For most of the year, the spacious floor that houses more than 1,200 slot machines at the Calder Casino & Race Course is a battlefield reserved for the eternal struggle between man and machine. Human hope and bullishness versus robotic infallibility and mercilessness.
But this summer proves to be different.
Each Friday evening, hordes of casino patrons try to literally push their luck as they go up against like-minded competitors in a 12-person, head-to-head slot tournament that turns the heart of the casino floor into a vibrant, pseudo-sporting event. In a matter of minutes (three to be exact), contestants run the gamut of emotions, from joyful ecstasy to rancorous anguish and back as the rubber duckies, bags of popcorn, crazy 7s and regular 7s all seem to become one flashing amalgam.
Enter the TournEvent of Champions.
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The national tournament, which runs through Aug. 22, pits hundreds of thousands of players from across the nation against one another for a chance to win a trip to Las Vegas and play for the grand prize of $200,000 in cash. Finalists from the dozens of participating casinos (in establishments that stretch from Washington to Florida) win a trip for two to Sin City, complete with complimentary airfare, a four-night hotel stay and food vouchers worth $500.
But just like with the World Cup trophy-hoisting hopefuls, first they have to make it out of the group stage. Or in this case, the regional tournament at their local casino.
At Calder, the only participating casino in South Florida, patrons who earn 50 points at any of the slot machines on Friday are eligible to play in the two-hour weekly tournament that day. Then, after furiously tapping buttons and screens for three minutes, participants can see their names flicker across the leaderboard, conveniently located at the top of the machines.
To sweeten the pot, Calder has a share of $4,000 free play for the top 40 players each week.
“It’s a structure of free play, so based on your placement in the weekly tournament you’ll win a set amount of free play each week,” said Maureen Adams, casino president and general manager. “So that gives our players the opportunity to play all our games on us.”
Points carry over from week to week with the overall leader winning one of two seats at the national tournament in Las Vegas. But that’s not where the mayhem ends.
“Whoever has the most overall from all of our tournaments leading up to [August 22] automatically goes,” said Wade West, senior director of marketing at Calder Casino. “They get the first spot in Vegas. And then what we’ll do is we’ll take the next 399 people of the top scores, and they’ll do a playoff. They’ll come back on Saturday and they’ll have their own slot tournament, just for those 399 people. And we’ll whittle it down to the final 12. And then one person, whoever is the top one on that tournament, gets the other one to Vegas.”
Of course, no national slot tournament is complete without cheerleaders, a tour bus, and a mascot named Money Man.
“They’ll be here August 15,” West said. “They bring the bus up. They park the bus out front. It’s real flashy. And then the mascot comes in with all of the support cheerleaders and they give out T-shirts and little gifts and things like that.”
But long before Money Man and his cheerleaders are there to besiege players with words of encouragement, there are friends, relatives, spouses and sometimes even strangers cheering them on from behind the black portable posts and ropes. Some spectators even go so far as to jump up and down in solidarity or emphatically mimic the players’ pounding of the buttons.
With leads and fortunes changing as frequently as the colors and symbols on the screens, the mechanical madness is not for the faint of heart. Or for the sluggish.
“It was competitive,” said Bernice Terrell of Miami. “My arm got tired, but I liked it.”
Fellow contestant Susan Sperrazza said: “It was really fun. Nice little workout.”
And even if West insists that skill is only marginally involved (“It’s really lucky, because you can go as fast as you want, but it’s only going to go as fast as the machine. If you go too slow, you’ll miss some spins so you don’t want to do that. But you just have to get fortunate enough to get the big bonuses.”), players showcase a dazzling variety of different tapping techniques. There is the windshield wiper, where players try to cover an extensive area with some diligent sweeps. Then there is the more deliberate crow foot, where contestants zero in on their target like a bird of prey. And then there is the old-fashioned fist-bump-and-go, where a volley of clenched fists hails down on the helpless screen.
But while styles may differ, there is no doubt about the popularity of the tournament. Even an hour and a half in, the stream of new participants is ceaseless.
“Something like this is designed to keep people engaged,” West said. “Because if you miss, you’re taking a chance of missing a shot at Vegas.”