The special referendum, the Constitutional amendment, the breathless newspaper coverage, the fight in Tallahassee it was all about a bunch of steel and glass boxes with annoying sound effects and bad cartoon images whirling around in them.
You can imagine the look of them by some of their names: Hoot Loot, Frog Prince, Enchanted Unicorn, Sea Monkeys. Just reciting those names brings back the nausea of standing in the room, the relatively small Gulfstream casino.
Flocked around the true idiot boxes were hordes of folks who were mostly born before Hitler died. It was like a casting call for Cocoon III. These people needed bedpans, not jackpots.
I brought $100 with me to lose to the Hallandale Beach casino. And, believe me, I knew I was going to lose it, so I conned New Times into supplying half the cash. But I have to admit that when I stepped up to the first machine, the aforementioned Frog Prince, I held out hope of being one of the rare lucky ones. I started with a one-dollar bill. I pressed one of the blinking, white-lit buttons, and, well, I won.
Yes, I won.
But I'm getting ahead of the story here. You should know that I had never put a nickel in a slot machine before. I'd been around them in Las Vegas and at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, though, and came to despise them. When it comes to gambling, give me poker, blackjack, sports book just about anything where there is some thought and a semblance of skill.
Not slots. They seem to turn people into zombie-like creatures, sitting there, mindless, pushing buttons, pulling levers, and putting in money until there is no more left. Something horrible and unspeakable about it, like an addiction scene out of Naked Lunch.
Although I voted against the slots last year, I'm too much into the concept of personal freedom to want them outlawed. After all, if somebody is cunning enough to use Pavlov's laws to build a box with enough frills that people are silly enough to put their money into it and then walk away empty-handed, more power to them. That's America, people.
And with the new slots at Gulfstream, people could lose more money than ever! With Class III, Vegas-style machines, you could lose $500 or more on a single push of the button. What fun.
If you read the coverage in the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald, people were indeed winning too. When Gulfstream debuted the machines last week, both newspapers led their stories with lucky people who had won hundreds of dollars.
What those papers didn't report is that the Gulfstream machines are, without a doubt, the biggest rip-off in the country in terms of Class III devices.
That's right, they're the tightest slots in America.
The official line is that the machines are paying back 90 cents on the dollar. I doubt that's even true, since the state is mandating only an 85 percent return. But even if it is, they beat machines in Connecticut, which had a previous worst payout of about 92 percent, in terms of sheer stinginess.
I asked Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom about the machines, since I knew he had a little experience. He isn't a major gambler, but he's won a few jackpots in recent years on trips to Vegas and the Bahamas. When I told him the Gulfstream payout was 90 percent, he immediately balked.
"You'll never see me in that casino," he said. "Not to say I won't go to dinner there, but I won't play."
Rodstrom says that on the rare occasions he plays, he hits video poker machines that require skill and pay get this 99.6 percent returns.
In other words, the commissioner is smart.
You won't find any machines or much smarts, for that matter in South Florida. One reason is that the state takes half the profit from Broward's machines. Add to that local taxes and fees and the actual tax rate is more like 62 to 65 percent, says state Sen. Steve Geller, a gambling proponent who all but represents the gaming industry in Tallahassee.
"Add it all together and we have the highest tax rate in the nation," he says.
Geller said the tax rate precludes Vegas-like payouts and means that the new casinos won't be much in the way of splendor either. He says that state staffers advocated a 35-percent tax rate but that the Republican-led Legislature ignored them.
"I believe this was set up to keep the slots from succeeding," he said, pointing his finger at the outgoing governor, Jeb Bush, who is adamantly opposed to gambling.
Another tell-tale sign of sabotage, he said, is the fact that the Legislature banned ATM machines on the property.
"Senior citizens are going to have to walk across the street and walk through traffic with large wads of cash," Geller said. "I find that reprehensible."
As should we all. The oldsters should be able to lose those large wads of cash without having to cross the street at all.
Oh, and how they lose. The Sentinel reported that on the day the slots were unleashed at Gulfstream last week, the casino netted $334,073. People walked away that day a third-of-a-million dollars poorer.
Geller concedes the payouts are pretty dismal right now but says they are even lower at the Seminole-owned Hard Rock (though that casino is permitted to carry only lower-risk "bingo-style" machines). He also said that once other racetracks open their slot rooms, competition will drive the payouts higher.
Maybe, but right now it's just sad. When I arrived at Gulfstream last week, I started by putting a dollar bill in that Frog Prince machine. And I did, indeed, win $2.25. That was gone in the next few minutes.
From there, I played quarter and dollar machines. Besides the brands named above, I played Jewel of Arabia, Jackpot Party, and Reel's of Dublin. I lost as little as a nickel on a spin and as much as $9. I won a couple of tiny pots, but the money seemed determined to spin away like water funneling down a toilet.
I had a couple of Heinekens to dull the pain, and I intended to talk to some of the regular players who were communing with the machines, their souls seemingly being sucked from them like their money.
But I couldn't stomach it. I escaped that depressing chamber as soon as the last of my five $20 bills had vanished.
I know I'll never go back into that place again.