchy, brownish spot on my right hand, the result of a misjudged cup grab and sloshing, boiling-hot Oriental-flavored liquid.

Whenever I notice this scar, which has faded over the years to a barely visible skin smudge, I think of my life at the Gold Key motel. For about a year, a tiny room on Lake Street was my home. One queen-sized bed. One TV with complimentary cable. One phone. One mini-fridge. One microwave.

One boyfriend. Two cats. No money.

Unlike many of my neighbors at the Gold Key, I had choices. I chose to live in a cramped downtown motel room instead of in the dorms (where my first roommate tried to make out with me and my second roommate couldn’t fall asleep unless she listened to the soundtrack to The Lion King). If I were really hungry, I had a meal plan at the UNR cafeteria where I could eat three times a day. I also could have chosen to phone my parents and beg for cash, which they always would have given me, accompanied by a deserved lecture on responsibility.

Instead, I usually found ways to get by on next to nothing, hence the corn dogs and the flaming Cup O’ Pain. And though I earn considerably more than I did back then, that forced frugality lingers with me today. I eat Top Ramen. I drink Budweiser. I buy generic paper towels.

I play nickel poker.

No matter how much money I have, I don’t think I’ll ever love a game of chance quite as much as I love playing nickels. There’s a strategy to it. If you play it slow and miserly, 20 bucks can last hours—enough time for the cocktail waitress to stop by your machine with at least two or three beers.

Cheap thrills and free booze. Costs less than a movie, and you always have that dim glimmer of hope that you might walk out with a little more cash than you walked in with.

At a crappy neighborhood casino in Vegas, I once won about $75 playing nickel poker. I was money, baby. So money. Four-of-a-kinds popped up on my machines over and over, like they’d been waiting for my arrival to spill their shiny silver bounty.

I started to develop what psychiatrists might call a “complex.”

I began to believe that nickel poker machines could read my mind. The first $10 into a $20 bill, they’d eat my money as fast as I could push their buttons. The moment I considered moving to another machine, they’d throw me a bone. A flush here, a full house there. Then I’d lose a little more, and just when that $20 was dwindling down to pocket change—BLAM! Four aces.

I was back on top again. This happened with such insane regularity that I started to count on it. The trick was not to let the machine know that I knew the score. If it thought I was leaving, it would pay. If it knew I was staying, it would dry up quicker than a mud puddle in the Black Rock Desert.

Call me crazy, but it worked. And it worked on a larger, grander, more lusciously beautiful scale once I graduated to triple-play machines.

You’ve got three hands, with one bet to a hand. You’re dealt one hand, and you get, say, a pair of Jacks. You hold the Jacks, and the Jacks are yours for all three hands. You hit the draw button, and each hand plays out like a normal game of poker. On two of those hands, you might only get the Jacks, but on one of them, you’ll probably get a three-of-a-kind. Simple probability combined with random chance.

But even as I write this, technology marches on. Triple-play became five-play. Five-play became 10-play. Now you can walk into any casino and play 50 or 100 hands of poker at once. The possibilities are mind-boggling. Just consider this: If you’re dealt a four-of-a-kind on your first hand, you win a four-of-a-kind payout on 100 freakin’ hands.

That’s a helluva lot of nickels.

I’d just like to point out that I’m not the only nickel-crazy person out there. According to a recent Associated Press story, revenue from nickel machines jumped 18.4 percent in the period ending Oct. 31, up to $1.7 billion. Casinos can’t get their quarter and dollar machines out fast enough to make room for the nickels, and nickel slots keep the highest percentage for the house than any other machines, besides Megabucks.

Photo by David Robert

Now, nickel poker is nickel poker, and everybody’s got it. But there’s just something wrong about walking into a multi-billion-dollar mega-resort and making a beeline for the cheap machines. So, when I foray into the Reno nightlife for a little journalistic research—aka gambling—I choose establishments that speak to my low-income soul. Places where they give you free six-packs of soda when you hit a four-of-a-kind.

First stop: Gold Dust West, on Fourth and Vine streets. I park my beat-up Kia Sephia near the door and head inside. Unsure if the Gold Dust even employs cocktail waitresses, I decide to stop by the bar first. The bartender asks if I’m playing on the floor. I am. Free beer. I decide to set a limit: one beer per casino. Once the beer’s gone, so am I.

I turn around to survey the scene, to see which flashing, beeping mechanical new buddy I’ll spend some quality time with tonight. I imagine it’s kind of like choosing a girl at a brothel: They’re all displaying their wares as fetchingly as they can, but no matter whom you choose, the house always wins.

Then I see the one I want: a 50-play beauty that takes bets in 1-cent, 2-cent and 5-cent denominations. Pennies, by god! At a penny a hand, I’m still betting only 50 cents. I start with 10 bucks.

No sooner do I sit down than I’m accompanied by Lars, a 30-something out-of-work pilot who wants to take me to dinner. Or a movie. Or home.

I’m chatting with him, trying to be polite, but my mind is consumed by 50 blinking, blipping hands of poker. Whenever I get a winning hand, the machine lets out a happy chime; the better the win, the higher the notes go. Each hand becomes its own little song: bloop bleep bling bleep bloop bloop. I dig this music. I build my $10 into $20 and then head back down the losing slope.

The pilot is still wheedling away, and my eyes are glazing over from watching all those tiny poker hands playing up and down my video screen. Finally, I tell Lars that it’s just not gonna happen, man, and he beats an awkward retreat. My beer is gone, and my $20 has dwindled back down to $10.

I discover that a lot of the cheap machines don’t cash out the way they used to, which has its advantages and its drawbacks. Instead of loading up a plastic cup with your booty and hauling it over to a change counter, all payouts are made by attendants. Sure, you have to sit around for a minute until they get to you, but on the upside, you don’t have to lug around 1,000 pennies.

The trick is to lose the last few bits of change so your dollar amount is even, which is not as easy as it sounds. But making an attendant count out 67 cents is just silly, if you ask me, so I’ll spend a few extra minutes deliberately losing.

So I’m back at square one, and the only thing I’ve lost is the $2 I tipped the bartender and 45 minutes of my time. I’m kind of disappointed, though, because I never once heard someone yell, “C’mon, baby, mommy needs laundry money,” like on the commercials.

It’s time to move on.

Next stop: the Bonanza Casino, way the hell up North Virginia Street, where streetlights are scarce. Back in the day, my buddies at the university newspaper would play $1 blackjack there, drinking Chivas on the rocks like some sort of white-trash Rat Pack.

I’m singing along with my Coldplay CD as I make the winding uphill drive: “We live in a beautiful world … yeah, we do …” I saunter into the Bonanza on a winner’s high—or a break-even high, I guess, although that doesn’t sound quite as sexy.

I decide to spice things up a bit and play video slots instead of poker. I’ve never liked slots because you have no control over your destiny; you hit a button and wait for the reels of fate to stop. But in the interests of research, I give it a go.

The Bonanza is dimmer, quieter and considerably less crowded. I walk slowly through the banks of cheap machines until one of them calls out to me: Leopard Spots. Some sort of jungle theme. I feed it my $10, and the machine yowls at me like a big angry cat. I wish I’d have brought ones so I could keep making it yowl. I’m easily entertained.

A few seats down from me is an old couple who look like they’re living off Social Security checks. The grizzled beard, the generic cigarettes, the too-thick coral lipstick, the whole nine yards. They seem to be playing as a team, huddling intently over the machine together as if their life depended on it. I sincerely hope it doesn’t, and the thought sobers me a bit. There but for the grace of God.

“You had a plain Coke?”


The woman who just snuck up behind me, dressed in black slacks, a white shirt and a black vest, is apparently a cocktail waitress. I don’t understand why she’s disguised as a keno runner, and I’m totally thrown off guard.

Photo by David Robert

“You had a plain Coke, right?”

“No … I had nothing.” Pause for brain cell catch-up. “Can I get a …”

But she’s already gone. Guess my beer-per-casino plan is going to need a little fine-tuning. I decide to play until one of two things happens: I lose my $10 or I double it. $19.99 doesn’t count—it’s got to be an even $20. I up the bet this time to 2 cents.

Ah, the dreams of fools. I’m playing 10 lines at a time, and I’m winning 10 lines worth of jack squat. I never even get to $10.01, much less $20. It’s all a blur of leopards and gorillas and parrots and those gorgeous trees you always see silhouetted on the African plains in Discovery Channel documentaries.

And when I say blur, I mean that literally; there was something wrong with my video monitor, and the whole screen kept fuzzing over, making my eyes water. Hey, who needs beer? I’m already dizzy.

A burly guy sits down between me and the elderlies, takes one look at my screen and says, “Wow. What the hell’s that?” I reply that I have no idea what I’m doing, other than losing cash, and quickly. He laughs.

“That’s the best way to be: blissfully ignorant. You always win when you don’t know what’s going on.”

Funny, I never heard that piece of advice while growing up, but it instantly strikes me as a phenomenal philosophy on life. If only I could retreat back into that cozy childhood cocoon, frolicking merrily in my blissful ignorance, greeting each new day with … crap.

I’m out of money.

I set out on McCarran Boulevard heading east into Sparks for my final destination of the evening: Baldini’s. I used to drive by Baldini’s every day one awful summer, delivering burgers for Juicy’s, and I always chuckled when I saw the ad on the marquee: WRANGLER JEANS $24.99. I don’t get it either.

The word on the street is that Friday nights are just nutty for nickel players at Baldini’s, and as I walk in I can see why. Unlike the mega-resorts, where you have to hunt for the dark corner next to the ATM, the nickel poker machines here are center stage and plentiful.

I wander around a bit longer than usual, filling my greedy eyes and ears with neon lights and bells and whistles, before settling into a bank of pick-your-own-game poker machines. Should I play Double Bonus, or Double Double Bonus, or Triple Double Double Bonus? Who actually understands the distinction anyway, besides the game manufacturing folks at International Gaming Technology?

So I pick Super Aces, for no other reason than it’s fun to say in a superhero voice. (Try it … c’mon, no one’s looking.) For this game, a four-of-a-kind on aces gets you the same payout as a royal flush. Seems like a good deal to me. Except for the fact that I’m losing. Fast.

And now we come to the really crappy part of playing nickels. If you’re not getting any love from your machine, you can take your money and walk away—for a price. The price is grabbing one of those dinky plastic cups, cashing out, and then slowly and methodically plunking your bets, nickel by grimy nickel, into your new machine. On a triple-play machine, you can play up to 15 nickels. Plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk … You get the idea.

Eventually, all my nickels are inside my new machine, and my right hand looks like I stuck it in a mine shaft, all blackened and grubby with nickel dirt. I’m actually kind of relieved that I just lost that $20, because now I can pull a fresh, crisp, dirt-free $20 bill from my purse and start over.

I’m getting a little sleepy, but the cocktail waitress just brought me a beer, so I’m looking for something fun and comfortable to finish my night with … kind of like Lars, I guess. I head over to the 10-play penny machines. Instead of blip-bleeping a different song each hand, these bleep in a cheerful rising crescendo every hand. It might have been in the key of G, but it’s been a while since I studied music theory. All I know is that I find myself bleeping along merrily under my breath.

Maybe that’s why the guy working the casino floor keeps checking on me. I’m sure crazies are a dime a dozen in your local neighborhood gambling den, but when a young woman is sitting by herself, drinking a Bud and singing along with the poker machine, it probably sets off some sort of red flag. Whatever. I’m having fun.

And I’m eavesdropping.

“Playing pennies isn’t very fun,” the man behind me says.

“Yes it is,” his friend replies. “It’s psychological. I’ve got 20,000 pennies!”

My point exactly.