On the approach to Oaklawn Racing & Gaming in Hot Springs, you will start to feel surrounded by the hotels. These lodges, on both sides of Central Avenue, have advertisements for quick stays and clean rooms. Pass them and look for Boll Weevil Pawn & Superstore south of the racetrack and glide into the parking lot. It is large. So large, in fact, that there’s a vehicle that will come to your car and take you to the track. You can walk if you want, though. It might be a beautiful night, the sun setting over the fields surrounding Oaklawn, where horses are stabled. At the door, someone will welcome you. You go up the escalator. And here, my friends, is the bounty. Look around: electronic “games of skill” as far as the eye can see.
Your brain will bend from the buzzing color, but it will adjust. There are blackjack tables and a bar and a lounge where people might be yelling along to karaoke. But nothing catches the eye like the giant arcade stacks of those so-called games of skill. Flashing columns of fortune, everywhere.
The games have spinning images: puppies, panthers, the number 7, Jurassic Park, Betty White (she speaks to you when you spin). You put cash in the machine, pull a lever or push a button, the images spin, and at the bottom of the screen a number shows your winnings or losses. The number of pulls you get depends on the amount of money you’ve put in the machine.
Even when your winnings drop, the cacophony of video game beeps and boings and bells will have you feeling like a winner. The more you play, the more you begin to recognize what patterns emerge: Three T-Rexes are good; two are only OK. You also notice, perhaps, the sign on top of each slot machine that says, “BET MORE, WIN MORE.” You bet more. And you maybe start winning more. You maybe start winning a lot. Or, more likely, you lose more; you maybe start losing a lot. Either way, the game begins to infect you. It is entertainment. You can start believing that you are good at this kind of thing.
You know how to bet on a slot machine. It is not just fate. You lose $30 in 10 minutes. Take a break. Head toward the back, past a security guard, and there is the area where people bet on horses. During the main season, starting in January, it is pageantry and fun. It is what makes Oaklawn famous. It is what most people know this place for. But, right now, it is just TVs set up with men clamped to wooden seats watching horses racing somewhere else, and they bet on the pixels. Probably better to hold off on all this. You re-emerge to the electricity of the slots, and the security guard who let you into the horse area says, “Pretty boring, huh? This is better.” And, yes, for all that people talk about the horses, there is joy in the slots, too. There are no windows, really, and the only lights drawing you, like a bug, are those slots. Sit down. Chat with people. Pull the lever. Order a drink. Watch the number go up or down. Let the hours go.