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Feature Story September 4, 2004
Low Rollers! 24 Hours in Slot Hall Hell
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email

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 stomping grounds

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