RIVERSIDE, MO. As soon as the five Tonganoxie women piled into a big sedan and headed east, Susie announced her $1 investment in a Prairie Gold lottery ticket had paid off.
``I won $10!'' she screamed, her voice overwhelming pop music on the radio. ``Everybody rub it for luck!''
These 40-something friends, wired for a Friday night of gambling madness, sped down U.S. Highway 24 toward Argosy Casino.
The glitzy $45 million entertainment center between KCI Airport and downtown Kansas City wasn't chosen for its 350-seat buffet restaurant, sports bar or 1,900 parking spaces. This Missouri River gambling hall was attractive because it sat closest to Tonganoxie and, according to Casino Player's magazine, possessed the loosest 25-cent slot machines in the entire state of Missouri.
``One drawback,'' Elizabeth confided to a reporter invited to observe legal riverboat gambling by middle-class folks living in middle America. ``It's smoke-filled.''
At the end of the evening, if their identities weren't revealed in print, they would disclose how much they won or lost. None really expected to win enough to be categorized as a small corporation. On the other hand, who knows what can happen when the coin drops and the slot spins?
Car-ride chatter offered a glimpse into the minds of these adventurers.
Lacey recalled the first time the group went to a casino: ``Everybody thought we hit a big jackpot. In reality, we won just $10.''
They've since become slot pros. (As if there were a learning curve.)
Pat chooses machines -- there were about 1,000 at Argosy -- based on the color of the shell. Elizabeth prefers ones that make a special ``kerplunk'' sound when coins drop. Susie, who talks to the gadgets in an effort to coax out cash, said players should always put three coins at a time into each machine.
``That's in the rule book,'' Susie said.
The car came to a stop in a covered garage attached to the Argosy. Elizabeth packed only essentials.
``Just a driver's license and Social Security card, so you can fill out a 1099 if you win more than $1,000.''
Down the elevator, to the ticket window for a boarding pass, through the turnstile and into the casino. Once inside, the women scattered like children in a toy store.
``We used to go to shows together as a group,'' said Ann, the ensemble's least enthusiastic gambler. ``Then they started doing this. When they took me, I was surprised when they went off by themselves. They left me. I said, `What's fun about this?'
``Then I put a few coins in and won $250. Oh, well.''
Pat, hauling around slot slugs in a plastic casino cup, surveyed the boat's third deck. The room was dominated by flashing lights, buzzing slots and eager gamblers. She was searching for an isolated locale, a place where she wouldn't be distracted by colleagues. She found it in a corner row of machines.
``I don't like anybody watching. It makes me nervous.''
Winners and losers
Elizabeth saddled up to a slot in the heart of the casino. In less than five minutes, she racked up 250 credits -- $60 -- on an electronic scoreboard.
``She's on,'' said Lacey, glancing over her shoulder. ``She's been wandering around, hitting on different machines.''
Lacey wasn't faring as well. Eighty dollars had passed through her hands in about 90 minutes. Pat's luck hadn't been much better.
``The last couple times I've come here I've gone through $50 just like that,'' she said, snapping her fingers. ``It's just that I'm on the wrong machine.''
Ann had run her credit total to 387, nearly $100.
``Is anyone but Ann winning here?'' Lacey complained.
Ten feet to their left, a Wheel of Gold progressive slot machine against the wall exploded in sound and color. The player, Brody Wolf, let out a howl and nearly spilled his drink. His wife, Nikki, screamed the obvious question: ``Did you win?''
``I won something,'' Brody said, frozen in place with eyes locked on a screen flashing a six-digit total.
A low-level casino employee approached and began talking excitedly into a walkie-talkie. In time, casino managers, public relations staff and security forces formed a barrier around the machine. The device couldn't be touched until officially verified by a guy summoned from St. Louis.
Brody had his picture taken with an oversized check. Then they brought an even larger check for another round of photographs. His smile came easily.
Gamblers walked by to catch a glimpse of victory. They were curious to see what a big winner looked like, how the machine sounded, the hubbub it produced. It gave color and texture to their dreams of a huge payday.
``When we went through the toll booth on Interstate 70,'' Brody said, ``the guy said we better put back $2 so we could get home.''
Not to worry.
Brody, head stocker at a Junction City grocery store, had just knocked down the largest progressive slot in Missouri history. The take was $594,652. After a 30 percent tax bite, he will receive $416,257 spread over 20 years.
``I had been playing for about five minutes,'' Brody said. ``I think I put in $7, maybe. I'd won $1,000 before, but nothing like this.''
Elizabeth wandered off to play a little blackjack.
``That guy took everybody's money.''
Ann cashed her machine out. Her plastic casino cups brimmed with $120 in slot coins. She gave her comrades 25 cents each for one more crack at the big time. The machines sucked down the four slugs.
Moment of truth
Three hours after entering the casino, it was time to leave. Fresh air contrasted with smoke-choked clothing on the way to the car. The ride back to Tonganoxie was just as jovial as the trip to Riverside. They couldn't stop laughing.
``It was great to see somebody win,'' Susie said.
``And he was a decent guy,'' Elizabeth added.
Over a pizza dinner in Tonganoxie, they offered an accounting of the evening.
Here it is:
- Elizabeth lost $110. ``Blackjack was mean.''
- Susie dropped $75.
- Pat had budgeted $70 for the evening. She lost that, plus another $40.
- Ann set a spending limit of $20. No problem, she took in $110.
- Lacey lost $80, twice as much as budgeted.
In all, for every $1 won by someone in the group, more than $3 was lost.
``If you don't view gambling as entertainment, you don't have any business doing it,'' Ann said.
Next stop for the Tongie gang: A tribal casino north of Topeka for bingo.
``I think we can get more bang for our buck,'' Ann said.
-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.