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God’s Matchbox

God’s Matchbox

    I was in Reno this weekend with some friends and family, one of whom is widely recognized as the luckiest gambler in the universe. Let’s call her Jane. Jane has reportedly won so many jackpots at slot machines that her track record seems to defy all reason. She’s a gambling legend. I decided to put Jane’s skills to the test in front of two witnesses: my wife, Shelly, and me. I gave Jane $50 and asked her to combine it with her own $50. Her assignment was to score a big win for our collective investment while my wife and I observed her technique.

    Shelly pointed at the high roller slot machine room, where the $100 wouldn’t last long without a win. Jane needed to feel the right vibe before picking a winning machine, so she asked us to follow her while she felt out the room. Jane is like the slot whisperer. I think the machines actually talk to her.

    As you might expect, the high roller slots area was relatively empty. Far off in a darkened corner was a lone, bearded, creepy gambler. Jane walked straight over to the machine next to the creepy guy in the darkened corner and declared it to be a winning machine. I tried to wave her off, not wanting to spend more time than necessary in a darkened corner with a creepy guy, especially since the entire rest of the room was empty. Shelly stepped in and insisted that we let Jane pick the machine that spoke to her, without our unlucky influence. I reluctantly agreed. Jane sat down, inserted our $100, and started hitting win after win. Two minutes later, we split $600. WTF?

    I took my $250 net profit and gave it to the control group for this experiment, i.e. me. I lost $200 on a variety of different slots in less than ten minutes. I didn’t see another jackpot, big or small, that night. Jane had won about five jackpots in two minutes. I won none.

    The freaky part happened the next morning. I was up early and took a long walk to a bagel shop. On my way back, I was crossing a huge empty parking lot, looking at the clear blue sky and snowcapped mountains. Suddenly a meteor crashed into the atmosphere directly in my view plane. The meteor streaked across the sky with a bright green trail of fire. It looked as if God had used the Earth to light a match. Seconds later, I heard the sonic boom. It was literally the coolest thing I have ever seen. Apparently this was the tail end of the Lyrid meteor shower. But unlike the nighttime meteor showers I’ve seen before, in which the meteors looked like fireflies in the distance, this meteor must have been relatively massive, and very near. Wow. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sight.

    Across the street from me, facing the wrong direction, were four college students who missed the whole show. I was lucky to be looking in exactly the right direction. Wait… lucky? Lucky!!!

    I decided this was a sign. I went back to the slots and hit them hard. I lost, and lost, and lost. I was down $200 in minutes. I tried one machine after another. I was confused. Jane had proven that luck exists, and I just saw my lucky meteor, so how could I keep losing? Then it hit me: There might be a pattern here.

    If you recall, Jane picked the slot machine that no one else would have picked. Even if the creepy guy hadn’t been in the far corner, how many of you would have entered a square room full of available slot machines and picked the one that was almost in the corner? Most people would probably play something nearer the middle of the room. If you preferred the corner, like the creepy guy, you would take the actual corner, not the machine one over from it. In other words, Jane picked one of the least attractive machines in the room, and it turned out to be “lucky.”

    From a business standpoint, it makes sense that the least attractive machine would pay best. If you’re designing a casino layout, you know you can get suckers to play the losing machines in the best locations, and the ones with the most attractive lights and sounds, all night long. The casino can maintain whatever gambling odds are legally required over the entire body of slot machines while using psychology to steer people away from the ones that pay best. All of my losing spins involved machines that somehow appealed to me on a visceral or spatial level. What I needed was an undesirable machine. So I looked for one.

    That’s when I spotted a slot machine sporting the worst graphics I’ve ever seen. It was one of those full-screen types with a changing matrix of images. The artwork looked as if it had been created by a 13-year old for a school project. The graphics were so bad that you couldn’t even tell what the images were supposed to represent. It looked intentionally unattractive. And I remembered from the prior evening that this machine had sat empty while most of the machines nearby were occupied. I had passed it up several times myself. If my economic theory of casino design was right, this was my winning machine. I sat down and fed it my last $100, which quickly turned into my last $25. And this is the part of my story that gets strange.

    On what would have been nearly my last spin before quitting for the day, I hit a $400 jackpot. That was my biggest lifetime win at a slot machine. The machine’s graphics went into celebration mode. At the end of the animation cycle, the onscreen image changed to a Western desert sky at twilight. The final animation was a meteor streaking across the sky, exactly like the one I had just seen. Freaky.

    I don’t actually believe in luck, or omens, or magic. I know that every part of my story can be explained by chance, or perhaps the economics of casino design. On the other hand, I also don’t believe that reality is necessarily fixed and immutable. I can’t rule out the possibility that we’re experiencing some sort of Schrödinger’s cat situation, in which all possibilities exist simultaneously until an observer intervenes. In any event, it was a fun weekend. I spent my winnings on a nice massage. And no, I didn’t get lucky during the massage. But I like to think that in some parallel universe my twin did.

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