What compels our seniors to gamble? Is it the need to seek others for social contact? Or the need to hang around a large, noisy building? Or the chance to win the big one?
I visited a large casino in Mahnomen, Minnesota, then a Winnipeg casino, and finally a casino in rural Manitoba to discover for myself the addiction behind senior’s gambling.
As you know, photo equipment is not allowed inside any casino.
And the names of my interviewees will not be used in order to protect their privacy.
I quickly learned that when a senior is gambling on the slot machines, keep the conversation short and sweet and don’t interrupt their concentration. Interestingly enough, men are more reluctant to talk about their gambling habits. Men just kind of look at you sideways with that, “what do you wanna know for” look.
Shooting Star Casino — Mahnomen, MN
With twenty dollars in my hand I began with the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, Minnesota. I pulled up an empty chair at a vacant penny machine right next to a gentle looking 87-year-old woman glued to the show on her slot machine.
Keeping the conversation light I asked her, “How’s the winning’s today?”
“Not so good,” she said. “But I’m in the bonus game again, and I won 150 dollars yesterday morning. I was here at this machine from 5:00 a.m. until the breakfast buffet opened at 7:00 a.m. and now I’m back.”
I am quickly calculating in my head how much money she may have played at 20 cents per spin and about 10 spins per minute, equals $2.00 per minute. Multiply that by 120 minutes for an approximate total of $240. That’s a fair chunk of change.
I continued the conversation by asking, “Do you come to the Shooting Star often?”
“Oh, I guess about once a month, or whenever there is a bus trip available.”
This is when she told me she was 87-years-old and no longer drove herself and that she comes with several other seniors on the Greyhound. She’s been doing this for over 10 years.
I finished by asking her, “Why do you like to come to this particular casino?”
She said, “I don’t much care for the Winnipeg casinos and the winnings are better here. The bus always stops at the American grocery store for an hour before we cross the border and cheese is a lot cheaper.”
So that was my answer. She comes with her friends, she has a better chance of winning, and the cheese is cheaper.
Our seniors are lonely. A chance to go gambling gets them out of the house to meet other seniors, and bus trips are a way to connect with the outside world, especially if they do not have a lot of family close by.
The extreme downside is some of them are at the casino’s every day, which is what I discovered when I visited the McPhillips Station Casino a week later in Winnipeg.
McPhillips Station Casino — Winnipeg, MB
What a large flashy place this is with a huge grand staircase in the centre of the casino. Their reasonable lunch buffet menu is around $10 per person. Half the price of the Shooting Star buffet. And seniors can get here easily via city transit.
As I am walking past the penny slots, I notice the majority of seniors playing the minimum bet, while the more eccentric folks play the maximum. Their attention is completely on the machine and they are oblivious to the noise around them, except when someone wins the “big one” and all the bells and whistles go off; then they turn and look, grumble a bit, and keep on playing.
South Beach Casino — Scantebury, MB
My last stop was the South Beach Casino in rural Manitoba. South Beach opens at noon on Sundays because of our Manitoba laws, but within 10 minutes of the doors opening, the seniors are there.
Some had come earlier through the hotel doors and walked down to the breakfast/brunch buffet which charges around $11.00 per person. I tried the buffet and it was mediocre at best. The only saving grace is that seniors 50 and over get a discount, then the price drops to around $6.50 plus taxes.
Lots of locals from Patricia Beach, Grand Beach and Pine Falls are here, along with the regulars from Winnipeg. Everyone seems to either know each other or nod a familiar greeting. All in all, it was a nice, quiet, familiar place for everyone.
Gambling is primitive in one’s thinking of trying to get something for nothing. Seniors receive instant gratification and they think of going to the casino as a social outing — a way of making new friends with similar interests.
The final winning or losing for them really doesn’t matter. The social aspect does.
And if, by chance, they should happen to win a little, it gives them something to talk about with their friends. So they go back again.
And don’t forget the cheap cheese.
All photos by Bonny Hill