Walking from one end of the Slots at Woodbine to the other, past electronic card games, a cascading waterfall, and machines with names like “Cash Illusions” and “The Big Money $how,” takes about two and a half minutes. Direct routes became fewer and fewer during the early evening last Friday, as the gaming floor was steadily filling up with people, and every path seemed to lead to another row of the venue’s 3,000 slot machines.
Every patron looked like an expert, mechanically pressing buttons, watching over other people’s shoulders, or staking out new machines, creating an atmosphere both intimidating and bewildering—especially for a novice. The machines have their own jargon and confusing dashboards: There were stickers on some of them that indicated the “maximum progressive payout” was unlimited for all levels—which was pretty much irrelevant when I burned through $5 on two spins of a machine I mistook for a five-cent slot.
Some of council’s left-wingers have characterized any potential casino, including an expanded facility at Woodbine, as a scourge on the city, while a handful of Rob Ford’s allies have argued that it could be a boon to our supposedly empty coffers. But Woodbine offers a glimpse of what a Toronto casino might feel like, and the reality is somewhere between councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s characterization as “one of the saddest things you’ll ever see” and the mayor’s proclamation of a supposed revenue jackpot.
Ford would fit right in at Woodbine, where half-formed, ambiguous promises of money were everywhere, and gravy at the second-floor restaurant cost an extra 60 cents. Menu staples, like breaded veal on a bun and hot dogs, were listed under the heading “Our Best Bets.” And a sign soliciting feedback on Woodbine’s food offered the tantalizing prospect that “Your two cents could be worth $5,000.” The money’s there to be won; you just have to find it.
And you really can find it, said Mike Jakovleski, a Mississauga resident. He’d heard stories—rumours that he couldn’t verify—about people walking away with $250,000. And he said he once won $15,000 over a three-month period. “Like another hockey team, I think we can handle another casino,” he said. He thinks Ontario Place would be a good location, but he worries about making a mess of downtown traffic.
As another possible location for an expanded casino, Woodbine, with its sprawling parking lot and on-site amenities, had the feeling of a bizarre gated community. There were few places to sit other than the comfortable chairs in front of the slots. Many people played using a loyalty card, which they inserted into the machines. The cards were attached to their clothing with curly keychain cords, literally tethering them to the machines they were playing; staff members stopped by with complimentary coffee and pop. The machines blared arcade-game noise, and there was little conversation. Some people wore sunglasses. Few smiled.
Despite the mayor’s gold-plated vision of what a casino could bring to Toronto, even some experienced slot jockeys spoke about the prospect of a new casino with resignation. John Zapras, a 74-year-old pensioner, visits Woodbine once a month. While taking a smoke break on Friday night, he said Woodbine is a logical destination in an age where people are more isolated.
“Nowadays, people are very cold,” he said. “They don’t get together.”
Does he have a favourite machine, at least? “They’re all the same,” he responded. “Believe me.”