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Friday, September 29, 2023
Sept. 29, 2023

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Press Talk: Fear and loathing in …

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A kaleidoscope of jaw-dropping slot machine colors greets you at the Ilani Casino Resort.
A kaleidoscope of jaw-dropping slot machine colors greets you at the Ilani Casino Resort. (Lou Brancaccio for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Where do we go from … ?

I often ponder weighty, philosophical issues like this. I also often ponder stuff like who’s buying my lunch today. Hey, philosophical ponderings do not fill the belly.

With an oil terminal looming and a new casino just down the road, one does tend to wonder what we are becoming. But now I’m mostly thinking about lunch. And besides, I wrote more than a year ago there is no way — no way — our esteemed, environmentally conscious governor, Jay Inslee, would ever — ever — approve an oil terminal here.

So let’s concentrate on lunch. And that casino. Because I’m telling you right now, somebody is paying for my lunch and it ain’t gonna be me. (I hope.)

• • • 

It’s Sunday. And it’s hot. And I’m hungry. I’ve just returned after spending some time in Punta Gorda, a quaint little village in southwest Florida. I did the boating and swimming and pickleball on the bayfront, but it was time to head home.

I had heard the new Cowlitz Tribe casino, the Ilani, had opened. So why not win a few bucks and essentially have that joint buy my lunch?

Ilani was controversial from the get-go. Almost all the power brokers around here were against the thing. Everything from “It doesn’t belong here” to “Armageddon is sure to follow” was tossed out. The editorial voice of The Columbian was strongly against it.

So I checked around a little. How was it going? Sheriff Chuck Atkins said everything was fine.

“Really no issues at the casino.” Opening day, of course, was a zoo, but that was to be expected.

“Good cooperation, so far.”

Undersheriff Mike Cooke backed that up.

“Anecdotally I’d say the casino has not been a big deal for us. There have been some stolen cars and we’ve had some calls from security to help with some alcohol-related issues. I will say that the casino staff has been really easy to work with and in all cases they have prioritized their patrons’ safety over business concerns.”

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt also has not heard of any issues. Remember, even though Vancouver is quite a hike to the casino and outside of the city limits, the city opposed it. That was puzzling, but … whatever.

“I have not been made aware of any immediate concerns … nor have I personally witnessed any issues,” Leavitt said. “Might just be a bit early to evaluate communitywide impacts.”

Me? I’m getting a good vibe from the place. Sure, there will be some folks who lose the milk money because they can’t control their gambling. But if that were the gauge, then we should stop selling beer because some folks will spend the milk money on that.

• • • 

Before I head to Ilani, I make a stop at The Last Frontier, a poker room in La Center. It also has some table games like blackjack. A little bit of history: poker rooms actually ended up in La Center because decades ago, the city of Vancouver told the downtown operators to pick up their chips and skedaddle.

I haven’t been to La Center for months, but I like the feeling there, as well.

As I walk in it feels comfortable and familiar. But there’s no getting around this place has been here for quite some time — and it shows. The carpet is beat, the felt on the tables is worn and the lighting is dull. Ever since Ilani opened, there has been a drain on the folks coming here. Fortunately for this poker room, Ilani has opted not to offer poker. Still, there is only so much gambling money to go around, and lots of it is going down the road.

I sidle up next to Brett, a poker buddy from way back. He travels here from the Portland area almost every Sunday because this is the closest “real” poker room.

We make a little small talk, but it’s time to get to work. I have staked myself to $200. That’s it. My hope is to hit a couple of pots early and be done with it. Wouldn’t even have to travel to Ilani. Did you see what I just did there? Two things: I set a limit and I set a goal.

Some people go into gambling saying goofy stuff like, “I’ve got $200 to gamble and I’ll play until I lose it all and chalk it up to an entertainment cost.” OK, maybe it’s not goofy, because there are worse ways to spend $200. But I’m not interested in entertainment. Have I said I’m hungry?

The cards are in the air. There are keys to giving yourself a shot at winning. I mentioned setting goals. But when you’re playing poker another important attribute is this: Patience. I learned that from following Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu. Kid Poker also speaks of position betting, reading your opponent and bet sizes. So with all that in mind — plus whatever I learned in my basement poker games when I was in high school — I was ready.

Oh, there’s one other thing to have a shot at winning poker. You need decent cards. My kingdom for a couple of decent cards. I was, as losers like to say, card dead. All the patience in the world won’t help you without good cards. I can’t catch jack. Or queens or kings or small pocket pairs for that matter. There’s nothing there. I’m bleeding to death slowly. So I do something I don’t normally do. There’s a blackjack table 12 steps away. Every time I get down $25 in poker, I walk over to the blackjack table and put $25 down. The first time I do this I win, so technically I’m even again.

Then I go down another $25 in poker and 12 steps later I get back even in blackjack.

I don’t recommend this method, but in the end, I lose $150 in poker and win $150 in blackjack at The Last Frontier. This is no way to pay for lunch. I’m finished here today. I wish everyone good luck and head to the Ilani.

• • • 

I pull into this massive parking lot and make the hike to the front door. The first thing I run into is a charter Blue Star bus. It came from downtown Portland. Essentially, old money was pouring out of those bus doors. I wish them luck because they’ll need it. Almost all of them will be playing the slot machines — traditionally some of the worst odds in a casino — and virtually none of them will be leaving with more than what they came with.

The vast majority of people who visit a casino play only slots. The table games are intimidating. Casinos know this. So there are slots. Lots and lots and lots of them. And here’s the simple truth, you’re not going to beat the slots. Oh, just like the lottery, someone will get lucky. But if you sit there long enough, you lose. It’s that simple. Need proof? All those fancy casinos and hotels in Vegas? They weren’t built because masses of people figured out how to beat the odds in Vegas. We’re losers. All of us.

The Ilani will be a winner as well.

• • •

So as you open the casino’s front door, the joint is shaking its money-maker. Those slot machines. A virtual kaleidoscope of colors and sounds. Even a guy like me, who would never stick a plug nickel into one these, is impressed.

Truth is, most of those who play slots look at it as entertainment. And I shouldn’t be so critical of that. They’re having fun. But fun won’t fill my belly.

I head deep into the casino where they have the craps tables. Craps is a dice game. It got its name from the French word “crapaud,” which means toad. Back in the day, people would play craps against a wall on the sidewalk. So you’d squat down to play the game. And that squatting position made you look like a toad.

Craps can be a complicated game. So many side bets, differing odds and foreign terms. I try to keep it simple. You either bet with the roller or against the roller. I always bet against the roller. Hey, don’t judge.

But I was faced with an unusual situation. I was the only one at the craps table, so I had to be the roller. And since I always bet against the roller, I would have to bet against myself. OK, this isn’t normal, but what was ever normal about a journalist?

For example, most people who roll the dice want their first roll to be a seven because that’s a winner. But because I always bet against the roller I want anything but a seven. So there I was, hoping the dice would do me wrong.

I should add the exact opposite of patience is useful here. The longer you play craps — or blackjack for that matter — the more likely the house will catch up with you and beat you.

• • • 

I probably rolled the dice 10 times. And as the roller, I lost seven times. But remember, I was betting against the roller, who happened to be me. So I actually won seven times. I was at the table less than 10 minutes. I asked to color up — a term which means turning in your small chips for larger chips — and ended up $45 ahead.

After breaking even at The Last Frontier, and winning $45 here … you know what time it is!

I’m hungry.

Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian’s editor emeritus. His column of personal opinion appears the first Saturday of every month. Reach him at lounews1@gmail.com.