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Gambling in Nebraska
David C. Madden
Photograph by Lyla Emery Reno

I: The Keno Parlor
The location is part of the attraction; the town, the distance from town. The parlor’s familiarity, feeling like something specific I couldn’t place until I took my friend Steve and he nailed it: bowling alley bar. There are video games in the corner, no more than four domestic beers on tap, and dozens of tables scattered throughout the floor under lamps so plain and obvious that I couldn’t think of what they look like. They must look like lamps that simply do their job and do their job well, because, like the bowling alley, this is not a place to look nice. This is a place to win big.

Keno is Bingo without the letters. Ergo: “Twenty-eight” and not “I, twenty-eight.” Like Bingo, Keno is popular, although Keno may be more attractive among serious gamblers, since no one is a slave to the number card. With Keno, we choose the numbers. We cross them out on little newsprint sheets with thick black crayons, and we use the logic that only we, as gamblers, understand.

Today is not only Independence Day, but it is also the Lord’s Day, and I’ve decided it’s as good a day as any for gambling. I take Steve, who lives in New York City, out to the Denton Daily Double in Denton, Nebraska (population: 189), about fifteen miles southwest of Lincoln. This is my fourth visit, and while closer to town there’s a chain of parlors presumptuously named Big Red Keno to attract Cornhusker fans, I prefer the DDD because of its purity. BRK uses a computer to select numbers “at random,” which computer I cannot trust. The DDD uses a large and exciting vat of ping-pong balls numbered much like your local lottery show. Thus, when I cross out thirty-three on the card and numbers thirty-two and thirty-four get chosen, I know this is due to gusts of air and not certain forms of malice.

Men and women alike usually prefer the voices of women. This could be true wherever a voice is needed, but it’s exceptionally true at the DDD. When the time comes for the numbers to be chosen and announced, people stop chatting and the ball-blower fills the new silence with a whir. What Steve and I are really tuned to is the cadence of numbers, spoken by a young woman over the P.A. in such passing boredom, such lack of consequence, as if each number were the obvious answer to a tired old question.

“Seventeen,” she sighs, and indeed it’s a disappointment. We chose nineteen. “Fifty-three.” It’s such torture.

I’m not going for suspense: we don’t win anything. Playing 8-Spot goes nowhere; at best we get three numbers, which pays only in regret. I suggest we switch to the Pick-17 because it always pays at least a dollar. But it costs three to play, so we lose some more. Again, this is the fourth time I’ve played Keno, and you should know I’ve never won a penny, at least nothing that didn’t immediately go toward the next round. That afternoon, in the middle of our second beers and nth loss, the woman behind the counter yawningly announces a $180 winner. When we look over our shoulders to watch an elderly lady amble up to spin a motley wheel covered in small bills ranging from one to fifty, we don’t sneer or glare in envy. We smile. Her big win isn’t our big win but it’s still exciting. It’s still worth the visit.

We leave after an hour. Collectively, we’ve probably lost thirty bucks, but it’s the Lord’s Day, the happy sunny fourth, and we’ve got a bag of fireworks in the car just waiting for nightfall.

Interlude: The Pickle Cards
Pickle cards are so named because they used to come on pickle jars. Really. “Jar cards” is another name for them. Pickle cards are a form of stealth gambling; a gambling snack between meals that come out of machines in certain stray corners of most bars here. There is usually this sign attached somewhere to the machine: PICKLE CARDS MUST BE OPENED ON THE PREMISES. There are usually six to eight variations of pickle cards available, costing anywhere from twenty-five cents to two dollars. Not one of them has a pickle on it.

A pickle card is a little like a scratch-off lottery ticket and a little like a slot machine. Whereas you scratch the grey part of a lottery ticket, you pull off the paper tabs of a pickle card, and what you hope appears underneath are certain combinations of icons, much like a slot machine. The process is quick. Rip, rip, rip, rip, rip, rip, and check the back to see if any of your icon combinations wins anything. If it does, you redeem it at the bar, usually for another drink or more pickle cards. If it doesn’t, just drop it on the floor. They’ll clean them up later.

My favorite bar in Lincoln is frequented by serious drinkers old enough to be my parents, and yet there’s a Tom Waits album cover painted on the wall and a Steelers lamp above the pool table. I don’t know how this happened. On most occasions there’s a pile of pickle cards on the floor, pushed up against the bar like dirty laundry. It’s telling that this pile always lies below the video game machine that sits on the bar’s corner, because this machine is just another form of gambling, except all you win is your initials on a screen.

II: The Race Track
It’s not as though Nebraska is so dull and the cost of living here so cheap that both produce in me a kind of weird prairie ennui and unending source of disposable income which drive me to toss money away at spirited games of chance, but it just so happens that exactly one week after my fourth visit to the Keno parlor I find myself at the racetrack of the Nebraska State Fair Park. I have a draft beer in front of me and seventy-three dollars of newly won money in my pocket itching to be gambled away. I didn’t mean to win, it just happened. The races were to begin at 2 p.m. and as my pal Higgs and I had about an hour to kill, I decided to bet on a simulcast race happening at Ellis Park, in Kentucky. Of the six horses running the first race, something about horses two, three, and four looked good. I bet twelve bucks on an exacta box for the three of them. The odds were great enough that when You’re Darn Tootin and Grades Gold finished first and second, respectively, I won seventy-three bucks. It’s an auspicious start, so I grab my money and Higgs and I spend the next fifteen minutes laughing at the thrilling, crazy luck of it all.

Higgs went to college in Las Vegas, and yet I’m the one who has to go over the racing forms and odds variations. I explain the difference between winning, placing, and showing, and I go through the procedures of exotic bets—exactas, trifectas, superfectas. We get a table at the top of the grandstand and pass the time people watching and enjoying the clear afternoon.

At one point Higgs says, “This is so Bukowski.” I smile and take his word for it.

Just before post time I bet an exacta on the first race and five minutes later I’ve lost twelve bucks. We look to the second race and Higgs develops a kind of jones for the jockey Filmer Munaylla, who not only has a fascinating name, but who also races Red Ravine, a horse owned by Merel Moore.

“He or she might be related to Michael Moore,” he says. “That’s my horse.”

So he puts five bucks on it to show. In other words, for it to come in third place or better, and seeing as how the odds are high and none of the race experts fingered Red Ravine to do well, it’s a good bet. He jumps a little when Red Ravine wins, but with his bet only collects thirteen dollars.

I lose again. It doesn’t matter much because I have my eye set on horse number seven in the third race: Nip ‘N’ Tuck. I’m of the school that looks to odds and performance histories in betting on a horse, because this is what I was taught. Nip ‘N’ Tuck has a pretty lackluster history, but I am impressed by the proper punctuation of the horse’s name, and the jockey is Dennis M. Collins. My name is David Collin Madden. So many alarms sound that I can’t resist putting number seven in my exacta bet and also placing three bucks on him to show.

He fails, placing somewhere too low even to pay attention to. What’s surprising is that the obvious favorite, I’m A Rocket Man, does terribly. Renato, a forty-to-one horse neither of us thought to bet on, wins the race. It’s that kind of day, and after my first big cash-out I don’t win another bet. Sometime after the fourth race, an elderly gentleman walks up to our table and asks to check our racing form.

“I left mine down at my seat,” he says.

“Sure,” I say, while turning it in his direction.

“Long shots are hittin’ today, huh?” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. “We should be learning from it, but we’re not.”

He chuckles and hitches up his pants and wanders off barward with a bit of a limp. Higgs and I grin, but I’m not sure why.

We kid ourselves when we think that places like this attract weirdos, freaks, the margins of society. We do this because it’s romantic; it helps to make the racetrack feel exotic. Sure, there are many singular faces here. Haggard, dog-faced women in leather who’s thirty-something breasts are already falling to their navels. Mexicans in cowboy hats and handlebar mustaches wearing T-shirts that proudly assert their alcoholism. Red-haired children who might not bathe. Old beery men who might have erections. But I’m here and Higgs is here and good-looking young men and women are here. We’re all kind of here. And if you’ve ever ridden a bus or stood in line at the DMV—whether in Lincoln, Nebraska, or New York, New York—you’ll have seen all these folks before. They aren’t the margins of society, they are society. They’re the public. They’re—we’re all—the American People who politicians so desperately evoke. And if winning big is one the few things that brings us all together, isn’t this more American than apple pie and Wal-Mart? Isn’t this the Dream we all talk about?

I think what I’m saying is that gamblers are you and me. Their wishes are our wishes. As Higgs and I leave the track around 4 p.m. we leave a little poorer but somehow also better, as if standing at the center of the country is a prize we’ve been given.

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