Where's the Fun?
Out of curiosity, I went to one of those sweepstakes parlors that seem to be popping up all over town. They claim to be selling fun. They are not
My dad is the world’s lowest-stakes occasional gambler.
We’ve been to a horse track a few times. Each time, he starts with a $20 bill. That’s it. Does my dad ever bet the house on one horse? Does he ever box the superfecta? Does he ever go to the ATM to get more cash?
He bets the absolute minimum every time. Unless, maybe, it’s time to go, and he has some extra money left, in which case he might splurge and put $4 down on the odds-on favorite.
I’m not sure my dad would like Internet sweepstakes parlors. More than seventy of them were open in Charlotte as of November. On a single one-mile stretch of Old Pineville Road, between the archery store and the strip mall with the strip club, there are six. One is 200 feet away from another sweepstakes parlor, which is back-to-back with another sweepstakes parlor. It’s as if vice gave birth to conjoined triplets.
The legality of these places is constantly in question. State law banned them in 2010, but early in 2012, an appeals court overturned that ruling. By the time you read this, it’s possible that the North Carolina Supreme Court will have declared them illegal again, which may not matter. The last time they were banned, some parlors changed their software to get around the law, and others did nothing and stayed open anyway.
I knew all this, but I’d never been inside to see how a parlor actually worked. I had $20 in my wallet one Wednesday night. I thought of Dad. Why not?
I walked into the Woodlawn Business Center, which is not much of a business center at all; most computers inside do not have a keyboard, only a mouse. Trying to do business here would be like trying to write a term paper on a Nintendo Wii.
It was dark, except for the glow of computer screens and the motionless silhouettes of the people sitting in front of them. Nobody spoke. The electronic tones of digital slot machines were the only sounds. Smoke filled the air. A lot of smoke. If cigarette-fueled haze is good luck, I breathed in enough to win a trip to the Virgin Islands.
I slapped my $20 on the counter. I’d just bought three and a half hours of Internet time. I also received more than 3,000 sweepstakes points.
Do you see what just happened? What I bought was the opportunity to use the Internet at one of the keyboardless computers, and the sweepstakes points were tossed in there. This is like declaring that you are buying a Playboy to read the articles, and Playboy just happened to toss in a few pictures.
I started with a game called Score and Cash. I clicked on a button. The digital tumblers tumbled. That was just entertainment. The outcome was set as soon as I clicked. The tumblers and noises just help you fill the time before you push the button again.
I switched over to Aces Royale, and started winning. But not really. It cost thirty-two points to play, and I usually won fifteen or thirty points. After ten minutes, I was down 1,000 points. A woman on my left kept running out of points. She then clicked on a button to buy more Internet time, which gave her more points. Then she’d run out and do it again.
I made one last push. I used the maximum, 250 points a pop, on a game called Neptune’s Booty. I lost.
I walked back up to the window. I handed my slip to the guy behind the glass. “Didn’t have the best of luck,” I said. He shrugged and handed me $12 for my unused Internet time.
See if that works at a horse track.
The courts will decide whether or not playing sweepstakes is gambling. If nothing else, the whole thing is designed to make you feel like you are at a casino. The parlors are selling gambling-themed entertainment, they say, and if you happen to win some money, then hey, good for you. I wonder if the other people around me in that dark, smoke-filled room got that message.
Dad, I think, wouldn’t like sweepstakes parlors. Too much smoke. Too much confusion. He likes horses. If you bet on a horse and it wins, you win, too. That’s real.
Everything else is just misdirection.