Slot Machines and Bicycles

light up slots

For over a decade, I trekked to Las Vegas for the InterBike trade show. As my reason for being there was to interact with the bike industry, I only needed a room with a bed, shower, and internet access. Since I only expected to use the room for eight hours a day, if that, the cheaper, the better, and to make it even more economical, I shared a room with a friend who was also of the same mind.

A few years, we shacked at Circus Circus. I think we spent around $25 a night total some visits. It was a worn out place, a patina of grime and failure mixed with dust covering everything, a place well past its prime, if it ever had one. But, like every casino hotel I’ve been to, you had to walk through at least some of the gaming floor to get in and out of the hotel; casino owners seem to put the elevators in the middle of their palaces. And, like just about all casinos, you can’t see outside from the floor. Bad lighting, tarnished gold gilt, flashing lights, noises; it’s designed as an assault.

We usually got up early, often to get a ride in. So we’d come down before 7am, dressed for riding, and inevitably pass people sitting at slot machines, looking like they were about to pass out while absent-mindedly feeding coins into the one-armed bandits. It was always a depressing sight. I despaired for people who used their vacation to take a room in a hotel where they were just giving money away to the house to get nothing in return. People flew to Vegas for this? It seemed so sad, so empty; the end of The Dream, maybe the end of The American Dream.

All the same, those sad people might have been side-eyeing us. They might have been thinking about how fooled we were about youth and life and the illusion that we were getting something back for the money we spent and that the only thing that mattered was getting more money.

I bring it up because I heard a Bruce Springsteen commentary about the 45th occupant of The White House that has been making the rounds on my feeds.

It reminded me of those trips to Circus Circus.

I believe money is a means to an end. I gain money to trade it for more important things. And when I use it for pleasure, the money is the means not the end. A meal, a race, a performance, a faster bike, an experience, reduced drag, a view, time with friends and family, education, and so on.

But I wonder if those people feeding the slots are actually everywhere, and growing in number. There are only two modes with slot machines: winning and losing. Though it’s almost entirely losing. It’s not like training or preparation makes a difference in slots. And slot machines actually present players terrible odds, the worst in casinos; it’s estimated that the chance of winning the top prize at any machine is somewhere between one in 5,000 and one in 34 million. Losing is what you do the vast majority of the time, what the end result is almost surely going to be, and the illusion that a win might make up for the losses and the resulting promised dopamine boost, will somehow put you ahead and is what gets people to try in the first place. Terrible odds are why slots are good for business owners.  According to one article I found, the Vegas Strip slot machines actually pay more than machines in other places—the player will lose an average of $0.00.82 per spin, just under one cent. Of course, for proponents of slots, this is a huge value. 600 spins on $0.25 slots in an hour costs the player only $4.92, if you ignore the other costs associated with travel and food. As if it’s a fair game and the house only wins some of the time.

Even small losses can add up to big money. In 2013, Americans lost $119 billion dollars while gambling. That’s more than the Americans spend on cycling, which was estimated at $97 billion in 2017 (including other wheeled sports). If you want constant dollars, the $119 billion in 2013 would be over $125 billion in 2017.

There’s an impression that slots are for poor people and for those who are skeptical of their ability at other games. I don’t know if it’s true, but people had to get to Vegas and likely pay for a hotel room. Circus Circus was cheap, but even cheap adds up when you add in flights and meals.

But going to play games where the house always wins also reinforces another notion; cheating is ok because the system isn’t fair. Winning is thus all that matters. And that’s not good for games, life, or governance.

In a democracy, the means are supposed to justify the ends. Elections are supposed to a means of both acquiring the consent of the governed and allowing for course corrections of that consent.  Following the processes–forming alliances, introducing bills, debates, having votes, etc. are about the means improving the end result.

Cycling is often about the means justifying the ends. A commute by bike makes the job easier, if not tolerable. A long ride justifies pigging out on a meal afterwards. The time spent training dwarfs the time spent racing. When getting there is half the fun, the means is at least as equally important as the ends—and then there’s the ride back.

The 45th President claims to be an athlete, but the only game he seems to enjoy is one where the cheating is easy and he can delight in beating others. He is a known and prolific cheat; has even cheated playing golf with Tiger Woods. And his sons love hunting animals with high-powered rifles, not exactly sport. In both cases, it’s the trophy they’re after. The experience means nothing.

We need more people to care about the experience.

We need more people to ride bicycles.

Share your thoughts.