Holmes: A night at Twin Rivers
It's Saturday night, and the parking lot is full. Inside, row after row of slot machines blink and beep and whir. In front of nearly every one is a customer in a chair, one eye on the video screen, one hand on the button that makes the bets. Most of them look like they are having a pretty good time.
I'm here for a reality check. With Massachusetts locked in a debate over whether casinos are an economic boon or a social plague, I took myself on a field trip to Twin River, less than a half-hour over the Massachusetts line, which bills itself as the nation's second-largest "racino."
The greyhounds are racing on Saturday night, but they don't draw much of a crowd. It's a pleasant evening, but the outdoor grandstand is sparsely filled. Inside, several rows of tables look out on the track, with comfortable chairs and a TV for each player. You can tune the TV to the race in front of you, live horse races from around the country or even the Red Sox game.
Maybe a hundred or so people are tuned into the racing part of the operation. Thousands are plugged into the slots.
For the uninitiated, today's slot machines aren't the one-armed bandits of old. A big betting button has replaced the old lever and the turning wheels are video images, not mechanical parts.
The player slides a bill into a slot, then punches in how much he'd like to bet with each push of the button and how many lines on the screen he's betting. Different machines have different themes, and there are almost as many poker-type games as traditional line-up-the-fruits slots.
No coins clang into a metal dish when you win a bet. A tally on the screen adds to your account when you win and subtracts from it when you lose. On some machines you can bet as little as a penny a spin. At that rate, you can push the button and watch the symbols spin for quite awhile before your account runs dry and you have to slip in another bill.
Some people actually come out ahead, but not many and not me.
I last visited this place a few years ago, when it was known as Lincoln Park. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I came away thinking it was one of the most depressing places I'd ever visited: A dark warehouse where a few bored and pathetic people were frittering away money they couldn't afford to lose.
Two years ago, a new group of deep-pockets investors bought Lincoln Park, and they've plowed $220 million into it. They doubled the floor space, added more parking and a 2,000-seat event center for prizefights and concerts. The place boasts a fancy atrium, nice carpeting, some smoke-free slots halls. It has a comedy club and some upscale restaurants, including a steakhouse run by Ex-Patriots Fred Smerlas and Steve DeOssie.
But it's still all about the slots. Twin River has 4,720 machines, making it the fifth largest slots parlor in the country. Slots are the most addictive of games, designed to separate the compulsive gambler from his cash as efficiently as possible.
Any slots parlor can be depressing on a Wednesday afternoon. But a near-empty movie theater can seem depressing on a weekday as well. So can any bar at closing time.
But on this Saturday night, Twin River didn't seem depressing. Thousands of people seemed to be having a pretty good time for their entertainment dollars. It reminded me of a Chuck E. Cheeze's for adults, all flashing lights and electronic games. All that was missing was a giant tub of plastic balls for the patrons to swim around in.
Who am I to say those people shouldn't have their fun? Estimates of those prone to gambling addiction run as high as 6 percent, which means at least 94 percent of would-be gamblers can blow their money on a slots on a Saturday night without lasting harm to themselves or their families.
I won't deny the seriousness of gambling addiction or the venality of those who profit from it. But the prohibitionist impulse - denying freedoms to all in order to protect a few from their affliction - hasn't worked for alcohol and drugs, and it won't work for gambling either.
Just a few miles up the road from Twin River is Plainridge Racecourse in Plainfield, a struggling harness racing track. Its owner says he's ready to pour $200 million into turning it into a shiny new racino. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, among others, is pushing the racino option as an alternative to Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal for three "destination resort casinos."
Patrick argues that destination resorts, with A-list entertainers, first-class hotels, golf courses and other non-gaming attractions, will bring in more money than slots at the tracks. They will attract more visitors from out-of-state and a more affluent clientele.
Maybe so. Twin River caters mostly to a jeans-and-T-shirt crowd, and they weren't flying in from Europe to watch the doggies run and the slot screens spin. They are coming from Massachusetts - 35 percent of them, according to one study - for a form of entertainment the Beacon Hill gang has, so far, denied them.
Twin River and a similar racino in Newport are expected to generate $255 million a year in revenue for Rhode Island, at least until Bay State casinos start cutting into their take. I still think partnering with gaming moguls is a lousy way to pay teachers and fill potholes. I'd prefer honest taxation over taking a share of the profits of addiction.
But lawmakers who think gambling is an evil they must protect us from ought to visit Twin River on a Saturday night. For most people, it's harmless fun.
Rick Holmes is opinion editor for the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.