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Life Lessons

Every Casino Game Is Out To Get You. Even The Free One.

People stand in front of slot machines
Andreas Solaro/Getty Images

Let me give you some advice. First, you’re going to have to try and ignore that eerie moment of synchronicity at a casino in Northern Illinois. It’ll feel, briefly, like this soulless building in a city you’ve never visited before has somehow read your mind. You’ll swear to god—and you’ll have the receipts to back it up—that not five days prior you had googled “golden tee cabinet” as some kind of nostalgic lark brought on by who knows what. Obviously, you cannot afford a legit Golden Tee arcade setup—and even if you could, where would you put it?—but for whatever reason, the memory of begging your parents for some singles so you and your brother could play a few holes at the neighborhood bar and grill is a powerful one you’d love to reconnect with. And now, holy shit! Here is the first-ever Golden Tee machine you’ve ever seen set to that mythical, elusive setting known as “free play.”

You’ll have had a few drinks. You were just at a wedding reception, after all! (Are they still “wedding receptions” when they happen months after the actual wedding, you will wonder.) The nature of an open bar means that you will grab a few rums and cokes and gins and tonics to try and beat the closing bell. How many? Who’s to say. While you will not be hung over the next day—you’ll thank the pork loin for that—you will certainly be in that loose, suggestible state of mind that casinos prefer. Your competitive juices will be amped up, too, by your performance on the punch measurement machine at the bar the night before. You got a 796 on a target that claims Superman himself only scored a 700 flat.

You don’t really like gambling. I guess on NFL Sundays you put a few bucks towards one of those daily games with your co-workers, but you only even came around to that because there weren’t enough things to do last year. Have you ever even set foot in an actual casino before? You’ll feel like you must have—everyone goes in their early 20s, right?—but you’ll struggle to call to mind a specific instance. You won’t feel like you were missing out, though. There will be a few live tables of inscrutable games, and an unnecessarily large army of slot machines that has you surrounded, but none of them will call to you. You will watch your college friend make a home at the blackjack table while your other college friend explains to you if he wins a hand or not, then you and he will wander over to roulette, where he will gladly follow your novice instincts on where to bet his money but will not take your advice to walk away while $5 up. He will end up losing $10.

You’ll be encouraged by the fact that you do not seem to have an addiction to this thing, but you’ll also be bored. So you’ll decide to take your body and your gorgeously out-of-place light blue ruffled dress over to the bar, where you will get a kick out of the incongruity of ordering the cheapest American beer they have. That’s where you will see it: the only game in this entire brightly lit purgatory that calls to you. It is the game of your childhood. And it is free. You simply must take advantage of this incredible stroke of luck. And with a bit of eager cajoling, your roulette-playing/blackjack-explaining friend will join you for who knows how many lighthearted holes of cost-free fun.

There will be no real tables or chairs around this machine. It will be a furniture wasteland, and that prompts a real dilemma: Where do you put this glass bottle that you just got from the bar? Do you put it on the shuffleboard table next to you? No, too slippery, you will reason. (“Too slippery?” What the hell are you thinking?) Do you put it on the awkwardly slanted control deck? I guess … I guess that’s your only option. Hopefully friction is your friend. Just put it right … about … here:

Drink was placed above and slightly to the right of the Golden Tee trackball.
Photo of controls via aceamusements.us

You will have not played Golden Tee in a very long time, and so it won’t really occur to you that, when you take a powerful swing with the track ball, your hands will inevitably encroach—at high speed—upon the space that I have marked with a star and you have marked with a drink. It will take you exactly one tee shot to remember this. In that one shot—in a moment that’s too fast for you to even process, really—you will completely ruin your plans for the rest of the night. First, you will hear the sound of glass shattering. You will think, “Oof, that was loud.” Then you will look at where your drink was. You will see your drink is not where it used to be. You will look on the ground, between the controls and the TV monitor, and see spilled beer and broken glass. Your mind will put two and two together. You will say, calmly, “Motherfucker.” (Your friend will delight in relaying this detail to the groom in the hotel lobby the next morning.) And then you will find yourself seized by panic, and your half-strength brain will think of nothing to do but get out of this nightmare scenario as fast as possible. “I’m gonna run,” you will tell your friend, and you do, for about 10 feet, until the woman who first stamped your hand stops you.

“You’re not in trouble, but did you drop a glass bottle?” she will ask. “I just have to send someone to clean it up if you did.”

You will be caught red-handed. There’s no way out. “Yes,” you will confess. “I’m, so, so sorry.” You will repeat this apology again when you see her a couple of minutes later, as you return past the scene of the crime and see a towel covering up the evidence. You will try to convince yourself that, come on, this is a casino, this might not even crack the top five of annoying things for that woman at her job today. But the mortification—amplified by the blinding lights and the booze, no doubt—will grip you from head to toe and hold tight. You will find the rest of your group, all of whom have lost money. They will need little convincing when you, with money left but no dignity, say you want to leave.

For the next 12 hours or so, you will see this as just an example of you being a klutz, and a particularly goofy incidence of your fight-or-flight just completely malfunctioning. But the reality will become clear by the time you board your flight to LaGuardia—oh, shit, you’re on the flight to JFK! Wrong gate!—by the time you board your flight to JFK the next day. This was clearly a set-up. A frame job. An evil Rube Goldberg machine rigged by Big Roulette to bestow embarrassment upon young women who don’t like to gamble but frickin’ love when their golf video games come free of charge. You will swear not to fall into their trap again. You will vow not to trick yourself into going on a search for fun and enlightenment in a place like that. You will know to just smile at the pretty slots and pretend you’re having a good time.