Did I ever tell you about my introduction to the wonderful world of casino gaming?

Well, it occurred during the early 1980s when I was a freshman at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia Pa., and Atlantic City and its string of brand new gaming palaces were a tantalizing 90 minute or so drive away.

Really, I hadn’t given the Atlantic City casinos much thought until one day there was a flier posted throughout campus offering a free bus ride to Atlantic City and $20 in complimentary quarters for those willing to take the trip. It was spring, the weather was warming and I, like many of my friends, was on shaky financial footing. What little spending money I had was fast approaching zero and I was scrambling for cash. So when someone in my group of friends observed there was nothing that said we had to spend the free $20 in quarters at a casino… all we had to do was take the bus ride to and from Atlantic City and the money was ours to use as we saw fit, I was on board. Sure, $20 wasn’t much, but it could keep you in keg beer and cheesesteaks for a weekend, and that was good enough for me.     

A pod of eight from my dorm ended up taking the trip, some for the $20, others to really gamble at the casino. During the multi-hour ride through New Jersey to the shore, the banter was freely traded back and forth—previous trips to AC, which casinos were best, how to cage free drinks, bet strategies for certain games and so on. One friend talked about a system he used for roulette—he would place only red or black wagers on $20 tables, which paid off even odds. If he won, he would always pocket half the winnings and keep risking the single $20 chip for as long as it lasted. I remember thinking how smart that gambit seemed.

So we got to Atlantic City and those of us looking to pocket the money tried to find ways to entertain ourselves for hours without spending anything, which primarily consisted of strolling The Boardwalk and occasionally checking into the casino to see how our gambling friends were doing. What none of the non-gamblers considered was how hungry and thirsty we would get waiting around to head home. Some dipped into the $20 for food, but a friend of mine came up with another idea: why don’t each of us risk $10 on red at the roulette table and, if we won, we would then have $10 each for a meal and $20 we could still spend back on campus. It seemed like a plan to me so we walked into a casino, found a $20 roulette table, bought the chip, placed it on red… and we won! We cashed out, went back out to The Boardwalk, found a food stand… never had a hamburger and a couple of beers tasted so good.

I have been to Atlantic City dozens of time since that day but it’s my first experience there that has left a soft spot in my heart for the place, no matter its subsequent fortunes. Maybe it was because I took a risk and I won, but I know it’s more than that; it’s the remembrance of a warm spring evening, a cool sea breeze, ambling on The Boardwalk with friends that meant everything to me at that time. I was young, in the moment and absolutely unconcerned of the future… there never has been, or will ever be, a feeling and memory more satisfying than that.

Happy 40th birthday, Atlantic City.