Luck Be a Lady
By Lynryd Novarro
There’s Mary Pangelinar—all 4 feet, 11 inches of her—hooked up to a transistor radio, wearing her green polyester pants and a white shirt with a large LAS VEGAS logo.
“I feel lucky. I want to go—now. I called the other day. They told me the jackpot was up to $20,000,” Pangelinar says. “There are a lot of big winners, but I don’t know them. To tell the truth, I hardly, hardly, hardly ever win.” But she keeps coming back—“to get out of the house and relax. I don’t enjoy anything else.”
The bus rolls on through North Park, City Heights, Lemon Grove and El Cajon. Trees grow more abundant, red dirt replaces concrete, and after 31 Asians and one Caucasian board at Sweetwater and Jamacha, filling every last one of the bus’ 47 seats, the level of chatter grows to a fever pitch.
Amy Tahmic, bingo coordinator, reminds them of the Elvis look-alike contest in two weeks. No one laughs. Before explaining enough nuances of the game to fill an encyclopedia—from Hot Ball, Bonanza Bingo and Super Jackpot Blackout to Pick 7 and Circle 8—she awards two free bingo cards. As Jennie Banks draws a winner, her husband, Jeffrey, exclaims, “This is gonna be a good night. We’re lucky already.”
Gordon Shine, 49 and unemployed, is motionless in his seat, holding his red bingo dabber tightly in his left hand, like the gear shift of a sports car. A black baseball cap that reads BIOCLEAR TECHNOLOGY INC., a gift from a friend, is cocked to one side; his dark beard sprouts white.
“This is definitely an addiction,” says Shine, a burly man who watches KPBS, plays chess and reads nonfiction. He hastens to add, “I could quit anytime. I smoked till I was 35. I quit just like that and been clean 15 years. I haven’t taken a drink in 25 years.”
And he hasn’t won at bingo since last year.
“To be frank, I go from boredom,” he says. “I don’t have nothin’ to do.”
Between 70 and 75 percent of those who gamble do it socially. “They don’t get hurt by it; it’s entertainment,” says Edward Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling, based in Trenton, New Jersey. Another 15 to 20 percent are “problem” gamblers, betting more than they can afford, and between 2 and 8 percent are compulsive. In California, since the proliferation of Indian casinos, the compulsive rate is probably 6 percent, according to Looney, with 26 of the state’s 106 tribes featuring some form of gambling, or “gaming,” as they call it.
For Indians, it’s been the white buffalo, the key to self-sufficiency. Beginning with bingo in the early 1980s, followed by card games, satellite horse racing and, in the 1990s, video pull-tab machines similar to Las Vegas–style slots, Indian gaming has been credited with eliminating everything from crime to poverty on San Diego County’s three main reservations: Sycuan, Barona and Viejas.
About 5,000 gamblers a day at each of the tribal casinos contribute an estimated $300 million a year to this cash cow. In return, the casinos employ some 3,500 people—only 10 percent of them Native Americans—and pump $64 million in goods and services back into the local economy. Casino money also has sponsored KPBS programs, as well as local concerts and charities, and helped support the San Diego Symphony before it folded.
Despite the gift shop at Barona featuring Elvis and James Dean portraits, the casinos are doing what they can to dispel their image as a Kmart version of Vegas. They feature talent like Kenny Rogers, Lou Rawls and Jose Feliciano. Rogers stumps regularly for Barona on television (the fact that many among their clientele are country-western fans out of East County has not escaped the Barona tribe). And they have beefed up their restaurants. The buffet at Viejas, for example, is typical of what you’ll find in Las Vegas.
What’s been called the best economic stimulus for the Indians in the last 200 years, however, could come to an end. Earlier this year, the Sycuan Gaming Center announced a $10 million expansion plan that would include a 1,000-seat entertainment hall and a 50-seat turf club, making it the largest tribal casino in California. Those plans, however, have been temporarily shelved because of the uncertainty over the future of Indian gaming in California.
California Governor Pete Wilson and state Attorney General Dan Lungren have challenged the reservations’ use of electronic video gaming machines, prohibited elsewhere in the state, and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has been expected to render a decision any day.
Meanwhile, Wilson has agreed to meet in October with one North County tribe, the Pala band of Mission Indians, to negotiate a compact specifying what games would be allowed on their reservation. The tribe currently has no gambling. Other tribes and the state say an agreement could serve as a model for other reservation compacts.
“It’s a step that will begin this long- overdue process and give us an all-important avenue for establishing meaningful dialogue,” says Danny Tucker, chairman of the California-Nevada Gaming Association and a Sycuan tribal leader.
However, Sean Walsh, a spokesman for Wilson, cautions: “We will not negotiate with any tribe engaged in illegal activity. If their gaming is currently slot-machine gaming, it’s illegal under California law and needs to be removed.”
Tucker finds all this “disturbing and frustrating for a lot of Indians. People are going to gamble no matter what,” he says. “Eight billion dollars a year goes to Vegas from California. Let’s keep some of that here.”
Steve Telliano, a California Justice Department spokesman, says the issue is deeper than that. “People assume because gambling is fairly regulated and honest in Nevada, it’s aboveboard here. It couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says. “It’s wide open, Wild West style.” In addition, Telliano contends, video machine payouts are considerably lower than from Vegas slots.
That doesn’t stop patrons from returning time after time in the midst of an economy hampered by corporate downsizing, shrinking disposable income and the lack of high-paying jobs.
TO UNDERSTAND THE LURE, talk to Robert Velasco. A 30-year-old toy designer with a wife and three young daughters, he was encouraged by a friend six months ago to try his luck at the Barona Casino. As
he leans back in his chair, nonchalantly punching the buttons of a video machine and watching the endless flow of numbers, a red neon sign overhead posts the prize: $8,005.25. Less than an hour later, the jackpot is up to $34,114,48.
“The first time I showed up, the first month, it was real bad, really lousy,” he says. “The second month I got to win the $22,000 jackpot.”
Velasco has been coming back every week. “I spend an average of $100 each time—no, more like $150. That’s about the average you hear from people. I just spent $1,000. But I’m definitely ahead.
“It’s fun. You gotta see it that way, or else you’ll create a gambling problem,” he says, his eyes still intent on the numbers, his fingers punching away. “I don’t always gamble. I come here sometimes to have breakfast in the morning.”
Looney says gambling holds the most attraction for those who can least afford it. “Eleven percent of our calls for help come from seniors. It eats up their savings and investments, they get equity loans, and the next thing they know they’re borrowing from the kids.”
Then there are the “escape junkies”—widows, widowers and the lonely hearts huddling anonymously in the corner of a casino for five or six hours. They can all count on one thing, says Looney: Less than 1 percent of those who gamble on a regular basis win.
Joyce Settle is in a wheelchair, looking bored, watching as her mother-in-law, Bertha Warbritton, between cigarette puffs, attacks the machine in front of her. Both took the bus to Barona with $40 apiece. To them, it’s the entertainment budget.
“This machine takes your money and doesn’t give anything back. I lost it all. Doesn’t that kill you?” says Settle, 52, who developed multiple sclerosis 13 years ago. Still, she enjoys the Barona atmosphere. “The people are nice. I wanted something to eat, and a girl comes and says, ‘I’ll take you,’ and she fills my plate. Real nice.”
Meanwhile, says Warbritton, “I’ll do better once I learn this machine. I’m just learning.”
Keno, poker and dozens of games matching symbols and numbers are played by inserting money into machines. Unlike the slots in Vegas, the machines pay out in paper chits, which are redeemable for cash. And everybody’s got a routine, which, for most, includes “betting the max,” the only way to win a jackpot.
“I use a system. And it doesn’t work, here or in Vegas,” says Earl Faison, 57, with a laugh. Faison, once an all-pro defensive end with the old AFL Chargers, is now an administrator with the San Diego Unified School District. He’s feeding the quarter machines while his wife, Jan, 47, plays the dimes. She has done well. “She pays attention to what she’s doing. I come out to free my mind,” says Faison. “Plus, I like the family atmosphere, and there’s no drinking.”
Shortly before 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, a stoop-shouldered man in his 70s wheels his frail wife through the entrance of the Viejas Casino. Another woman, in her late 60s, lumbers past, wheeling an oxygen tank behind her. To the right of the main floor and beyond the second-floor staircase, a handful of players sit side by side, lit only by the glare from the video machines in the rear of the Viejas Video Summit.
On this day, business seems slower than usual, says 21-year-old parking attendant James Coulson of El Cajon. But that will soon change, he’s sure. “You might come in on another Wednesday and it would be twice as happening, or half as happening. The moon might influence it. Who knows?”
Coulson, a business major at Grossmont College, offers this assessment: “Like anything you do, if you spend money playing and don’t save down the road, you’re taking a risk. Otherwise, it’s cool entertainment.