News & Politics

Maryland Slots: The Trouble With Slots

Take it from a pro: If Maryland wants to take money from people who can least afford it, legalize slots. But don’t call it gambling.

A confession: Over the past 20 years my wife and I have spent a lot of time around slot machines. My wife, Judy, plays the slots while I play table games such as blackjack and poker. In fact, that’s how slots became part of casinos—they were added to entertain wives and girlfriends while the men played cards or dice.

From the Indian casinos in Florida to the Gulf Coast casinos in Biloxi, from Deadwood, South Dakota, to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Charles Town, we have pretty much tried them all.

I haven’t played a slot machine in Maryland since I was a little boy. Slots have been outlawed there for the past 50 years. But thanks to an act of the Maryland legislature, they may return next year, assuming voters approve a referendum in November to bring them back.

Slot machines already encircle Maryland. West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware have them. Charles Town Races & Slots in West Virginia, the closest thing to a full-scale casino on Washington’s doorstep, is about an hour from where the Beltway connects with I-270. For residents of eastern Maryland, slot parlors abound nearby in Delaware.

Legislation passed last year would allow slot machines in five locations in Maryland. Although it doesn’t specify where they would go, two of the locations are presumed to be Laurel Park in Laurel and Pimlico Racetrack in Baltimore. A third spot likely will be the state-owned Rocky Gap Lodge in Cumberland. The other two locations will be in Cecil County near Delaware and in Worcester County on the Eastern Shore.

As the debate over slot machines heats up, newspaper editorial writers likely will wax poetic about inserting quarters and pulling slot-machine handles, about the tinkling of coins.

Most of those who write that way haven’t played a slot machine recently. Very few machines take coins. They happily wolf down $20 or $100 bills. The handles on slot machines are for show, like fins on a creature that long ago moved from the ocean to land. Now you push a button. And when you win, no coins come jangling out of the machine, although high-tech sounds and songs come out with Boselike quality.

Casinos once were labor-intensive businesses. Ladies with coin belts circulated, ready to give you coins in exchange for dollars. Today’s machines not only don’t take coins; they spit out paper when you win. You then take the paper to a machine labeled ticket redemption and bill breaking. It scans your ticket and doles out your winnings. The current state of slot-machine economics: paper in, paper out.

As the Maryland referendum approaches, proponents of slot machines might talk about the jobs created at the slot parlors. There won’t be many. Except for an occasional attendant to pay out a jackpot that requires tax forms or a mechanic to unjam a machine, the process is now wholly mechanized.

For decades the staples of the slot-machine world were two mechanical machines, Double Diamond and Red White & Blue. They would accept some kind of coin, then the player would pull a handle and hope to match up single, double, or triple bars in the case of Double Diamond or different colors of the number seven in Red White & Blue.

A few of these old models still exist, but most casino floor space today is devoted to what look like brightly colored video games. The most popular machine is Wheel of Fortune, which simulates aspects of the television game show.

Now you can walk up to what is called a “penny” slot machine, with five rows and dozens of symbols, and play one to 30 paylines at once. You can play as much as 15 cents on each of those lines. If you do, every push of the play button means you are betting $4.50. On a “nickel” machine, you would be playing $22.50 a spin. Does this sound like the place for a grandmother hoping to while away a few hours with her Social Security check?

Many slot machines appeal to different ethnic groups. Lots of them, with names like Geisha and Fortune Cookie, are directed at Asians, a large target audience for casinos. Soul Train is aimed at African-Americans. The most popular machines are directed at women and retired men who want to experience their favorite games shows on slots modeled after Wheel of Fortune, The Price Is Right, The Match Game, Jeopardy!, Slingo, and Deal or No Deal.

Machines are also based on such TV shows as I Love Lucy and movies as Alien and Star Wars. A game called Slotsky features a slots-playing Russian duck.

The basic structure of all the machines is that you play a certain number of lines and coins per spin. The games are designed to reward patrons who play the maximum number of coins, and not everyone wants to play $4.50 a spin. But if you don’t, you have almost no chance of beating the machine.

On Star Wars, a fairly new and sophisticated slot machine found in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, you can line up any variety of characters from the movie. If you bet the maximum on each spin, 450 pennies, the machine will usually hit something—though three spaceships in a row might return only 75 pennies. With whistles, bells, and symbols proclaiming you a winner, you may forget that you have lost $3.75. A good slot machine doles out the winnings consistently. You keep putting in dollars; it keeps giving you cents.

My wife, Judy, recently won $2,200 on such a machine, but she wasn’t playing for a penny; she was playing for $4.50 a spin. Judy is a science-fiction fan and gets a charge out of games modeled on her favorite space movies. Although she’s pretty lucky at slots, her wins probably never catch up with the $20 bills she’s slipped into the machines. Many players don’t realize that if they don’t play these larger amounts, they cannot win the enticing “progressive” jackpots advertised in colorful, blinking lights.

Opponents of slot machines will come up with lots of arguments about slot parlors, some of them false. Two of the dumbest are that they increase crime and prostitution. Even the stupidest criminal knows that people coming out of a slot parlor already have been robbed. There are plenty of anecdotes about otherwise harmless patrons who have lost all their money in casinos and then gone home to steal from a church or civic club.

In a full-scale casino, slot machines make some sense. The slot machine was invented in 1895—the original, with mechanical reels, is still on display in Reno. In the 1940s, Bugsy Siegel installed them at the Flamingo in Las Vegas for the wives and girlfriends of gamblers. Then the machines became more profitable than the table games, which unlike slots generally give players a chance to win. No wonder casino companies are so eager to see slots legalized without also pushing for card or dice games.

But of all the schemes to raise money for Maryland, allowing slot-machine parlors is one of the worst. Slots are a tax on the poor and the elderly. Drive to a slots parlor in Delaware or Pennsylvania and look at the customers. Check the names of the retirement villages on the buses.

If slot machines are approved and put into place in the cavernous grandstand area of Laurel Park, you won’t see many doctors or lawyers pushing the buttons. You will see a crowd that is predominantly elderly, largely female, and undeniably lower-income. You will see people losing most of their Social Security checks. Take it from someone who has gambled for the last 30 years: It’s an addiction.

If there were baccarat, blackjack, and craps in Maryland, you might see wealthy people playing. But those games won’t be legal. It is ironic that editorial pages warn that legalizing slots might lead to table games. Should people be concerned that a rigged game that gives the customer almost no chance to win might lead to games that involve some skill and a chance to win?

You won’t be able to play real blackjack, a card game that a real gambler can win at. The legalization of slot machines will allow electronic blackjack games. Here you are playing the house, and the house can decide what cards to deal. Talk about a sucker’s game.

Pennsylvania approved slots last year, and one of the first places to open up was the old Chester Downs harness track south of Philadelphia, now Harrah’s Chester Casino and Racetrack. It’s in a dismal setting, surrounded by factories, shipyards, and prisons. Inside, don’t expect the glitter of Las Vegas—just acres of old slot machines. If you’ve been to Atlantic City, you probably have seen these machines before—they were the hot machines five years ago. Marylanders can expect to be even farther down the ladder for the coolest new machines. They might arrive five years from now.

What of the communities where slot parlors might become legal? The location closest to Washington is Laurel Park. There used to be two racetracks there; now there is one, and the town is a little seedy.

Racing has been on the decline in Maryland. Racetrack owners will tell you it’s because they don’t have slot machines while Wilmington, Charles Town, and Philadelphia do. Some of the revenue from slots will prop up the sport of horseracing.

But horseracing deserves to be in decline. The industry has for decades tolerated illegal drugs, cruelty to horses, fixed races, crooked jockeys, and low-life trainers. Horseracing is the ultimate insider’s game. Bettors study the records of horses as if they mean something, but the real game is played by the trainers and the owners, who hold back horses, arrange betting coups, and sell injured horses in claiming races as if they had a chance to win. This is the “sport” that slots are supposed to help revive? Some of the slots bonanza will go to former Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis, under whose leadership Maryland horseracing declined.

Slots are not likely to change Pimlico much. It is already in a depressed area. Up the road on Park Heights Boulevard is a long row of synagogues, but the Orthodox Jews you see walking to Shabbat services are not likely to head over to the track to play Wheel of Fortune.

The most successful slots operation is likely to be at Ocean Downs in Worcester County. At the end of a day at the beach, some Ocean City visitors might look for something exciting to do. Some now take the ferry up to New Jersey and play at Atlantic City. Slots at Ocean Downs will provide a closer alternative, though the machines will be older and less glitzy than those across the water.

Some claim that slots will destroy the family atmosphere of the beach. But there are already slots within easy driving distance of Ocean City. Delaware legalized them several years ago—they’re at Delaware Park racetrack in Wilmington as well as at Dover Downs and at Harrington Raceway and Midway Slots, both less than an hour from Ocean City.

The most picturesque setting that stands to be affected is Rocky Gap State Park near Cumberland. It isn’t clear what the market would be for gambling there. West Virginia already has casinos and last year voted to approve table games. You can play table games at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort in Chester, and it’s only a matter of time before nearby Charles Town offers them, too.

With no nearby population center to draw from—Rocky Gap is about two hours from Washington—and with gaming already established around it, slot machines don’t make much sense in Cumberland.

Even if they did, slot machines are not an equitable way to generate revenue for the state. They are the least interesting and most futile form of gambling.

Just because other states have decided to rip off their citizens with slots is no reason for Maryland to do so. Virginia and Maryland can do better than that. If Maryland wants to legalize gambling, legalize all the games, not just the one that most directly targets and takes advantage of the poor.

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This article first appeared in the October 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here.