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 the next card, the one that will change my life. I sleep in the back seat of my Oldsmobile, in the Grand’s parking lot, section H, and dream of glory.

Louisiana passed the Riverboat Gaming Act into law in 1991, and a little more than two years later Players (507 North Lakeshore Drive, 800-977-7529) became the first casino boat to berth on Lake Charles—a three-deck, 240-foot nineteenth-century stern-wheeler replica with 850 slots, 46 blackjack tables, 8 craps tables, 6 poker tables, 6 roulette wheels, and 2 mini-baccarat tables. In April 1995 Players’ sister ship, the Star (800-977-7529)—slightly longer and wider—sailed up the Calcasieu Ship Canal; later that year the original Players was replaced by a larger riverboat with a fourth deck. The two boats are now docked on either side of the new three-acre Players Island Entertainment Complex: thirteen barges welded together and beehived with a gift shop, three restaurants, a sports bar, a “Texas-size” buffet, and a lounge featuring live music of a quality apparently intended to drive gamers back onto the boats. All of it radiates off the complex’s hub: a domed ceiling painted with clouds and sky that shelters a theme-park-style circular walk through a jungle of preserved trees and botanicals, snapping computerized alligators, and an animatronic pirate-and-parrot “comedy” show. The display of finery is aimed at evoking the swank cachet of Las Vegas, but the showgirls and musical revues are nowhere to be found. The eye candy in their stead masks the fact that there’s really not much to do in Lake Charles but gamble.

Players Lakefront Hotel (800-871-7666) serves overnight visitors to Players and the Star. It is, for the moment, the only hotel in southwest Louisiana that’s appended to a casino (though there is no shortage of chain hotels and motels in the area, many offering shuttle service to the casinos). I claim my mid-price third-floor room for $100, call for a 10 p.m. wake-up call, and go to sleep. Once awake, I shower and head downstairs to the restaurant for a $16.95 piece of perfectly cooked prime rib and a beer. Thus logy, I amble over to Players and check the sailing schedule. The gaming commission, the state police, and the Coast Guard collaborate to set the schedules—hour-and-a-half cruises staggered so that one boat paddles onto the lake while the other remains docked. On an especially windy weekend like the one I’ve chosen, neither may sail, but you can still gamble as long as the casino has permission from the state.

If the Grand Casino Coushatta offers more floor space and a landlocked safeguard against seasickness, Players counters with a crowded opulence. A tasteful notice is posted on a brass plaque at the entrance—“If you know someone with a gambling problem … 1-800-GAMBLER.” At the moment, I do not have a problem. Something about blackjack feels right. I pass by a seat at a $100-minimum table because I am not wealthy. I pass also on a seat at the $5 table, because rank amateurs play the lowest-end tables, always taking hits when they should stand, always standing when they should hit. There is no way to prove it, but they will take you down with them.

A seat materializes at a $10 table with five smiling players—a good sign in a superstitious game—and I grab it. In half an hour I lose $100. Another half hour, another $120. Another hour and a tail-between-my-legs trip to the ATM and I have lost everything I can access, another $160, except for one last lonely $25 chip hiding between a watery gin and tonic and a fuming ashtray. Into the betting circle it goes. The dealer hands me a ten, herself a queen. And then, perhaps because of my previous night’s penance, the deal makes good on its implicit promise: The next card changes my life. It’s an ace of spades. I am blackjack, and the earth fairly shudders.

Cards turn, streaks begin and end, luck changes. If you have enough money to weather a storm, you will get your turn, and I am getting mine, slow and steady over the course of three hours. I start nudging my bets upward and more frequently ordering drinks, because winning is thirsty work. And this, finally, is what traveling to Lake Charles is about: free drinks and free money. It is an alternate universe in which a hunch causes you to push three seemingly inconsequential chips into the betting circle, and before you have time to register that those three chips represent, in some other world much like your own, $75, the dealer has six, and you have a ten. You double down, put in another three chips—$150 on the line—thereby agreeing to take only one more card. You’re dealt a king, because you deserve it, baby. The dealer draws a ten, then an eight . . . bust. Free money stretches the night into dawn. And when you finally do get back to bed, you’ve won back everything you had lost, it feels like everything you ever lost, and you’re curling up with a couple of C-notes under your pillow. As you drift off to sleep, words emerge from the silence, repeating themselves like waves lapping shore, transcending consciousness, and becoming dream. The dream says: Lake Charles rocks.

Sunday morning, across the barge at the Star, reality bites. It takes 45 ignominious minutes to lose it all and another hundred bucks trying to get it back. There are plenty of open seats at eleven in the morning and as many coffees as gin and tonics in the cup holders. People are betting timidly, testing the waters early in a long day. Betting aggressively, I lose fast. I cash in my coupon for a complimentary coffee mug at the customer service counter and drive west a few miles to the final stop on my tour, because when Lady Luck has used you like a cheap one-night stand and ditched you before breakfast, it’s best to move on.

Chateau Charles (2900 U.S. 90 West, 800-324-7647)—a few hundred rooms renting from $49 per night during the week and $59 per night on the weekends—will be my humbly comfortable base of operations. Isle of Capri (100 Westlake Avenue, 800-843-5753), the lake’s newest casino, will be my angle of attack. The Isle opened late in the summer of 1995; another fully operational casino, the $51.5 million Grand Palais Riverboat, is scheduled to drop its gangplank this summer. The Pavilion, where gamers enter a prefabricated tropical paradise beneath the rushing arc of a man-made indoor waterfall, opened in May.

There may not be much difference among the floating casinos, but there’s a big difference in the air. It’s Sunday night now, and Sunday night in Lake Charles carries with it an almost perceptible stench of defeat. Anyone still hanging around is trying to recapture some chunk of last night’s lost change or helplessly dribbling away the last of an abused stake because, for most, work starts Monday morning, and where is even the faint hope in that? On Saturday night, the table chatter was bold—the big win, the outlandish loss, but always with a brave face. Come Sunday, it’s all wry understanding and conspiratorial glances, a shuffling attempt to find some solace in the camaraderie of loss.

I share it with several lovely, resigned people at one of Isle of Capri’s blackjack tables. Our dealer, sweet as she is, has no more enthusiasm than we. She claims to be a craps woman, doesn’t much like dealing blackjack. Between deals, she tells me the story of a woman who just the weekend before had peed in her pants while sitting on a slot stool, unwilling to relinquish her claim on that lucky machine. We chuckle uneasily and wonder at the cleaning staff. The dealer doesn’t know whether the woman, in the end, walked away a winner.

For the obvious reason, I am finally forced to take my leave. My last $100 bill cannot rescue its mates, so it joins them. I walk up the gangplank toward land and feel something like emptiness creeping into my bones, replacing a weekend’s worth of adrenaline. It reveals itself, upon closer examination, to be the ghost of a phone bill, and there, idling up beside it like one more casino boat to a dock, the fresh specter of rent.

I drive the three of us back to Chateau Charles, where we fall asleep. We’ll leave in the morning. The deck is played. There’s no next card. And for the first time all weekend, I do not dream.

Brad Tyer is a Houston freelance writer.