Last month a press release crossed my desk about the Palmetto Forum for Gaming Studies—a group formed by two former South Carolina officials to examine the feasibility of bringing casino gaming to the state. Their goal is to canvass the state, holding public forms, conducting research and otherwise attempting to determine if casinos are good for South Carolina and something citizens will support.
I hope they are successful, partially for business reasons, but mostly for a selfish one—when casinos are finally established in the Palmetto State, it will give me yet another excuse to visit a region I might not otherwise have experienced. Indeed, I have been fortunate to cover the casino industry for the last quarter century—a time of unprecedented expansion that has allowed me to call on locales exotic and mundane, and face situations both comforting and, well, odd.
My first trip as a reporter for International Gaming & Wagering Business happened in 1993 and it was to cover flooding along the Mississippi River and its impact on the casino riverboats then plying the river. I flew into St. Louis, rented a car and slowly made my way upstream stopping at places like East St. Louis, Alton, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa. It was the first time I ever saw water higher than street signs and actually lapping up to rooflines. I also came to realize the difference between daytrip and destination casino milieus when I wore a sports jacket and tie to one riverboat and a uniformed worker, mistaking me for a supervisor, asked if it was okay to go to lunch.
A few years later, a fellow editor and I were driving down U.S. Route 49 in Mississippi, having perused the gaming properties in Tunica and on our way to tour casinos in Gulfport and Biloxi. Along the way we took a detour towards Philadelphia to overnight at the Choctaw Tribe’s Pearl River Resort. That night, sampling slots with a handful of quarters, I hit my first—and so far only—major jackpot, winning $500 on a mechanical-reel Red, White & Blue machine. The bells went off, the light flashed, people congratulated me and a slot attendant made her way over to me with the money, and asked if I wanted a security guard to escort me through the parking lot to my car. The next morning over breakfast, someone sitting nearby was staring down my co-worker and me as we ate and talked. During a lull in our conversation, he leaned over and said. “Y’all aren’t really from around here, are you?” Maybe it was just an innocent observation, but it was really not what two New Yorkers wanted to hear in that part of Mississippi.
Perhaps the most exotic casino location I travelled to during those early days was South Africa, on a fact-finding tour for a major supplement we were producing on the nation’s rapidly expanding, post-apartheid casino marketplace. While there I snacked on kudu biltong procured from a roadside stand, was told by a manager at one very remote casino that his most successful slot prize promotion was for a tractor he displayed on a bank of slots like a sports car in Las Vegas casinos, and, guiltily, spent a night at the infamous Sun City casino resort, the lyrics from Steven Van Zandt’s mid-1980s protest song “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” sounding in my head the whole time.
These days, the travel to casino resorts continues but the trips are far less often, much less exotic and, unfortunately, often less adventuresome. Still, one of the benefits of covering the gaming industry is that it is still an expanding worldwide enterprise; new jurisdictions are bound to form and beckon, and I for one will try to heed the call.