Monday, March 31, 2008
There's a large group of project managers drinking beer and playing the Wii with a large projection screen showing the action on a wall.
I can't remember who sent me this fun essay about degenerate gambling in Russia, so I apologize.
Low Rollers! 24 Hours in Slot Hall Hell
By Jake Rudnitsky
VYKHINO -- Just as I ended my nearly 24-hour slots machine spree, Vanya, a drunken thug I'd picked up along the way, ran me down on the street. Vanya was a head taller and at least 30 pounds heavier than me. He wanted my last 500 rubles. He knew I had it because I had just split my last 1000 with him, anything to get him off my back.
Now he was threatening me, with a crazed gambler's look in his eye. That was when I recalled the pitiful, unthreatening Grigory, and thought, maybe he wasn't so bad after all.
I met Grigory in Vykhino, the last stop on the purple line. I'd already spent several hours with this compulsive gambler, wandering from slot hall to slot hall in Southeastern Moscow's slums, trying to figure out what motivates Moscow's slots junkies. Initially I appreciated having a guide and an interview subject, but as the day wore on his petty hustles and lame gambling expressions ("zhadnost provozhdaet bednost" -- stinginess accompanies poverty; "net buby, khuiyom bei" -- no diamond? You'll hit it with your dick) started getting old. I didn't know how lucky I had it with Grigory.
Grigory was a thin, vaguely ethnic-looking man, maybe 5'4", dressed in rynok jeans and a "Murphy Stout's" t-shirt. He sported a mustache and wasn't smoking because his nicotine addiction was secondary to his gambling one, and he'd already blown through the last of his money. Anyone who spends his life loitering around Moscow's slots halls when he can't even afford to play does not have a bright future ahead of him.
He was constantly looking for a handout or repeating the same stories about past wins and beautiful girls he'd screwed, trying to impress me so that I'd keep throwing him some scraps. He expected a commission every time I won a few rubles. But the worst part was how he'd twitch while sitting next to me as I placed 10 ruble (33 cents) bets on video poker, begging me to let him in on the decision-making process.
That might not seem so awful for those of you who've never played video poker, except for one thing: there are no decisions to be made. Bingo, by comparison, is for the quick-witted. After you decide on your wager, the computer does everything for you. It deals a five-card hand and asks which cards you would like to trade in. It recommends which cards you should keep. It then re-deals and either you have a winning hand or you don't. There's no bluffing or raising the bet. Nor is there really much hope; according to Grigory, the machines are fixed to give a base 82 percent payout (for every ruble you put in, you'll get back 82 kopeks). It goes up slightly when you bet the maximum allowed on the machine, but you'll never win. Of course it throws you a bone sometimes to keep you coming back for more, but you'll never beat it.
Grigory, however, was convinced that I was seeing the glass half empty. "It's 82 percent on the year, but that doesn't stop it from making big payouts on occasion," he reasoned.
Winning hands pay out according to the odds of getting the hand. If you're playing without wild cards, a pair of jacks or higher (or two pair) wins you back the money you bet. Three of a kind pays three-to-one. A straight pays out four-to-one, all the way up to a royal flush, which'll earn you 250-to-one. If you win, you're given the one real choice in the game: a chance to go double or nothing.
When you decide to double, five cards appear face down on the screen. The card on the far right is overturned; that is the dealer's card. You then have to pick one of the remaining four cards, hoping to get a higher card than the dealer. If you do, you double your bet. If the cards are equal, you get your money back. Otherwise, you lose. If you don't lose, you can try to double again. That's the extent of the excitement. Yippee!
The kicker is that, after every hand -- winning or losing -- the computer shows you the values of the cards that you didn't select. That way, compulsive gamblers like Grigory can convince themselves they can see patterns in the way the cards fall. In their eyes, it's a contest of wills, man versus machine, seeing who will outsmart the other. That the computer makes its decisions based on a random number generator apparently never occurred to Grigory or the many tens of thousands of slots junkies in Moscow like him. For them the computer has a personality.
Grigory's stomping grounds
Grigory's strategy, based on untold hours of observation, was the following: if the dealer has a low card, pick one of the middle two cards. Against a high card, go for one of the cards on the edge. After 24 hours playing on these machines I started imagining that I too could see patterns. Only my experience was that whatever Grigory's strategy was, I'd bet the opposite. It's tough to say who was correct -- we both seemed to lose more than we won.
But that fact didn't stop Grigory from sitting next to me and saying things like, "Now why'd you do that?" or "No, no, no, I've already told you, I know these machines!" or "Hit it, hit it!" or "I was going to warn you against that but I wasn't quick enough." Hard as it might seem to believe, he was gambling vicariously through me... Even the chance to influence someone else's 33 cent wager was better than nothing. It was the equivalent of a pothead scrapping his bowl for the twelfth time for resin because he can't afford another eighth.
If I'd win a hand, Grigory's shaking finger would reach out and he'd ask, "Can I double it?" When I'd let him make the call, he'd pause to think for a moment, finger cocked, before it would spring forward and press the touch-screen. Every time he'd get it right he'd double again without asking my permission. It wasn't greed so much as an unquenchable compulsion. With Grigory, who claims to have been addicted for 12 years now, all he needed was his fix. Even if that fix was a 33 cent bet of someone else's money.
Grigory runs out of luck
You can find these slot machine halls outside of any Metro station in Moscow and most of them are open 'round the clock. And there's always a lost soul or two pumping money into a machine, mindlessly pressing the buttons. According to industry publications, there are more than 2000 slot halls around town. They're sometimes branded (like the Super Slots chain), but mostly they're just called Igrovoi Zal (Gambling Hall) or Igrovyi Avtomaty (Gambling Machines). The city's gambling industry raked in 3 billion dollars last year, and it's growing like crazy. In 2003 alone, the number of gambling machines in Moscow more than doubled, from 25 to 53 thousand.
Out at the end of the metro line, in one of those shitty industrial regions ringing Moscow, the stakes are more desperate. Everything is seedier and shoddier, and the players have less and lose more. Vykhino is ideal, as it is something of a transportation hub, boasting a fairly large bus station and an electrichka stop. This means people from Podmoskovie and the provinces pour into Vykhino as an entry point to life in the big city. It's also one of Moscow's more affordable neighborhoods and, although I didn't realize it before I got off the train, it has a huge rynok (market), meaning there's excess petty cash floating around.
Vykhino rynok is one of those Third World sections of Moscow that reminds you that the provinces really start outside the garden ring road. Like Erefeyov's Moscow-Petushki, you almost believe you've left civilization behind, only to find out you're still in Moscow. The rynok is filled with masses of people with warts and treatable skin diseases, stalls selling unrefrigerated meats, crawling with mangy dogs and an overwhelming smell of rot.
But all that's good news for the gambling industry. When I arrived at around one in the afternoon last Friday, I took a quick survey of the metro's immediate vicinity. Within a three minute walk of the station, there were seven slot halls, ranging in size from 15 to maybe 60 machines. One was a recognizable brand, and the rest had generic names. Scattered around them were the gaming establishments' spiritual brethren -- 24-hour exchange booths and pawn shops.
My initial plan was to settle upon a single hall and spend 24 hours there, writing a day-in-the-life account.
I found a particularly shady hall slightly further away from the metro, located directly across from the rynok's entrance. It was fairly large -- about fifty machines -- with a low suspended ceiling and smoky neon lighting. From the beginning I took the Field of Dreams approach -- if I gamble they will come. Inside there were only two other men gambling -- both playing the slots -- and a couple of characters whom I assumed worked there.
I settled into a seat a good distance away from the other two gamblers. All things being equal, slot junkies prefer isolation while pursuing their fortune. This, I realized, could present a problem for my story, but I figured I'd gamble a little and take a read of the land. I had a choice between slots or poker. Slots offer more promise of striking it rich than video poker, but they also gobble money more quickly. So, even though the slot machines outnumbered the poker ones several times over, I settled down to play poker.
The minimum stakes at my first video poker machine were 1 ruble. But if gambling at a video machine is excruciatingly boring, gambling with one ruble wagers is like filing your own teeth. If Grigory was to be believed, and payouts start at 82 percent in Moscow slots, rising the more you bet. Nevada payouts, by comparison, average about 94 percent for nickel slots and 96 percent for quarters.
Of course, even if the machines pay out those terrible odds in the largely unregulated industry is anyone's guess. Considering it only costs 1200 rubles to get a license to operate slots, the gambling industry's notoriously corrupt and Russian authorities notoriously inept, I assume even the 82 percent figure is inflated.
After several hands at 1 ruble, I settled into staking the max at my machine: 10 rubles. That was when Grigory appeared. Perhaps he marked me as a high roller.
As far as I could gather, Grigory's only source of income is the minor grifts he pulls. He'll sit next to unfamiliar gamblers -- like me -- and try to ingratiate himself to them. "You should see how I take village hicks for a ride -- they'll often give me half their money," he boasted later in the afternoon. Then, remembering that he was hustling me in much the same way, he added unconvincingly, "They're not as savvy as you."
Vanya and me planning our strategy
Throughout the day, as I gambled with Grigory over my shoulder, men -- mostly from the Caucuses -- would pop by to try their luck. There were rarely more than four or five machines being played on, but there was always somebody playing. While I mostly stuck with poker these guys would almost exclusively play slots. The chances of a big payout in slots are more likely, and these guys weren't interested in small wins. They walk in, stick a few hundred rubles into the machine and hope to strike it rich. Sure it's delusional, but at least they've got their habit under control. After ten minutes, once their money has disappeared, they get up and walk out. Only rarely would these guys reach for their wallet to pump more money into the machine.
These video slots are not quite one-armed bandits of yore. While it used to be that you needed to have a winning combo across the middle line, now you can wager on up to twenty lines by increasing the size of your bet. It's a little confusing at first -- the computer shows a cluster of lines zigzagging across three levels of symbols. If you bet on multiple lines and a winning combination of symbols appears on any one of them, the machine pays out.
It doesn't really increase your chances much, but this gimmick is effective on a psychological level. Imagine how you'd kick yourself if you only bet on the middle tier and five triple bars appear on the top tier. So everyone always bets the max.
Another gimmick is that most spins of the wheel pay out something. If you bet 20 rubles -- one ruble per line -- you'll almost always get a combo that pays you a couple of rubles. This insures that the machine constantly makes those annoying payout blings that supposedly imitate the sound of showering coins.
The racket produced by these halls is infernal, but after a while you stop hearing the alarms and bleeps. Each time you spin the wheel of a slot machine, it plays a collection of tones meant to signify anticipation. When you win, there's the showering coins, and when you double, a high pitch means you win and a low one means you lost. At one point I accidentally switched my Dictaphone on in my pocket. It was two hours before I realized it, and now I've got a symphony of annoying tones for posterity, preserved perfectly.
In the story of Grigory's addiction, like all unreformed addicts, it's hard to tell fact from fiction. He claims to have started when gambling first legally appeared in Moscow in '92. Back then he was a successful trader, with two apartments, a wife and a daughter. Now he's sold one of the apartments and has been kicked out of the other. He sleeps on his sister's couch one stop from Vykhino at Ryazansky Prospekt station and spends every day hanging around looking for a grift. He prefers Vykhino to his own stop because the electrichka stop makes for better pickings.
But when he started talking about how he used to be a high roller, frequenting Moscow's better casinos and one night pulling down 18 thousand dollars, it's hard to take him seriously. He told me of trips to the Crimea financed by his winnings and the gifts he'd shower upon his wife (who supported him when he was winning). One thing about gamblers is that loses tend to slip into a black hole of memory, while wins get inflated over time. And it really doesn't take long -- I saw it happen in a period of hours.
He didn't seem to have any idea or even care what he'd do with the money if he happened to win big. Like the gamblers I would meet later that night, gambling was a compulsion that gave no joy or hope -- it simply was. When asked, he'd mention buying a car or taking a vacation or winning back his wife, but never with any real desire. He was much more enthused about a chance to double and double again my 33 cent bet than money itself. He freely admitted that he was hopelessly addicted to gambling, but he had no desire to change.
Grigory's first love, like the hero of Dostoevsky's The Gambler, is roulette. Grigory might not be as introspective as the narrator of that book, but he did succeed at blowing all of the 400 rubles I'd given to him over the course of the day on the center piece of this slot hall -- an automated roulette wheel. His choice showed some wisdom -- even though roulette offers the worst odds of any table game, it certainly gives better payouts than the video games.
When he played with his own money, his mania only became more exaggerated. He'd spread three or four ruble bets across the numbers, averaging 70 or 80 rubles per spin. Then, when his number didn't come up, he'd moan about how close he'd been. "I knew it would land there," he'd claim, jabbing his finger at a mockup of the wheel. "26... look I had the numbers on either side of it! I knew it, I knew it!" And he always lost. But he seemed to think that "we" (I) were up for the day. Actually, by the time he left -- around 10 at night -- I was down about 50 bucks. I stopped feeding him cash. So he quietly left.
I left to check out some of the other halls closer to the metro, settling into the smallest of the halls, which looked to offer the most promising lowlifes. The machines were all lined up against one wall, and about half of them were in use. Even so, most of the gamblers didn't have anyone on either side of them. It was perfect: everybody looked miserable, which I assumed meant they'd been cleaned out, and I had to sit next to someone. I decided to sit next to the only two guys who were talking amongst themselves. They'd been drinking, and nothing complements gambling like drinking. There's a reason why Vegas keeps the drinks flowing.
In no time I met Sergei and Vanya. The two friends were in their early twenties, and that night had arrived to play video poker with ten thousand and twelve thousand rubles, respectively. Sergei, a lanky guy wearing a cheap button down shirt, was on his last 500 rubles. Vanya was a big guy -- fat but strong -- who looked something like Pyle from Full Metal Jacket after he snapped. And he was following Sergei into ruin, already down to about 1500 rubles.
My money supply was down, too -- I had about 2500 rubles (from an initial 6000) left. It was a perfect position to be in. By 1am, Sergei was out of money and had taken to giving me advice on how to play (telling me "hit it, hit it!" every time I won a bet). Since he was totally out of money, he didn't mind talking to me about his habit, especially after I gave him 100 rubles to go buy a round of beers at the nearest kiosk. Amazingly, he even gave me the change when he got back. I would later find out that, while he could contain his urges with 100 rubles, a 500 ruble note would prove to be too much temptation.
As with Grigory, he gambled for the process. When I asked him what he wanted the money for, he told me, "Oh, you know, I'd get a banya with some girls..." When I pointed out that 10,000 rubles would have been more than enough to do that out in zhopa, he conceded the point. "I guess I just like to gamble," he said.
Both friends work as gruzshiki at the rynok, meaning they lift heavy objects for a living. They were as boorish as anyone I've ever met -- drinking, swearing and spitting on right on the floor of the slot hall -- and had each dropped about half a month's salary that night. Since they both lived with their parents, they were free to spend every kopeck they earned gambling, which they do every payday.
By two, we were the last ones there. Vanya was out of money too, and the guard -- a cross-eyed flathead with some very impressive facial scars -- made it clear he wanted us out. I was the last one standing, with 1700 rubles left on the machine. I asked the guard to cash me out. He reset the machine and counted out my money with deliberate gestures and asked, "How much are you leaving me for beer?" Only, the way he'd separated the money, it was already clear how much I was leaving him. Even though I'd lost over 20 bucks at his hall, I'd be tipping him 200 rubles.
He thanked me and we headed across the square to another, more happening slot hall. This one was packed, filled with a combination of Caucasians and Russians. We settled down to play some more poker and after a while I sent Sergei out for more beer. Only this time I didn't have change for a 500. Without fully considering the implications of giving a compulsive gambler so much money, I handed it over. That was the last I saw of him or the money.
At first Vanya, who was by now advising me, too, told me not to worry. "He's my friend, he won't go anywhere." But after 15 minutes, he'd changed his tune. "Yeah, you shouldn't have given him 500," he shrugged. Later, when I was totally out of money, he'd repeat this accusingly, as though it was all my fault.
I left Vanya to gamble with my money while I went out to look for Sergei. I dropped in all the four slot halls that were still open, but he was nowhere to be found. I guess he thought he could quickly double the money and come back with some beer and cash in hand. When his plan didn't work out, he split.
Back at the hall, Vanya was still playing faithfully, wagering a modest 5 rubles per bet. Vanya, the rare moderate gambler more interested in gambling as long as possible than high stakes, was trying to stretch my money as long as possible. There were some bright spots -- twice we got a 500 ruble payout for four-of-a-kind! -- but we were hemorrhaging money. By dawn, we were totally broke.
Only Vanya wasn't ready to let it go. He'd alternate between regret -- "Listen, Jake, next time we'll just get some girls and go to the banya" -- and desire for more -- "Come on, let's go back to your place and grab some money. I know a couple places near Taganskaya." He'd say the latter part as if he was privy to exclusive information.
Out on the street we regrouped and formulated a plan. I still wanted to make this a 24-hour beat, so I agreed to head home and grab some money. We took a cab back to Taganskaya for 200 rubles -- less than it takes me to cross the Sadovoe -- and I grabbed another 50 bucks. And then we settled down at Terretoriya Azarta (Chance Territory), where we were the only clients at 7 in the morning on a Saturday.
The minimum stakes were still one ruble but this place was clearly a step up from the halls out at Vykhino (meaning it was well-lit and there was carpeting). The cleaning crews were already at work in anticipation of the new day, and the whole place shined, with the exception of a little square under Vanya's feet. There, unfazed by his new surroundings, he kept spitting and swearing like he was in Vykhino. A cesspool of phlegm and cigarette ash accumulated under him as he worked his machine. Amazingly, our 1500 rubles was prize enough to keep him from getting thrown out.
We both played at the same machine. Every time we'd try to double and fail, Vanya's finger would jab at a card we hadn't selected and he'd mutter, "Bitch! I fucking knew it!"
We played on and on and on, drinking beers and gambling. Vanya was convinced our success was due to the fact we were playing together and therefore confusing the computer. We'd periodically switch machines to keep 'em guessing. Vanya, who'd more or less commandeered the controls by now, was having some success, meaning he wasn't losing much. He showed no sign of tiring, even after getting up and puking in the bathroom for ten minutes. He just kept making his five ruble bets and he would continue to do so until the money was gone.
I wasn't so patient. It was nearly 10 and I was crashing hard. So I worked out a plan that I figured was fair to both of us. We had about 1000 rubles left -- 700 in cash and 300 on the machine. I gave Vanya 200 and told him I was leaving. Judging by the look he gave me, he must have felt like Stalin in June '41. "Look, I earned those 500 rubles," he said. "You can't fucking leave! Let's play it out."
Somehow, in his mind, he'd been winning, even though we were down 500 rubles... and it was my money to begin with. The blame for the losses fell squarely on my shoulders; his play had been flawless. I walked away in spite of his protests.
Five minutes later -- doubtlessly after he'd lost the 300 rubles remaining on the computer -- he came bounding down the street towards me.
"What the fuck?" he demanded. "Give me my fucking 500 rubles. What the fuck is with you? Here, take your fucking 200. But I earned that 500. You just would have fucking lost it."
Vanya was a much bigger man than me, and I was fairly sure those five hundred rubles meant more to him than to me. I took out my wallet to hand them over. In doing so, I flashed several 10 ruble bills as well. When he saw them he became even more convinced of his righteousness. "You fucking have money! Fuck off!" And, snatching the 500 from my hand, and forgetting that moments before he'd offered me his (my) 200, Vanya staggered off to lose the rest of my money.
All Content Copyright Iggy 2003-2007
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