Letter From Montreal: The Ghost in the Machine
Playing Quebec's VLTs feels casual. That’s a big part of the reason people pour their paychecks into them.
LA PETITE IDÉE FIXE is a bar at the bottom
of the Mile End. The video lottery terminals, or VLTs, are in the back—large,
bright computers that are a fixture of
many Montreal dives.
VLTs are bright and cartoonish. They appeal to the kid in you. The graphics are sharp and the colours are vivid. You grow familiar with the “BAR” or the “7” or the cartoon cherry that you might see spinning down the screen. The machine also makes lots of sounds that cheer you on and become Pavlovian pressure points—the clink of money rolling down the coin slot, the computerized melody that accompanies the lines falling into place and sounds like a flashback in a movie, the furious ticking whenever the bank amount goes up.
They are electronic slot machines, a cross between a video game and a broken ATM. Until La Société des Loteries Vidéo du Québec was created in 1993, there were as many as 45,000 illegal slot machines in the province. There are now about a quarter of that number, all of them provincially regulated, spread out over a few thousand establishments. Every few years, Quebec releases a new generation of machines, and every VLT in every bar is replaced. This has happened three times. (The last batch saw the elimination of my favorite game, Feu Glacé, in favor of some new games with more modern animations.)
Playing VLTs feels casual. That’s a big part of the reason people pour their paychecks into the machines, playing for hours on end, believing in their empty strategies. That’s why I’m able to continually hit JOUER and briefly lose track of time. There is a spectrum of fine lines that separate the novelty gambler from the one who can’t stop. The one-time gambler, the habitual gambler and the addict, all of them occupy the same room at the same time, all play the same machines. None believe themselves to be the worst off, because they have each other to look at. Only once did I go into a bar alone strictly to play a machine. I felt awful about it and walked out.
A gambling-curious friend of mine once famously put a toonie into a machine after seeing me win a few bucks and screamed when her bank shot up to $500. She hasn’t won anything since.
One night at Idée Fixe, I introduced another friend to the VLTs. He had never considered playing at all, figured it exclusively the territory of addicts. I easily convinced him to play a loonie. We picked a game, set a bet and hit JOUER. We won on the spin and the bank shot up to $8. It felt exhilarating, briefly, like it always does. There was a pause where he took in the experience.
Later, over a game of pool, I asked if he liked the VLTs.
“Yeah,” he smiled, distracted. “It was fun, I was ... shocked at how much fun it was, actually.” We laughed, he sipped his whisky. A pause. He said, “I kind of feel like we should be playing it now.” I nodded.
The machine now had a presence in the room. It felt like someone had walked up to our conversation and we felt awkward about not including them.