Don Haring Jr.
In the last couple of years, this newspaper has spilled copious ink on the two casinos descending upon Philly SugarHouse, which opened in Fishtown on Sept. 23, and Foxwoods, which may or may not open a few miles down Delaware Avenue at some point in the future. The state, and the Rendell administration in particular, has seen these casinos as cash cows in troubled economic times, a way to rake in billions of dollars from people who are trying to have a good time and hit the big one. Critics have countered that most casino profits come from "problem gambling," destructive behavior that can ruin lives and families, and targets the poor and elderly. And what was perhaps more troubling than gambling in the abstract was the way lawmakers bent over backward to accommodate the gaming industry spending millions to make sure public transportation goes right to the casinos' front doors, and permitting casinos to loan tens of thousands of dollars to players as part of a package to permit table games alongside slots, for instance.
Then again, if gambling didn't have a certain allure, no one would do it. The casinos' acid-flashback-inducing lights and dizzying noises are intoxicating, as is the thrill of knowing there's a chance however infinitesimal that the next time you hit "play" on that dollar slot, your ship could come in. No, it almost certainly won't happen. But there's still a chance and as the gambling industry is happy to remind you, you can't win if you don't play.
So now, with Philly's first casino fully operational, we thought it time to (mostly) divest ourselves of the politics and just see what SugarHouse was like for one 24-hour period, beginning at 7 a.m. last Wednesday morning. To that end, we sent three reporters Holly Otterbein, Patrick Rapa and Isaiah Thompson in six four-hour shifts, armed only with their notebooks and $50 apiece in spending money, to see what SugarHouse was really like. Their observations follow.
Oh, in case you were wondering: Otterbein and Thompson both lost their $50 (and Thompson lost an additional $25 of his own money); Rapa, however, worked the roulette table for a $90 profit.
Party at his house.
7:00 a.m. Sunrise at SugarHouse is a wonderful thing to behold. The sky turns a delicate pink as dawn emerges over the Camden waterfront; in the middling darkness, a tugboat goes silently past; the Delaware River, coming alive with color, laps gently against the pilings behind SugarHouse, and water birds gather along its shore. These touches, of course, are all but invisible inside the casino; even so, there's a palpable sense inside the 24-hour facility that a new day has begun. By no means empty, the casino is quiet nonetheless. A few tight-knit clots of patrons largely, at this particular moment, Asian men sit smoking and playing almost in total silence while the dealers at adjacent tables practice their hand-skills and wait for players and tips. Woe unto the first-shift dealer whose table has not caught on. If a table wasn't hot before the sun came up, it won't be for a while.
7:45 a.m. "You wanna be a boss? You gotta learn from the boss," says Boss, a man in the younger end of his early 20s, playing the roulette table with two companions, who we'll call Dude and Lady, a young man and woman, also in their 20s. The three met at the casino at the roulette table, in fact and they've been playing together all night. They are noisy, energetic and winning.8:00 a.m Dude is torn between leaving and his new strategy: Bet the zeroes. High payout potential, terrible odds. He fake-runs toward the bathroom, but is interrupted by Boss, who warns him, "It's gonna hit zero the second you leave," and so he fake-runs backward, back to the table. It doesn't hit, and Dude mumbles something about leaving. "Let's all walk out together," Boss says to his new comrades. "The three of us." They agree. But they don't walk out together.
"I should play this hundred to even out my stack, right?" Boss asks the dealer, who nods.
8:25 a.m Unexpectedly, Boss begins to walk away. "You leaving?" Dude calls after him, surprised. "I'll be right back," Boss says without turning around. From the back of his jacket: "I just lost 900." Ten minutes later, he is not back.
"He probably out there trying to win it back," Lady opines.8:35 a.m. Dude leaves.
8:37 a.m. Dude returns. "I forgot I had ordered a drink!" he says, laughing and gazing at the zeroes again. For five, maybe 10 minutes he does not play, but looks impatiently for his drink.
8:42 a.m. "I can't not play," Dude declares, and bets the zeroes. He is up $200, he says.
8:52 a.m. The drink arrives. Dude is out the $200. "I ain't wasting no more," Dude says. "Then give me 50, if you ain't going to waste it," responds Lady, stretching out her hand. Dude almost gives it to her, but stops.
"Nah," he says. She looks him in the eyes and says it again. "Nah," he repeats. It goes on like this for some time.
9:00 a.m. The morning rush hour at SugarHouse. As the last of the night owls vanish, in comes a fresh-faced crowd, coffees in hand, standing, not sitting, at the slot machines some apparently on their way to work. As the morning wears on, the before-work crowd is replaced by reinforcements of elderly white women and a remarkably strong contingent of middle-aged black women who emerge in little packs from each 43 SEPTA bus that pulls up off Delaware Avenue at the corner outside. Almost without exception, this crowd is bound for the slot machines. For all the hype around table games, it's these Joe and Jane Six-Slots that are the bread and butter of the modern casino. To put it into perspective, SugarHouse's 40 table games raked in about $866,000 in September before paying a 14 percent tax to the state. Those humble slot machines, on the other hand, brought in $4.7 million over the same period. The first week of November alone, they brought in nearly $2.7 million.
10:45 a.m. "I don't have a problem with the casino," says Mike Mooney of Mooney Welding on Frankford Avenue, catty-corner to SugarHouse. "[Gambling's] addictive, but so is everything. My beef is with this mess." He gestures at the construction outside, a multimillion-dollar project to build a small spur that will enable the Route 15 trolley to turn around during the two years in which its regular route on Richmond Street is under repair; after that, the new spur will become obsolete. "It's a waste of money," says Mooney. "Eleven million for something they're using for two years? I asked SEPTA, 'Why don't you just use buses?'" The temporary route will, however, include a stop at SugarHouse.
11:11 a.m. A woman who looks not unlike an obese Hillary Clinton plays the Double Jackpot slot machine well. She's up $2 ... $10 ... $40. She gets two Double Jackpot Wilds in a row. "Don't you think that's unusual?" she asks, turning to her less-blessed neighbor. "I'll let you play on this one. I'm about to cash out."11:30 a.m. "I'll cash out in a minute," she says.
11:51 a.m. She cashes out.
11:55 a.m. Tom Petty comes on Muzak, singing, "Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes." Seriously.
Afternoon12:00 p.m. The Kitchen Capers Giveaway begins, kicking off a flurry of free coffee makers, blenders, toaster ovens and the like. Someone will get lucky once every hour until 8 p.m., when a patron finally scores the grand prize: a refrigerator. To qualify, you must have your SugarHouse Rush Rewards card inserted into a machine, and you must be an "active" player, meaning you've been gambling once every minute. "What did they win?" asks a woman at the bar, unable to hear the announcement.
"I don't know," responds a middle-aged man, not looking up from his virtual poker game. "A woodchuck? A chipmunk? A decomposed body from the Delaware? Whatever it is, it'll make 'em happy."1:18 p.m. A man with a Chicago Bulls hat saddles up to a video blackjack machine. He's lost $1,300 today, and has already left SugarHouse once to get more money. Why doesn't he call it quits? "'Cause I'm a gambler," he says. "Win or lose, right Ma?" The lady he's talking to nods, saying nothing. "Since the casino opened," he adds, "I'm down $8,500."
2:08 p.m. A young, smiley couple sit down at the virtual blackjack machine. The woman has never been in a casino before. "What's 'BJ' stand for?" she asks, smirking.
"It means when you win, you get a BJ from her," he says, pointing to the animated dealer. She plays, while he instructs in the same suave/kind/demeaning manner that men teach women how to play pool. She learns what "double down" and "split" mean, and when to hit and when to stand. She's cautious at first, making clear she thinks this whole gambling thing is nuts. But she's up $100, after betting just $40. Someone next to her gets blackjack. "Hey, I deserve a BJ!" she says. Then, suddenly, she's down. She freaks out, and slumps over. "This is giving me an aneurism!" But she keeps going. "I'll stop once I hit $100." She continues to lose.
"It's called gambling. You win some, you lose some," he tells her. "How do you expect to win with an attitude like that? Besides, you came here to lose. You said you'd lose $40, and then leave."
2:26 p.m. The Yardley Commons Independent Senior Living van is parked outside. In 2006, Gov. Ed Rendell famously remarked, "These are people who lead very gray lives. ... They pull that slot machine, and with each pull they think they have a chance to win. It's unbelievable what brightness and cheer it brings to older Pennsylvanians. Unbelievable." He later apologized.2:31 p.m. We spot a Kitchen Kapers Giveaway winner: A woman with a cane walks slowly through the casino, clutching a coffee maker under her arm. She stops at a slot machine, sits down. She places the prize in front of her, raises her left leg her bum leg, it's clear and rests it on her new coffee maker. She inserts a Rush Rewards card which, after you play a bit of your own money, will credit you $20 into the slots.
2:35 p.m. A lone woman early middle-aged, in a leather jacket with a large Obama pin high on the lapel puts her cigarette out in a concrete planter on 12th Street near Market. She peers nonchalantly into traffic, but instead of the free Sugar Express trolley, which is running a few minutes late, she catches sight of a loud, mobile argument between two pedestrians. The topic is unknown, but they reach an impasse around the time one of them throws the other's shopping bag against the western wall of the Hard Rock Café. They depart angrily, in separate directions. Aboard the trolley, it's a whole other mood: jovial, expectant. A couple post-frat dudes talk about how they'd like to win at blackjack. Two women laugh to each other about the curved park bench-style seats. "It's not a smooth ride," one notes, and indeed we slide with every turn and bounce with every pothole. On the back of each seat are the oversize likenesses of playing cards with slogans like "Just a few minutes from winning" and "All In? All right!"2:55 p.m. Before the trolley can jolt to a complete stop in front of the casino, we are boarded by a happy woman who wants to tell us about SugarHouse's Rush Rewards cards. "Your pin number is the year you were born," she says. We line up to have our driver's licenses swiped through her handheld device.
3:30 p.m. A guitar duo named Patty and Bugzy are running through a deliciously moody set list of bluesy rock-folk at the Refinery Bar. They've seen fire and they've seen rain. They're leaving Las Vegas. They say we've got to hide our love away. Like all the bars at SugarHouse, this one's got built-in video poker machines, each with a tiny muted TV inset on the upper left corner. The channel changers don't work, so everybody's watching ESPN, which right now is showing a man whose arms and legs are shortened at the elbows and knees, presumably due to some birth defect, go through a workout regimen. Behind Patty and Bugzy is an architectural rarity: a casino window. The glass goes floor to ceiling, offering a view of a shipping company and the remains of Riverfront State Prison across the Delaware in Camden. A middle-aged man takes out a miniature manila envelope and tilts it toward the bar. Out pours a silver bracelet wrapped in a napkin. He looks at it for a while, then wraps it back up and puts it away.
4:25 p.m. Total sausage party at the roulette table, and everybody's flirting with the dealer. One player, 30s, is writing things down on a gridded card. "This is about money management," he explains. "You gotta keep track of how much money you have out there. Otherwise you're just being reckless."
5:20 p.m. Twenty bucks disappears in two hands at a "three-card poker" table, despite the dealer's best attempts to explain the game.
5:50 p.m. Drinking sweet Jack and Gingers back at the Refinery, where Patty and Bugzy play bluesy versions of "Come to My Window" and "Me and Julio." Lacking patrons, a bartender practices flipping juice bottles off his forearm, with limited success.
7:00 p.m. Someone has just won a Whirlpool electric oven, according to an announcement.
7:04 p.m. SugarHouse is ablaze with lights and life. The table games are full; the slots (never full) are packed; the VIP lounge is occupied by white men in suits.
8:00 p.m. If ever someone decides to make a bronze statue of the archetypal Grandma, this lady would make an excellent model: Quiet, sweet, swathed in a giant fuzzy sweater, she's been at the penny slots for a half-hour now. How's she doing? "Not great," she says. Nonetheless, unimpressed by our betting method one penny at a time she encourages us to bet more lines, and more pennies per line (even on a "penny" slot, it's easy to be betting $5 for every push of the button). "You gotta bet to win," she says. Sweet though she is, her logic is flawed: Slot machines are tightly regulated to operate at a fixed "payout" rate between 85 percent and 99 percent. That sounds good, but think of it this way: Every time you push a button, the machine (on average) takes between 1 percent and 15 percent of your bet. Placing a higher bet, or betting more lines, changes nothing. It is mathematically equivalent to simply hitting the button much faster.8:26 p.m Why play video blackjack ($10 per bet)? Because you can call the dealer a bitch, is one reason! "Bitch!" mutters the man to our left as he's dealt a lousy hand by the buxom virtual dealer before us. "Bitch!" shouts the woman on our right in solidarity. We put in $20. Also: Someone should write a dissertation on SugarHouse's virtual blackjack machines. The "dealers" are four ravishing, 2-D ladies brunette, blonde, Asian and swimsuit-clad all with generous cleavage. The animation is incredibly realistic; if these dealers don't inspire uncanny-valley revulsion within you, nothing will. About 10 feet away, people play at the actual blackjack tables.
8:36 p.m. "Bitch!" says the man on our left to the new (buxom) dealer, then: "I want that old dealer back." Mild-mannered woman cashes out. "I hope you all go home," she says merrily. We put in another $20.8:38 p.m. Net video blackjack loss: $40. 9:30 p.m.
You'd think the cabbies who maintain a consistent queue in front of SugarHouse would be among its most ardent supporters. Not so, says Abraham, a nine-year taxi driver who's been waiting 40 minutes for a fare: "Has the casino been good for taxi drivers? Not really," he shrugs. "Most of the fares are less than eight or nine blocks away." Blocks? Miles, he means right? "No, no: I would say 90 percent of the people I take live less than eight blocks away."11:00 p.m. We flag down a Sugar-House Sweetie for a drink, but we're rebuffed: "You have to be playing," she says. Thinking fast, we plop in front of a slot machine and begin fiddling with the buttons. And we get the drink. Win.
12:20 a.m. A woman comes up to the bar and asks for a cup of lemon slices. The bartender double-checks the order and then hands it over. No charge. No tip. What is that about? "I assume she'll get some sugar packets and hit the water fountain," he says. Homemade lemonade. Meanwhile, a birthday girl has been downing kamikazes and is starting to make a spectacle of herself. She asks for a high-five and a shot. He obliges, but makes her drink some water before the next shot.
"Why?" she says, laughing.
"Because I don't want to clean up your puke."
"That's my goal!"
"That is not your goal!" He smiles as he walks away.
1:10 a.m. Spotting us writing in our notebook, an Anderson Cooper-looking gentleman launches into an anecdote about the time he saw roulette players scribbling on their little cards in Melbourne. "And 90 percent of them were writing their bets. I hope you're not doing that shit with your notebook." Nope. Money management. "Good man."
1:45 a.m. The slot machines are grouped by minimum bet a penny, a quarter, etc. but themes would work, too. Disaster slots: Krakatoa, Invaders from Planet Moolah, 5 Alarm Fire, Bam! Celebrity slots: Village People, Monkees, I Love Lucy, Sex and the City. Geography slots: Jackpot Canyon, Cascade Mountain, St. Petersburg.2:18 a.m. The music is saying "everybody dance now" but the crowd is thinning out. The bars are closed. A Windows error message appears on the screens above a bank of slots. "Sign.exe has encountered a problem and needs to close." Nobody seems to notice.
2:30 a.m. There are only a couple of taxis sitting outside SugarHouse, which seems odd.
"That's because you can't trust anyone there," says an older cabbie. "A lot of times they just won't pay you. They'll say, 'Take me to Villanova.' And then you go to Villanova, and maybe they say, 'I'll be right back with money.' And they never come out. And if they do, well, they're worried about being robbed, or they just won't tip you. If they win, it's bad. If they lose, it's bad."3:05 a.m. There is no reported crime during our sojourn at SugarHouse. In less than 24 hours, though, two men will pistol-whip and rob a group of women outside the casino, the second attempted armed robbery of a SugarHouse patron since it opened two months ago. According to police statistics obtained by City Paper , 22 crimes have been reported at SugarHouse from opening day to Nov. 14. That includes three reports of theft from cars, two reports of theft that occurred elsewhere, one report of fraudulent conversion, three reports of private-property vandalism, two DUIs, four reports of disorderly conduct and six reports of trespassing.
It's too soon to tell if these are isolated incidents or proof that casinos bring more violent crime to communities, as economist Earl Grinols and the casinos' opponents argue. "As a policy, casinos are more concerned with people cheating them out of money than with the safety of their patrons," says Dan Hajdo, Casino-Free Philadelphia's spokesman. However, Hajdo says participants in its "town watches" of the vicinity haven't seen anything serious yet, just a few open-container incidents.
4:02 a.m. Early this year, state lawmakers passed a bill that was, on its face, about bringing table games to Pennsylvania. But tucked into S.B. 711 was a clause that allowed casinos to extend credit to slot machine players; the Daily News called this legislation a "Trojan horse." Right across from the security office, there's a room where people can apply for credit even at 4:02 a.m. If you borrow $5,000 or less, you have 15 days to pay it off; if you borrow more, you've got 30 days. SugarHouse credit executives say the application process can take as little as an hour.
4:37 a.m. A pregnant woman walks by the table games. Around the corner, a woman wearing a Harrah's Chester fleece plays the slots.
5:02 a.m. People are getting sleepy. A man in a red hoodie crashes on a virtual blackjack machine, the folks around him are unfazed; an amputee passes out in her wheelchair behind the table games, while two young men beside her win a hand, merrily singing John Fogerty's "The Old Man Down the Road."5:45 a.m. Somewhere in the casino, a man cries out, "Give me my money back, machine! Give me my money back!" 5:50 a.m.
Minutes later, the same man cries out in joy: "Woooo!"6:30 a.m. The sun begins to smear itself across the sky. Outside, if you look to the left, you can see Petty's Island a 400-acre plot of land where Quakers went to gamble in the 1700s because the law didn't apply there. It's been said that waterfronts are naturally anarchic places, havens for sailorly delights.
It's fitting, then, that a casino is now on the waterfront.
The sky becomes a cotton-candy swirl of pink, yellow and purple, and then fades into blue. Sunrise at SugarHouse is a wonderful thing to behold.