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STEVE LOPEZ

At the slots, life isn't always a line of cherries

Despite their losses, senior citizens keep going to the Morongo, Pechanga and Agua Caliente casinos. 'They roll out the red carpet when I come in,' one retiree explains.

September 27, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

You can still smoke in parts of the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage, a place where time travels in reverse, sin is celebrated and inhibition does not exist. You can light one cigarette after another while you gamble away your Social Security check and miss payments on the oxygen tank, and it's nobody's business but your own.

I found myself suppressing a cough as I strolled the Marlboro-scented casino floor looking for somebody to talk to. The economy is still on the mat, California gaming revenue dropped in 2008 for the first time in more than a decade and yet the cars still roll into the lots at Agua Caliente, Morongo and Pechanga, among other gambling halls.

So who are these die-hards?

I saw a couple at the slots and made small talk. The woman said she was an administrator at Cal State Long Beach, and this was a furlough day.

The governor takes away a day of pay and she goes to a casino?

It wasn't like that, she said. She might drop a coin or two in a slot, but she and her companion, a campus cop on his day off, visit the desert every once in a while just to kill a day, catch a show, go to dinner.

"We're not really gamblers," she said.

I found a couple of pros, though, not far away.

Ralph and Jan, husband and wife, were smoking and playing slots, and they told me they knew the gambling scene inside-out. The San Fernando Valley couple said they are semiretired from the catering business, which means there's more time to gamble.

Too much time?

All I can tell you is they sent me an e-mail the next day asking that I not use their last names. Jan said a "connection to habitual gambling" won't help their cause if they go after new catering contracts to support their lifestyle, and I'm going to honor that request.

Ralph said he has no doubt business is down at Agua Caliente and the Spa Resort in Palm Springs. Morongo still has a crowd because of what he called a reputation for loose slots, but the jackpots are smaller there, in his opinion.

So why was he at Agua Caliente? For the Wednesday night slots tourney, with a $1,000 cash prize.

Ralph and Jan usually stay at the Spa Resort; that's their favorite casino because "everybody knows us there."

But their friend Sandy, 70, is an Agua Caliente devotee. A local resident, she gambles so frequently and unsuccessfully that all her food and show tickets are comped by the Indian casino.

Ralph and Jan were going to meet Sandy later for dinner at the Grand Palms Buffet, where Sandy had comp tickets for the three of them, and then they were heading to the slots tourney.

I suggested a change of plans: Agua Caliente has a steakhouse too, and I figure if you're going to gamble and smoke all night, you should start with a hunk of red meat and get your protein. When I offered to buy dinner, Ralph and Jan said fine and called Sandy to join us there.

Before Sandy arrived, Ralph said working in a pizza parlor and in the catering business had taken a toll on his health. No alcohol for him, he said, because of his diabetes, and he also has a pacemaker and implanted defibrillator.

"I'm on 23 pills a day, none of them vitamins," Ralph said.

I didn't have to ask why he still smokes, or why he was ordering the large filet: It seems only natural that a man who makes his second home in a casino likes to roll the dice.

When Sandy showed up, she told me she once was a publicist in the L.A. theater scene. But she left that to join her husband, Ben, in the auto glass business in San Dimas.

As Sandy tells it, Ben "developed the mobile concept," which meant "we'll come to you no matter where you are" with a windshield, tires, batteries, whatever you need.

They sold the business many years ago and moved into the 5,100-square-foot Rancho Mirage home of Frank Sinatra's former bodyguard. But then, two years ago, Ben died of cancer, leaving Sandy alone in the sprawling house with a 100-pound dog and a hole in her heart.

"You probably noticed my missing teeth," said Sandy, who shows a lot of gum on the lower side. While nursing Ben, she said, she ground those pearly whites down to nothing with all her worry and sorrow.

Sandy said she hasn't hit a decent jackpot in two years, for all her trying. She used to ring the bells more often, back in the day, but now she's playing more like Ben, who lost prolifically.

"He loved poker; I like machines," Sandy said.

They'd drop into Agua Caliente several times a week and Ben would go bust at the poker table like he invented it, but he never let that ruin his evening.

"At Ben's funeral, the head of the poker room gave the eulogy," Sandy said. "We were always treated like family here. Everything is comped. They roll out the red carpet when I come in."

I guess Sandy could see what I was thinking, because here's what she said: "I'm not stupid. I know I pay for it."

And the price is pretty steep.

Serious gamblers are given house credit cards for all their gambling and other purchases. It goes from gold to platinum to black to red for the really big spenders, Jan explained.

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