"As I leave the casino thinking never again, a film runs on a loop through my head: there´s a stack of unpaid bills and lost money I can never get back. I feel a tightening in my temples. Also playing over and over in my head is the television commercial in which a high-ranking military officer proclaims that money spent gambling with the Slot Machine Association is for a worthy cause. The first time I saw that commercial, I felt like kicking the screen into million pieces." "I´m full of optimism after my first hypnotic treatment. Immediately the next day, I rush to the casino to request a self-exclusion from gambling. I have made serious vow to get out of this roulette hell, and one way to do that is to be forbidden from entering the casino."
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Never Taken Seriously: A Sad Story
by Anneli Poutiainen
Translated from Finnish by Melissa Airas
My first time
One fall day, in the early 1990s, I am enjoying breakfast with my family when the phone rings, interrupting our conversation.
"Want to come with us on a cruise? There's still one space available. It's only women, and it won't cost much," Jaana, a former coworker, pants on the other end of the line. She is going on a fall excursion with her sports club, and one of the participants has cancelled.
I ask my husband if it's OK for me to go–not because I need his permission, just to make sure that we don't already have plans that weekend. Oddly enough, I have the strangest feeling–in the old days they would have called it a premonition–that I shouldn't commit to going on the trip without thinking it over.
"Well, I guess I could go," I answer despite my peculiar feeling, thinking that a short trip could be a refreshing change from the boredom and fatigue of autumn. After summer break, the junior high school year is back in full swing and starting to feel a bit monotonous. Memories of previous cruises whirl through my mind: a table laden with good food, maybe some dancing–even though I'm not that good at it–and, best of all, a little shopping.
When the cruise weekend rolls around in the beginning of October, I find myself somewhat reluctant to go. But a promise is a promise, and the trip is already paid for. I take the bus to the railway station and then a tram down Aleksanterinkatu street toward the harbor. Little by little, I begin to feel a twinge of excitement in the pit of my stomach, and anticipation rises to the surface.
The line of people making their way onto the ship is absolutely crawling. One party–judging from their speech, I suspect they are from a rural area–takes up the whole width of the gangway, carting their stuff along as if they own the world. A group of men who have already taken the opportunity to imbibe in a few drinks in the harbor cafe on shore are babbling into their mobile phones and stumbling aimlessly about, holding up the line. It's stop and go, but the whole caravan manages to move forward somehow.
The ship's crew welcomes every single passenger on board. Without asking permission, a photographer snaps pictures in the doorway.
"How many passengers actually want to be immortalized with their picture on the wall here in the lobby of the ship?" criticizes Jaana when our party is targeted by the photographer. "Especially if you're not here with your own spouse," she adds mischievously.
After enjoying the bounty of the buffet table, I take a catnap in my cabin. When I wake up, I change into my best outfit and head out to see what evening entertainment the cruise ship has to offer. The other women in my party are all off doing their own thing, so I wander out alone.
A crowd is gathered around what seems to be the entrance to some event. Out of curiosity, I approach the lively bunch and end up in the middle of the crowd facing a glass door. I crane my neck to see what everyone is waiting for and find that the ship's casino is behind the door. I've never been in a casino before, so when the door opens, I let the stream of people pull me inside.
I notice that the women rush determinedly to attack the slot machines, and the men scatter around the room: some gather around the Black Jack tables, others join the women at the slot machines. All those at the machines start to passionately ram coins into them. Nowadays, there are gaming machines–mostly poker and slots–at the entrance to every supermarket, convenience store, gas station, and café. These machines have never grabbed my attention. Every time I go to the grocery store, I see the pained expressions of retired people feeding their pensions into the machines.
I stray in the direction of a Black Jack table. Here there are only men, both Finnish and foreign. At first, because I don't know the rules of the game, I am content in the role of observer. I pick up the rules quickly, however, and I’m ready to step into action. Smiling, I think of the card games I played as a child with my siblings.
At first I play carefully, just getting a feel for the game, but before long I find myself raising my bet to the maximum allowed. I manage to win a few hundred marks* quickly, and this excites me. I start to gamble recklessly. (*The Finnish mark was the currency of Finland until 28 February 2002, when it was replaced by the euro. One euro is the equivalent of about six Finnish marks. Divide the number of marks by five to seven to get US dollars.)
The first time I lose all my winnings–plus a little of my other money–I don't have the heart to continue. Instead, I move over to play backseat driver to one French-speaking player.
After a while, I move on and continue exploring the casino. In the middle of the room, I notice a group of people gathered in a semicircle.
"Come on doubles!"
"Didn't I say double twos?!"
Their shouts rise above even the clanging and jingling slot machines. The noisy crowd, occasionally erupting in squeals of joy, peaks my interest, and I step toward the ruckus to see a roulette table. Edging in among the onlookers, I accidentally nudge one player. I dig a hundred-mark bill out of my handbag. I'm going to try my luck. Novice that I am, I reach out to hand my hundred to the dealer, and he pushes twenty dark-green plastic chips across the surface of the table in front of me. My first-ever purchase of chips at a roulette table.
I place half my chips in various spots around the table, mostly without thinking. Then I'm left to wait like the others. I can't watch as the dealer sets the wheel in motion, nor when he throws the ball. Spinning motions make me feel nauseated.
Luck is not on my side the first spin, but pretty soon my stack of chips starts to grow considerably. I linger at the roulette table until I hear the croupier, or dealer, announce, "Last three rounds!"
That means the casino is getting ready to close. I end up with about five hundred marks more than when I started. I use my winnings to buy some presents for my family and coworkers from the tax-free gift shop.
Late fall. I hurry toward the railway station to catch my bus. Both my tote bag and plastic shopping bag bulge with food I just bought from the delicatessen in the Stockmann department store. They had a lot of special offers today for members of their loyalty program, and I want to spoil my husband and children with a good meal.
My eyes fall on the signs outside the casino, and they bring to mind the winning evening I had on the ship. Who knew you could win money that easily! Of course, I've seen those ads many times in the past–before the cruise–but I've always passed them by without the slightest bit of interest. Now, instead of continuing on to the bus stop as planned, I decide to take a peek inside the casino.
I step timidly through the door and see a room full of slot machines open up in front of me. Their clanging bells are in full force. Directly across from the entrance is a cashier station, attended by a former beauty queen. A weird odor floats in the air. Must be the smell of money.
Bypassing the silly slot machines, I climb the stairs to the second floor where, according to the sign outside, they have table games and more slot machines. It's pretty quiet in here. It’s somewhere around four o'clock. There’s no one at the roulette table, just two dealers working their shifts. From their discussion, I am able to make out the names Ridge and Taylor. From the Bold and the Beautiful? Soap opera fans, I guess.
I decide to try a few hands of Black Jack to improve the skills I picked up on my cruise. A couple of Asian men are sitting at one of the Black Jack tables, so I plop myself and all my stuff down next to them. Placing the bags at my feet on the slightly dusty floor, I pull a couple of worn hundred-mark bills from my wallet. It doesn't take me long to lose both of them.
Black Jack is not the game for me, I think. Looking around, I see that a few players have appeared around the roulette table, so I walk over and join them.
The dealer greets me as I swipe a hundred marks from the side pocket of my wallet. I had planned to use the money to buy a ten-trip card for the public transport system. I throw my bills onto the green turf of the table. On the ship I learned that money is never exchanged by hand: players put their money on the table, and the croupier picks it up from there.
"What color do you want?" the croupier asks.
"Anything's fine," I answer.
Right away, a stack of pink five-mark chips appears in front of me. Each roulette player gets their own color of chips, so the croupier can tell players' bets apart. When a player is ready to quit the table, the dealer exchanges their roulette chips for normal casino chips. These chips, also called tokens, can be used at other gaming tables or exchanged for cash at the cashier station.
I start by bombarding squares twenty and twenty-one with my chips. I have no other plan than to bet on some random numbers. If the ball stops mercifully on either of my choices, my take will be one hundred and fifty marks. To my despair, the ball has other ideas and doesn't come near either of my numbers for many spins. Still, I stick with my bets. Behind the croupier, I notice some kind of lit-up scoreboard full of numbers. I don't pay any more attention to it than that, just keep on increasing my bets.
I'm concentrating so hard on my betting activities that I don't even notice the other players until the croupier is finished counting the bets. A pair of Somali men and an older Finnish woman have joined us.
Somehow it feels safer when there are more chips on the table, like Lady Luck can't get off too easy.
My husband told me this morning that he had to stay after work for a meeting. I promised to be home in time to make dinner for the kids. I play a little longer before dragging myself away from the table, then I walk downstairs and exit the casino. A quick count reveals that I am three hundred marks poorer than when I came in. I stop by the ATM next to the casino to get some money to buy a bus ticket home
One year later
I sit in a taxi and fiddle with the pink chip I've taken from the casino as a souvenir. It was a year ago today that I played roulette for the first time on shore, and the past twelve months have been a balancing act between home, work, and roulette. Since taking that cruise, I have continued to pursue my new hobby in various gambling arcades around Helsinki. I figure that, if I stopped gambling now, I would have incurred plenty of losses but still have a reasonable amount of savings, stock investments, and the equity in my home–and, above all, a good job.
I've managed to visit quite a few casinos and gambling arcades in the last year, and a lot of the regulars there have become familiar faces to me. I've even exchanged a few words with one woman in her fifties named Ritu. Gamblers are usually lone wolves–and don't get me wrong, Ritu and I are not exactly friends–but we talk from time to time between games.
I think now of the older woman who plays roulette regularly at the Täyspotti arcade on Kaivokatu street. (Täyspotti means “full pot” in Finnish.) She’s never without her blue notebook in hand. It's full of notations, and she always consults it before placing her bets. Once I was standing next to her while she recounted her gambling history to the croupier: she said she spends a hundred thousand marks a year on roulette–and she's been playing for years. I winced a bit when I heard this sum, but I kept on playing. That won't happen to me, I thought back then.
As I go to bed tonight, my last thought is that it's time to quit this new hobby of mine. It has already taken up too much of my time and money. I haven't had the guts to tell my family or my other relatives that I have been gambling. So far, I've managed to keep my financial losses hidden, but during my first year at the roulette table, I've lost at least as much as the notebook lady: over a hundred thousand marks.
The big time
Later that fall, despite my notions of quitting, I make my way back to the gambling arcade downtown. I’m happy to find Ritu there, because it means I’m not the only woman in the place. Ritu tells me that she’s just here to "warm up" on the smaller stage before heading off to the big casino.
"The Täyspotti arcades are like foreplay to gambling in the bigger casinos, " she explains. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard something like this. A while back, a reporter who frequents the arcades asked me, "Why are you here instead of the casino? That's where you belong." I wondered what she meant by that.
Tonight’s encounter with Ritu marks my transition to more serious action. She’s been observing my bold play for some time, and now she, too, suggests that I join her in the real casino. Having frequented the smaller gambling arcades for a year now, I have started to become bored with them. Plus, their opening hours don't really suit me. I've also noticed that once you start to lose a lot in the arcades, it's not easy to win your money back–much less end up in the black. The maximum bets are small, and the payout for each bet is less than at the roulette tables in the big casino. In the Täyspotti arcades, a winning bet on a single number pays 30-to-1, but in the casino the same bet yields 35-to-1.
Tonight I happen to be dressed up for a colleague's birthday party, so, with my family away for the weekend, I am ready to make my move to the big stage right here and now. Ritu and I set out for the casino, which is in a nearby hotel. As we pass Sokos department store and cross Mannerheimintie street, we chat about superficial stuff and swap gambling stories. But I guess we both hold back the truth of how much we've lost. Ritu says she heard from someone who's been gambling at this casino since it first opened that, in the early days, loan sharks tried to exploit the place. Money was carried inside in plastic bags and loaned at high rates of interest to anyone who needed it. Did that really happen? Sounds a little too much like a mafia movie to me.
We visit an ATM to take stock of our gambling reserves. I just had a payday, so my bank account looks better than it has in some time. In just a second or two, I have four thousand marks in my hand. I have unpaid and overdue bills waiting at home, so I won't touch any more than that. But apparently I have no qualms about sacrificing half my paycheck to win back money I already lost.
Laughing happily, we pass several eager bellhops waiting by the door and enter the spacious lower lobby of the hotel. First impression: not too shabby. In the center of the lobby is a group of sofas clustered around a coffee table. The large reception desk spans the length of one entire wall. On our right is a small bar. Directly in front of us is the coat room for customers of the hotel's casino and restaurant. There are people everywhere engaged in lively discussions. I feel like I'm abroad.
A bit nervous, I follow in Ritu’s wake up the red-carpeted stairs to the casino's reception area.
"Please put all your personal information on this form," the smiling receptionist politely requests. I give up all the details required for a membership card but feel an urgent need to add a note saying that the casino should never send advertisements to my home address. I don't want my family to find out about my gambling.
“Don’t worry about the address," Ritu assures me, because she knows what I'm thinking.
I still have to get my photo taken. I find this step very unpleasant. It reminds me of the mug shots in those American police shows on television, plus I just detest posing for pictures in general. In just a second, however, the clerk hands me my new membership card to sign. The fee for the card is next to nothing.
"Next time you just have to show your card at the reception desk," she instructs.
We head inside the main hall. On the left are the slots machines, restrooms, and the cashier station. There are plenty of slots to choose from–over a hundred machines. A whole world of table games opens up on our right–the casino offers American-style roulette, Black Jack, Punto Banco, and various wheels of fortune. The poker corner is situated in the back of the hall.
Ritu and I are interested in roulette only. We first take a seat at table two. The stools around the table are rather high for me, but because I've been standing in school most of the day, I choose to sit down anyway. Ritu orders a cappuccino likes she's done it a thousand times. I ask for a cup of hot cocoa, marveling at the fact that the casino offers free drinks.
"These drinks will come to cost us before the night's over," Ritu predicts with a touch of melancholy.
Standing–or, more accurately, squirming–near the croupier is a gangster-looking man dressed in a dark-brown pinstripe suit and shiny patent leather shoes. He’s wearing jewelry both around his neck and on his wrist, not to mention the gold rings he has on at least three fingers, their large gemstones reflecting the light from above. I blink to readjust my eyes, but, yes, this man is real. He is simultaneously placing bets at two, sometimes three, different tables and always only on the smaller numbers of the first dozen. He bets many hundreds of marks at a time. If he gets lucky, he’s going to win big. Have I somehow ended up in Las Vegas?
My first visit to the casino has a happy ending. At the end of the night, I give the casino's cash machine quite a workout in exchanging all my winning chips for cash. The older man driving my cab home is in the mood to talk, and so am I. On hearing my good fortune, the taxi drive takes it up on himself to give me some advice: “Don't go back to the casino too soon. It's much smarter to invest your money.”
"And when you do go back," he continues educating me, "don't take more than a thousand marks with you. Or stop gambling altogether!" The taxi driver speaks from experience. It turns out he's a former gambler who lost everything–including his car–at the casino, and now he has to drive someone else’s cab.
Tonight I give it another go. It’s my third time at the casino, and this time I’m on my own. I’ve made a quick trade and turned my stock investments into gambling equity. Before, I never would have dreamed of making such a stupid share trade, but now I needed money fast: my second visit to the casino ended in disaster. I lost all my winnings from the first time plus everything else in my account.
I smile compulsively at the coat room attendant as I pass by. With my stack of cash, I once again climb the stairs to the casino's reception desk, hand over my membership card so that the clerk can check my information from the computer, and then continue on toward the gambling hall and the familiar sound of the slot machines.
Today I saw that the casino had a job ad for new dealers in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. One of the first things I noticed when I came here was that the dealers have been carefully chosen, especially those at the table games. Nearly all of them are attractive: the women are beautiful and the men handsome. It also seems like the casino dealers are more professional than the arcade dealers, whose customer service skills, with few exceptions, are often verging on offensive and even irritating to customers. The casino staff are always dressed in black. The male croupiers look like penguins in their white shirts and black vests.
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