The Unglamorous Life at SugarHouse Casino

Who's gambling at four o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon?

They were pretty clever, the designers. Sleek on the outside, modern, cool. You take a gander at SugarHouse from Delaware Avenue, you practically think it’s a happenin’ place.

Happenin’—that’s a word out of 1974. And that’s about right, once you’re inside. Inside, SugarHouse looks like all casinos. A dump of light and noise, drunk girls in hot pants and halters. Willie Nelson, dance music, and White Christmas slap each other around. A vast room of pinball alleys — although they are really slots, of course, with a little blackjack, three-card poker, craps, and baccarat thrown in. There’s a bar, a little café. ATMs. The Delaware and the Ben Franklin Bridge beckon beyond the big plate-glass windows in back, where a duo in the corner plays Todd Rundgren, but only a lonely blonde bartender is gazing in that direction. It’s a Wednesday at 4 p.m.

A necessary word on my attitude, which sucks: I pretty much fall in line with the tribe on the left that believes Philadelphia is in the gambling business because the city desperately needs money, and slots and craps and so forth are an easy tax on the poor and the foolish. Feel free to think of me as a bleeding heart, but there they are, my cards on the table.

I decided to take a look. The slots players, they’re the ones who go to play alone. They’re the ones to talk to.

Jim, an old guy, heavy, in a sweatshirt, comes in from Maple Shade: “I don’t lose too much,” he tells me as he feeds a slot machine. “A hundred bucks, at the most, in three-four hours.”

I ask him what he likes about SugarHouse.

“It’s close. It’s something to do. The poker here is bad — the odds. You might as well donate money.”

Jim doesn’t really like coming to SugarHouse, he tells me. Slots, they’re boring.

“But it’s close. It’s something to do.”

A Philly cop at the bar in back tells me he thinks it’s a good thing, bringing the casinos in. Consider the jobs. The son of a friend of his went to college for four years — then, no job offers. So he’s working here at SugarHouse as a valet.

“Everybody wants to be a Debbie Downer about casinos,” the blonde bartender chimes in. “But they treat employees great, and SugarHouse paid for part of the fireworks on the Delaware.”

I talk to four or five other slots players — an Asian woman, a couple of middle-aged black women, a retired construction worker — and they mostly have the same story: They come, they lose a few hundred, which is too much, but time is passed, they go home, and another day is safely in the books.

Then for a moment I watch a brutally hard-looking guy in an orange hoodie. He’s maybe 35. He’s got probably five days worth of beard stubble.

I go to him and ask his name.


How often do you play?

He laughs, surprisingly soft and open, as he keeps feeding money into his slot machine. “Too often.”

Do you like playing?

“I don’t,” Ballantino says, staring at the screen, “because I have a sickness. Gambling. Just generally, I’m sick in the head.” He says this as if he’s recounting what he had for lunch. “It’s not good. Nobody wins.”

Ballantino loses a couple thousand dollars every time he comes in. “I always go through it. If I win, it’s never enough. I keep playing until I lose.”

Ballantino lives in South Philly, and doesn’t really have a family, he says. He’s a self-employed construction worker.

I wonder if he’s worried about spending all his money, going into debt …

“It doesn’t matter if I spend all my money. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”

By all appearances, he’s hurtling to a big broad body of water as we speak.

“Casinos are designed to take,” Ballantino tells me, still focused on the rolling images before him. “The mafia created them. It’s a license to steal. I can’t do nothing about it. I’m sick.”

I wonder if he’s ever tried to get help. In fact, in the middle of the room there’s a gambling hotline number on a big screen, for all to see.

“I’m not willing to get help,” he says.

For a moment I watch the bright screen before us, and the money being fed to them as if of its own volition.

“I gamble out of sheer boredom,” Ballantino tells me. “I’m bored with life.”