Lessons I Learned Sitting Next to a Winning Slot Machine

Winning Slot MachineDon’t fly in on a Sunday. Play in heavily trafficked areas. Always use a player card. Never use a player card. As soon as anyone heard we were dashing off to Sin City this past December, advice on how to beat the odds in Las Vegas bubbled over.

Want the best odds of returning home with lots of money after a jaunt to Las Vegas? Don’t get off the plane. I know full well that stepping foot in a casino is akin to lighting my dollars quarters nickels pennies on fire. But the cacophony of blazing neon, screaming bells, victorious whoops, and defeated sighs is too much of a siren song for me to resist. While I certainly did not win big, I left with some interesting lessons after sitting one seat away from a winning slot machine on this past vacation.

It’s Hard to be Genuinely Happy for Others

While I’d like to think I’m a good person, maybe I’m not. When I plopped myself down in front of the Goldfish slot machine and fished out a $10 bill, I was happy. Even though I knew I would lose this money and then some, I was happy. Then, I watched a woman slide over to the machine next to me, push in a twenty-dollar bill, and win over $100. I was no longer happy. I was gobsmacked. Sure, I smiled and clapped for her in her excitement until her friends came over and could celebrate with sincere gusto. But I wasn’t actually happy that she won. I was annoyed that I didn’t.

I know comparison robs joy from everyone. I know my momma raised me better. But sometimes it’s hard to be genuinely happy for other people. Maybe I’m a giant jerkface, maybe it’s human nature. But spending time in Vegas reminded me of how important it is to cheer on other people and mean it. Life is about so much more than our own experiences. There’s no reason to hope we don’t all win big.

People’s Stories are Private

I know exactly one fact about that winning machine. The woman put in $20 and left with over $100. I know not because she told me, but because I saw it happen. I have no idea how long she’d been playing. Maybe this was her first half hour on a casino floor in her entire life. Maybe she had already been in Vegas for a handful of days or the better part of a week. Maybe she is a local who plays before or after her work shift every day. Perhaps she wins thousands and only puts in a few hundred. Perhaps she wins hundreds but puts in a few thousand. I’ll never know.  

What we see when we meet someone very rarely tells us the whole story. Of course, we make judgments and assumptions, inferences and hypotheses. Even if someone starts to connect the dots for us, we’ll never know everything. While it might be really easy to dismiss or exalt someone based on a single encounter, that’s a fool’s errand. In fact, you probably have better odds at the craps table than figuring out a person’s life story.

There’s No Such Thing as Luck

Las Vegas is brilliant — not just the blinding lights, but the masterminds who have engineered the entire concept. Let’s make losing money fun. So much fun that people will want to come back. Not just once, but yearly. In fact, let’s add so many bells and whistles that many people will make the pilgrimage several times a year. Everybody wants to get lucky. Vanguard could take a lesson from Vegas.*

When the woman stood up from the slot machine, she giggled to her companions, and they hugged her and screeched. Like football players entering an arena, they tried to high-five other gamblers who lined the aisle on the way to the exit, shouting about her good luck. There’s no such thing as luck. All of those squawking machines are computers in disguise. Mathematics, probability, patterns, and programming, yes. Luck, no. The sooner we realize that life has very little to do with luck, the better.

Knowing When to Walk Away is a Skill

That woman got up and left as soon as she won big. Perhaps she went out to dinner. Maybe she went to a nightclub. For all I know, she went back to her hotel room, packed her bags, taxied out to McCarran International Airport, and left Las Vegas a bonafide winner. If she’s anything like Mr. P, though, she strolled over two aisles and found another one-armed bandit to gobble up her winnings and then some.

If I’ve learned anything watching Mr. P become transfixed by the bells and cherries and sevens, it’s how difficult it is to walk away. I’m usually never up enough to do anything other than simply lose the $10 I started with, but I’ve seen Mr. P quadruple his money in one pull of the lever. However, because his is a perpetual quest to hit it big one more time, very rarely does he leave with anything. Losing $10 might sting a little. Winning $40 and then losing $50 stings a lot more. Whether it’s a slot machine or another insurmountable obstacle, knowing when to walk away is a skill that would serve us all well to master.  

I Have More than I Realize…Much More

My first instinct when I saw that woman toddle away with her hundred dollars was to wonder, Why not me? And then I mentally tallied up all the different things that I would have done with that money. But the further I followed that train of thought, the more grateful I became. I could afford to gamble away some money. I had the fortitude to walk away. Beyond that, we also had the insight to gift a trip to ourselves instead of more stuff for Christmas. We had the resources to make the trip really affordable. Most importantly, we had the ability to plan a vacation knowing full well we would come back financially poorer but richer in experience.

It is so easy to get caught up in the successes of others and shortchange ourselves. It is especially difficult when those successes are so visible, so applauded. Nothing I have ever earned came with bells, flashing lights, and extra IRS forms to report my winnings. But I have a lot, much more than I often allow myself to realize.

*Bogel, you did a lot of things right. But man, think of the missed opportunities with that login page.

So Tell Me…Have you ever been to Vegas? Have you ever found yourself learning lessons in strange places?



8 thoughts on “Lessons I Learned Sitting Next to a Winning Slot Machine

  1. Haven’t been to Vegas, but have been on cruise ships and (briefly) in Monte Carlo. I just looked around and watched people.

    I guess I find the noise and lights more off-putting than compelling. because the casino odds are better than the lottery’s, and I’ve done other forms of gambling. I’ve enjoyed the odd poker game (never came home with as much as i took) or blackjack game (ditto) at charity night or played in NCAA pools. But I guess I never expect or depend on winning, so it’s all in good fun.

  2. Last time I was in Vegas, I think we dropped about $1 in some of the slot machines and moved on. The smoke on the casino floor pretty quickly drove us away 🙂

    My family had a joke about Vegas: No one can leave Vegas without contributing to one of their lightbulbs or electricity bill. As in, we all go and give Vegas our money, it’s extremely unlikely to think you’ll bring any home because as you say, there’s not much luck in the mathematics that always favor the house 😉

  3. So very true, all of it. While I still haven’t made it to Vegas, my wife and I go to Atlantic City once or twice a year. I want to believe in luck, but my wife is always saying it’s not luck, it’s just random. Still, over the last ten years, I’m about even on wins and losses yet I’ve gotten plenty of free hotel nights and show tickets and such along the way. And it’s fun for me, as long as I know when to walk away.

  4. I do enjoy Las Vegas, but I’m not big on gambling! I also know that most people lose just as much as they win – if not more! I have family members who are always bragging about their winnings – but you never hear about the time they lost!

  5. Marta says:

    Best thing in Vegas: Roberto’s Tacos. Find them! Get the rolled tacos with guacamole. As you are eating, you will realize your life could not possibly be any better. Especially if you are sharing with loved ones.

    Another gambling story, I was visiting my 86 year old aunt in Florida over winter break and she always asks me to drive her to the casino. We were going to a casino I had never been to before and because she wanted to stop at the bank on the way, we were trying to find the turnpike from a direction neither of us has used before. We didn’t find the turnpike. We drove for hours and had lunch at a remote farm to table restaurant. We both decided the day turned out much better than it would have if we had gone to the casino. But when we got home and my cousin said, at least you saved all your money. She snippily told him, “I would have won.” ha, ha!

    Thanks for reminding us all how much we have.

  6. Gambling is fun, that is why it is addictive. The truth is, we believe that the odds are in our favor but if that were the case, casino owners wouldn’t be so rich. The probability is tipped ever so slightly in favor of the casino and that is enough for them to win in the long run and enough for the public to think they can get ‘lucky’. This is exactly why your idea of not getting off the airplane is the best possible advice you could give to someone heading over to Vagas.

    Very insightful comment about the winner’s life story. Who knows how many times she had to lose before she won…

  7. Penny, this line: “Most importantly, we had the ability to plan a vacation knowing full well we would come back financially poorer but richer in experience.” You sure are speaking to me! I almost had a bit of an anxiety attack when I was working on our honeymoon itinerary (#SpreadsheetLife). Even though we’ve planned financially in advanced, it still makes me feel a bit weary. But your statement is phenomenal. We choose to forgo gifts for experiences. We have yet to experience a full 2 week vacation with one another, visiting islands far away. I’ve been dreaming of going to our destination with my future husband since I was a little girl (cheesy, but I can be a bit cliche lol). Thank you for this!

    Also – when I went to Vegas, I’m so glad I had the healthy mindset that I have now with money. I played $1, and lost it (the first time I ever gambled). That was it! I walked away and enjoyed observing as the other girls from my party gambled 20’s away on the tables. Some won, most lost. When one girl did win fairly big – you could tell there was a strange air of ‘I’m happy but I’m not’ vibe. Yikes.

  8. The last time we went to LV we played bingo at the Red Rock Casino. A group of us went over and had a blast. I had no idea the game is now all electronic. You’re given a hand held device that crosses off your numbers, and plays a little song when you’re one away from winning. It’s totally hard to feel happy for anyone else when you hear the music and you know it’s not playing for you. Still, we each spent maybe $25 for two hours of fun. And we all won at least one game.

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