The lure of Foxwoods

Motoring along the rural roads of eastern Connecticut in a big Conway charter, there's an electric charge in the air — enough, it almost seems, to power a couple hundred slot machines at Foxwoods Resort Casino, where more than 50 members of the Attleboro Retirees Association are headed.

Around a bend in the road, the towering casino rises from the surrounding forest like the storybook Emerald City in the Land of Oz.

Except, this is Ledyard, Conn., a town of about 15,000 people that over the past decade has come to find its economy, even its rustic vistas, dominated by the sprawling Foxwoods complex, billed as the largest resort casino in the world.

The Attleboro Retirees Association makes a day-long gambling excursion every couple of months, alternating between Foxwoods, operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, and the Mohegan Sun Casino, operated by the Mohegan Tribe in nearby Montville.

Many seniors prefer the Mohegan Sun because it's smaller and easier to get around.

But, explains Millie Yeretsky, who organizes the trips, “Ever since they took bingo out of Mohegan, the bingo players like to come to Foxwoods.”

And the slots players don't mind because there are more slot machines under one roof at Foxwoods than anywhere else in North America.

Slots, Yeretsky says, is the game of choice for most seniors on the bus.

For the fun of it

“Some of them spend a lot of money,” she says. “But most limit themselves to a certain amount of money.

“That's me,” she says. “The amount is what I would spend on dinner and a show. I wouldn't spend anymore at a machine.”

Yeretsky usually limits herself to no more than $40 or $50 on a gambling trip, and she always breaks for a long, leisurely lunch halfway through the day.

“That way, you don't lose so much money,” she says. “But we do have a few die-hards who never leave the machines.”

At 74, Jane Kelley celebrates retirement.

“The dog died and the kids have left home,” she says. “Life doesn't get any better.”

And she likes to gamble.

“I usually win, so it's lots of fun,” Kelley says. “I only play the slots.”

Like Yeretsky, Kelley limits the amount she will gamble on a given day, but her stake usually is $100.

“If I lose it, I leave,” she says. “Winning's the hard part. I've been practicing leaving when I'm way ahead, but it takes a lot of practice.”

Kelley is raring to go as the bus wheels into the long driveway leading to the casino.

“I've thought about praying for luck,” she quips to anyone within earshot. “But someone told me the Good Lord doesn't do gambling.”

As big as Foxwoods seems from a distance, it is enormous close up. The casino is surrounded by vast parking lots, many of them dotted with charter buses.

Every bus stops at a check-in point and is boarded by an official casino greeter.

“Hi 'ya Millie,” Kathy Connell calls out as she climbs up and spots Yeretsky. Around the casino, Connell is known as K.C. — “as in K.C. and the Sunshine Band.”

“I've been here the longest,” Connell confides. “These are my regular customers. I don't have to do my full speech.”

Connell goes up and down the center aisle, passing out coupons. The $14 round-trip from Attleboro comes with a $10 meal ticket redeemable at any restaurant on the grounds, a ticket good for one play at Keno and another ticket good for $10 at any of the casino's gaming tables. On this bus, most of the tickets for gaming tables are thrust into pockets or purses, never again to see the light of day.

Before clambering off the bus, Connell turns and waves goodbye.

“Smile, and you shall win,” she shouts. “That's my motto.”

Connell has also warned the group to be back at the bus by 2:45 p.m. because at 3 p.m. the bus leaves, with or without them.

“Another bus is coming in right after this one,” she says.

The bus station at Foxwoods is big enough for a good-size city. There are 12 bays, and 60 or 70 buses a day disgorge passengers into the casino. Across from the bus bays is a garage housing an array of emergency vehicles, including fire trucks and ambulances.

Yeretsky gives the OK to disembark, adding, “Leave a little bit of money for me.”

Jim Fyfe, one of the retirees, ambles down the aisle and replies, “Save yourself some time, Millie. Give me all your money now.”

Another man behind him is singing, “We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz …”

“Watch the smiling faces now,” he says. “They won't be smiling when they come back.”

Seniors rule

On a Wednesday morning Foxwoods could pass for a national congress of the AARP, except the trappings are more glamorous. Seniors by far are the dominant demographic. Some of them are in wheelchairs or are using specially designed walkers available from the casino with wheels in front for greater mobility and a little wire mesh basket for holding cups of coins. A few tow portable oxygen canisters behind them. Women seem to outnumber men by about eight-to-two.

The impression is a little misleading, Foxwoods spokesman Bruce McDonald said. Because Foxwoods is an around-the-clock operation, the demographics shift with the sweep of the hour hand.

“Our demographics are huge because we have such a huge audience,” McDonald said.

On average, 40,000 to 45,000 people pass through the casino during a 24-hour period. “Some days, it's below that,” McDonald said. “Some peak holiday weekends, it's well above that.”

McDonald estimated seniors comprise from 35 percent to 55 percent of Foxwoods customers.

“If you come in during the day, you see one group,” he said. “If you come at night, you see another group; and if you come in for a big show, you see another group.

“It's such a massive place, we bring in an awful lot of people.”

How it all began

How Foxwoods came to be could fill the pages of a book, and it has. A couple of books, in fact.

The most recent is “Revenge of the Pequots: How a Small Native American Tribe Created the World's Most Profitable Casino,” by Kim Isaac Eisler (Simon & Schuster, 267 pps., $25). Eisler, national editor of Washingtonian magazine, chronicles the rise of Foxwoods from the near-extinct Pequots to a casino grossing more than $1 billion a year.

He delves into the Byzantine maze of treaties between Native Americans and the U.S. government; the life of a one-sixteenth Pequot and unemployed shipbuilder who would resurrect the tribe in the 1980s with the help of a savvy lawyer; and how financing from a Malaysian tycoon transformed a whittled-down reservation into an East Coast gambling Mecca exempt from taxes and federal labor laws.

Until the Pequots built a high-stakes bingo hall in 1986, the tribe had struggled at a number of endeavors, including a firewood business, pig farming, maple syrup sales and a community garden. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1987 allowing Native Americans to operate casinos on their lands set the stage for what Foxwoods would become. During its first year of operation, 1992, even before slot machines were legalized in Connecticut, Foxwoods shook the foundation of casino gambling in Atlantic City, N.J.

“It's amazing,” Eisler said in an interview with The Sun Chronicle. “The people of New England understood so little about gambling, no one predicted, no one foresaw that people would go to a casino in the middle of nowhere. The Pequots couldn't even get financing from the banks.”

But, Eisler said, the secret of Foxwoods' success was, “Location. Location. Location.”

Foxwoods may have been in the middle of nowhere, Eisler said, but nowhere was “half-way between New York and Boston.”

“There are 200 tribes that run casinos, but nothing like this,” he said. “They don't do that well.”

The Pequots also tapped into some of the most knowledgeable talent in the gaming world, and turned Atlantic City, Foxwoods' major East Coast rival, on its ear.

“Atlantic City was so pathetic,” Eisler said. “As a result of Foxwoods, Atlantic City had to change its act. The casinos there actually used to close at night.

“Atlantic City was just waiting for someone to one-up them,” he said.

Foxwoods today

Now Foxwoods is so huge, it drives the economy of southeastern Connecticut and provides lavishly for once-marginal members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe.

Tribal members receive free homes, free private schooling and free college tuition. They receive annual payments of $50,000 a year or more and also are often employed in a tribal business. The tribe has donated tens of millions of dollars to charities, including the Smithsonian Institution's new American Indian Museum.

An economic impact paper released last November by the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut reports that since Foxwoods opened, the Pequot Tribe has created almost 13,000 jobs and revitalized the economy of southeastern Connecticut, which had been hard hit by cutbacks in defense spending. The tribal nation also has contributed to 41,363 ancillary jobs statewide.

It has raised the gross state product by $1.2 billion and total revenues paid to the state from slot machine operations since 1993 topped $1 billion last year. Some 73 percent of casino visitors are from out of state whose spending is new to the region.

As with any large economic development, there is negative impact as well, the report said, including increased traffic and crime. The report concluded, however, that negative impact was small.

Ledyard's view

Ledyard Mayor Wesley Johnson Sr. is not so sure about that.

“Anything on the reservation is not taxable by local authorities,” he said. “We get no property taxes from those big, tall buildings.”

Foxwoods does pay 25 percent of its slot machine revenue to the state, Johnson said, an amount that totaled $360 million last year. But, he explained, the state's funding formula works like this: $135 million was parceled directly to Connecticut's cities and towns — half that amount to the state's five largest cities and the other half to the remaining 164 communities. Ledyard ended up with $686,000 last year, but $250,000 was compensation for once taxable property no longer on the tax rolls. Johnson figures his town received $400,000-plus in new revenue last year.

Meanwhile, the town has added five police officers since the casino opened and traffic on Route 214 has increased 350 percent. In one busy month, police wrote 750 speeding tickets, Johnson said, but all that revenue went to the state.

“There's been very little spin-off development in Ledyard,” Johnson said. “People have one thing in mind — getting to the casino and gambling, then plowing their winnings back into the casino, then leaving. If they stop at one of our businesses, usually it's to ask directions.”

Ledyard and two neighboring communities have spent $1.3 million since 1995 battling the federal government in court to prevent the Pequot reservation from placing newly acquired land in a tax-free trust.

The casino has brought much needed jobs to the region since Electric Boat downsized, Johnson conceded. “They're not as high-paying,” he said. “But the benefits are good.”

“Really, quality of life is the big issue close to the casino,” Johnson said. “I live two or three miles away, and at night you have this glow from all the lights.”

But the quality of life in Ledyard is of little concern from the inside of a charter bus when Foxwoods beckons, and all the lights are part of the casino's razzle-dazzle.

The betting begins

Once inside Foxwoods, members of the Attleboro Retirees Association scatter like leaves in a whirlwind.

(Note to Editor: In future, when sending reporter and photographer to cover retirees at casino, recommend extensive physical conditioning and vitamin supplements prior to assignment.)

The retirees ascend an escalator past an interior waterfall to the mezzanine level, and it's the slowest they will move all day.

Dee Leedham, Jane Marchand, Joan Mooney and Alice Smith ordinarily would be doing water aerobics at the Attleboro YMCA on a weekday morning, but on this morning at Foxwoods they are searching for the casino's new nickel slot machines.

The search takes them through several cavernous spaces lit up with flashing multicolored lights and rows of spinning slot machines emitting beeps, bloops and whirring sounds.

Mooney can't hold back, and on the fly plunks a quarter in a conventional slot. She is rewarded on her first try when seven shiny quarters spill into the tray below.

“This is my first trip to a casino on a bus like this,” Mooney says. “I don't like to lose money, so I don't make a habit of it. Usually, I'll go to Atlantic City once a year. This is just a day out, that's all.”

The Attleboro quartet finally finds the nickel slots, and settles in. Except, the new slot machines turn out to be a disappointment.

They're more complicated, for one thing, although Mooney manages to get $3.50 out of one machine on a $1 token. But it's not so much fun when the machine spits out a ticket you have to redeem at a money-changing booth.

Smith urges the group back to the quarter slots.

“I like it when you put money in, and money comes out,” she says. “I'd like to maybe win a quarter.”

But first they must wait for Marchand to complete her spin on a nickel machine. It won't take long. Marchand's limit on a trip like this is just $1.

“The big spender,” she says. “I come down here, and all I spend is four quarters.”

Marchand coaxes 75 cents from the machine. She is down 25 cents for the day.

Why bother coming to a casino at all?

“I love it,” Marchand said. “Just the noise and the people and the clink, clink, clink of the coins. It boggles the mind.”

In another warehouse-size room, Smith is back at the quarter slots. She feeds the machine six coins, and 20 quarters tumble back.

Marchand, who is through gambling at this point, is more excited than Smith at her good fortune. “Alice, did you feel your blood pressure going up and down?” she says.

Smith replies, “I'll play what I won. I'm not losing anything, not yet.”

By now it is time for lunch, and the group heads for “The Indian,” a frosted glass sculpture of a Native American warrior shooting off an arrow. The Indian is in Rainmaker Square, a popular gathering spot near Foxwoods' immense buffet and other restaurants.

Millie Yeretsky is waiting there for other members of her lunch party. It definitely is time for that long, leisurely lunch because Yeretsky already is down $30 of her $40 limit, although she did win $5 at Keno.

Not everyone has arrived, but she herds her party toward Cedars Steakhouse Grill.

“If somebody's winning, they're not going to leave that machine,” she says.

The science of casinos

Time flies at Foxwoods, as it does at any casino. That's by design. There are no clocks, many of the gaming rooms are windowless and you can't walk very far in a straight line. Behavioral scientists say it is the same technique used by shopping malls and department stores to encourage shoppers to keep on shopping.

It is particularly easy to lose track of time playing slots, says W. Scott Wood, a psychology professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and a nationally recognized expert on the psychology of gambling.

“Behavioral psychologists see very little difference between a rat pressing a lever and somebody playing a slot machine,” Wood said. “The key is intermittent reinforcement.”

Occasional payoffs are the obvious reinforcement, Wood said, “but there are a lot of other things that add to the reinforcement — the sounds, the flashing lights. It's like B.F. Skinner magnified a thousand times.”

Casinos like that, Wood explained, because they make their money from speed of play and duration of play. No other casino game is faster than a slot machine, he said, and many slots players will sit at a machine for hours on end.

You don't see so many seniors playing other casino games, and it's fairly obvious why. At Foxwoods, the minimum bet at a blackjack table is $10 and the maximum bet is $1,000; at the craps tables, it's $10 and $6,000.

It's not unusual to see gamblers fling $100 bills on the green felt of a craps table, and they're not the high-rollers. There's another casino high up in the Grand Pequot Tower reserved for the premium players, and inaccessible to anyone else.

Matt Sorbella, 24, a Johnston, R.I., resident who works in Attleboro, is not a premium player, but he makes it to Foxwoods about once a month when he tires of the slot machines at Rhode Island's dog tracks. At Foxwoods, he likes to play blackjack, Caribbean stud , Let-it-Ride and the slots.

Sorbella has been gambling since his 18th birthday, when a $10 bet at Lincoln Greyhound Park won him $50.

“It's been downhill ever since,” he said. “I go with a hundred bucks, but I always end up spending more.”

The allure, he said, is “the anticipation of winning.”

“It's like the next hand can be big,” Sorbella said. “You can't win if you don't play.”

The most he has won on a single play was $650, and that was at a slot machine.

Back at the bus, the Attleboro Retirees Association is preparing to head home, in most cases somewhat lighter in the wallet than when they arrived.

But no one seems terribly upset.

Joan Mooney ended up losing $70. “I didn't intend to do that,” she says. “I guess I got carried away.”

Jane Kelley will only own up to not winning. “Look at my face. Do I look like a winner?” she says. “I should have stayed in bed this morning.”

But, looking at Kelley's face — win, lose or draw — there's a hint of a smile.

Barbara Carufel, who gambles at Foxwoods twice a month, is philosophical. “I lost about $50,” she says. “But it was a lot of fun. I don't like to fly. Coming down on the bus is a way to meet people. And I love playing the poker machines.”

The exception seemed to be Loretta Nadeau, who won a $525 jackpot on a slot machine when three red sevens came up. Nadeau wasn't talking.

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