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Smoking Monkeys, Gambling Pigeons

Chimps in rehab, slot playing pigeons

Smoking Monkeys, Gambling Pigeons

Say what you want about Russia, but they sure know how to attract people to casinos. At least they did in the old days, when there were scores of casinos in Moscow.

A chimpanzee named John found out the hard way.

John the Chimp used to draw people to the roulette tables at the Kosmos Casino in Moscow—they put him in a tuxedo, called him a croupier and sat him down to spin the roulette wheel. Everything was fine until the bad habits of all us degenerate gamblers rubbed off on him. Players started giving him whiskey, cigarettes and cigars. Eventually, he was the life of the party at Kosmos, swilling booze, smoking fat cigars and “ooh-ooh, ah-ah-ing” into the wee hours with all of his gambling buddies.

Last month, the high life finally caught up with John the Chimp. He died of a heart attack at the ripe young age of 24. Chimps in captivity normally live past 50. It’s a shame, because John was trying to kick all his nasty habits. In 2008, the year before all the Moscow casinos officially closed, Kosmos sent John to rehab.

Yes. Chimps in rehab. It’s the name of my next rock band.

Anyway, John the Chimp had seemed to be progressing nicely. His keepers thought he had overcome all his vices. At one point, the Russian monkey had even recovered enough to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails. But just as at the casino, visitors to the Gelendzhik safari park—evidently, sort of a Betty Ford Center for monkeys—started slipping him the smokes and the booze again. Before you knew it, John was in a period of backsliding followed by new periods of teetotaling—or banana-totaling, in any event.

The director of the Gelendzhik park reports that ultimately, though, it was his hard-partying life at the casino tables that did John in, causing him to arrive at the Bonzo Clinic, if you will, with diabetes, oedema, dermatitis, and a nasty, hacking cough that must have sounded like my Uncle Ralph.

Some may view the story of John the Chimp as a cautionary tale and warning against permitting smoking in casinos, or of the dangers inherent in giving free drinks to gamblers, or in employing croupiers who smoke big cigars, swill booze, and are chimpanzees.

I view the story as a shining example of one thing: If you’re a columnist looking for a monthly topic, your first fallback should always involve a drunken ape in a tuxedo.

Hey, at least it wasn’t a pigeon.

That’s right, pigeons were in the casino news last month as well. According to one newspaper, a lecturer on pathological gaming at a Melbourne university invoked legendary psychologist B.F. Skinner in trying to explain the draw of slot machines, or pokies as they call them. Skinner once said slot machine players behave like the pigeons he’d trained to peck for scraps of food. The lecturer said the first winning spin of a slot machine elicits a release of dopamine, and additional wins trigger more surges of the hormone.

Skinner trained a pigeon in a box to peck a disc to receive food. He found that if food appeared intermittently, rather than after each peck, the pigeon would repeatedly tap the disc in anticipation. He said the system of random rewards was the same as a slot machine, and concluded that the pigeons behaved like pathological gamblers.

Personally, I’ve never bought into this branch of research. I mean, it’s a pigeon. And, it’s a hungry pigeon who has just realized that the disk is a possible food source. Whether pecking it produces food every time or once in a while, I’m guessing that if the pigeon is hungry, he’s going at that thing like a woodpecker.

Up in Canada, university researchers performed similar tests on rats, having them hit a button and intermittently giving them a cheese reward. (Or alternatively, free slot play or points for a free toaster or set of carving knives.)

Again, I question the theory that any of these tests proves anything with respect to humans. How many of you out there have eaten every disgusting piece of candy in a box looking for that one with the cherry inside? Does that make you a pathological gambler?

OK, there’s a much better analogy out there somewhere, but I don’t have time to find it. I have to go feed my chimpanzee a shot and a beer.

Frank Legato
Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the books, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying, and Atlantic City: In Living Color.  

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