FOR 128 MILES THROUGH REFINERY-RIDDEN LOWLANDS, Interstate 10 heading east out of Houston might as well be the Yellow Brick Road. I’m off to see for myself why Texans are so attracted to the legalized gambling of southwestern Louisiana, and leaving downtown, I get a sense of the hard sell to come from the ubiquitous casino billboards, whose good-luck mantras whiz past the windshield in a thrilling Doppler rush. I cross the border after sundown, threading an industrial gateway of petrochemical flares that smudge the night sky and frame six lanes of traffic in flame. Another half hour and I’m suddenly elevated by the swooping, closer-to-God ascent up the I-10 bridge, and then, finally, comes the gentle decline into the buzzing, popping, ringing, gleaming neon maw below: Lake Charles, the pride of Calcasieu Parish. It is gorgeous and irresistible. At nine on Friday night, the feeder road is backed up almost to the off-ramp with dreamers, each pregnant with the gambler’s fervent dream. The next card could change your life.
French settlers arrived here in the 1770’s, presumably dreaming of new lives, and a substantial economy was built out of lumber milled from the surrounding pinelands. The sawmills are gone now, but legend has it that in the good old days you couldn’t see the surface of the lake for the rafts of logs. Replace logs with casinos and Lake Charles booms again as the hub of southwest Louisiana. Three casino boats ( Isle of Capri, Players, and Star) are moored along the banks of Lake Charles, and one land-based casino (Grand Casino Coushatta) lies outside Kinder, half an hour to the north. In May alone, the boats collectively hauled nearly $25 million in taxable income (the Grand Casino, located on the Coushatta Indian Reservation, is not subject to state tax law and therefore not required to release financial information).
Gamers, as the industry calls them, arrive in Lake Charles via Continental Express or American Eagle airline. Or they catch Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, which runs from Los Angeles to Miami. Greyhound will also take them there, and from Houston, Gray Line runs free shuttle buses to most of the casinos. However they get there, an estimated 80 percent of casino patrons come from Texas.
If you comparison shop the gaming havens, you’ll discover that there’s little difference between them. They’re open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Parking and admission are free. Each casino offers a preferred player card, which plugs into a slot machine, tallies bets, and pays off in points good toward everything from hotel rooms to vacations. Each offers the same basic games, and each claims its slots have the biggest payoffs in town. Each has a huge buffet. And each is successful enough to be planning a multimillion-dollar expansion. A common theme (the possibility of free money) overwhelms individual details (everything else).
Gambling and travel are both superstitious sports, and itineraries, like bets, are best made on instinct. Following such a hunch toward the card that will change my life, I initially bypass the boats and continue east to U.S. 165, then north to Grand Casino Coushatta (777 Coushatta Drive, 800-584-7263). Planted in the middle of a few acres of concrete parking lots and sentried by isolated stands of pine, the Grand is a civic-center-looking construction. It’s louder than God’s bullhorn inside, the cumulative effect of coins rattling down metal chutes, jackpot sirens wailing, winners cheering, losers groaning, and a stream of assorted bells and whistles. A woman screams: She has won $5,000 with three aligned 7’s. In seconds she is overwhelmed by the white noise of the Grand’s 71,000 square feet.
As in the other casinos, there are no windows and no clocks here. The idea is to create a timeless zone where it’s always too early to leave and it’s never too late to change another hundred. Should you run out of cash, try one of the automatic teller machines (transaction fee: $4). Or cash a payroll check at the frankly named UnBank. Or have a drink—they’re famously free, delivered to your stool by a bustling waitress.
The Grand offers upward of two thousand slot machines and sixty table games, including craps, mini-baccarat, blackjack, roulette, Caribbean stud, and Pai Gow poker. It’s generally conceded that slots—nickel, quarter, $1, and $5—net casinos the most cash, which is why you can’t fall down drunk without cracking your head on a slot machine. Money bet in Texas Hold ’Em and stud poker, minus a small dealer “rake,” tends to stay in the hands of the players, who sit at twelve poker tables tucked into a back corner. Interior walls are covered with star-shaped frames bearing photographs of big winners holding oversized novelty checks like tickets to heaven or standing proudly beside the Jeep-and-bass-boat combos or the Harley-Davidsons or the Dodge Vipers awarded on certain slot jackpots. If it can happen to them, the photos whisper, it just might happen to you.
It does not happen to me. I play cheap slots for longevity. Five rolls of quarters, click-slide-sink. One line of silver chests pays $40, briefly jolting my pulse, but eventually, as all but the luckiest do, I run out of coins. Well, I have a dime in my pocket, but there are no dime slots, and shame keeps me from asking a bartender to break it so I can take two more pulls at a winking nickel machine. I wander, looking for a respite, but Kids Quest—where children play patiently as Ma and Pa piddle away the college fund—is closed. That leaves Roxy’s bar and lounge and the 550-seat Market Place Buffet. I drop $4.99 for a high-protein breakfast smorgasbord and wash it down with the dregs of a complimentary gin and tonic.
It’s three in the morning. A motel down the road caters to the casino tourist crowd, but I decide to follow tonight’s trajectory to its natural end, to let it run its course right out of my system before the next day’s fresh search for