There are a thousand ways to blow your money in Atlantic City. There's the obvious way, of course, and few gamblers stay in the black for life.
There are lobster dinners, too, tacky T-shirts, large bronze statues of Neptune, roller coasters, beach bars and boxing matches, and at least one Boardwalk store I saw that could supply a gang of pot, uh, I mean tobacco-smoking ninjas with a cache of plastic pellet guns, throwing knives and hollow potato-chip cans to hide their tobacco in.
One could drop a few bills at a strip club, or skip the formalities and troll Pacific Avenue. Sometimes, you'll find a cop instead of a prostitute, though, and that will cost you, too.
I like to roll a little larger, up the ante a bit and go all in. I often hit the jackpot. Sometimes it's a giant, smiling banana with dreadlocks, or a giant crayon, taller than I am, that doesn't actually work. It's usually something giant.
For at least half my life, I've been draining at least one long-range foul shot in boardwalk basketball games from Seaside Heights to Wildwood almost every time I visit. It's three shots for $5 and I usually spend about $30 before I win, but they almost all just miss.
The game is rigged, I always assumed, and I went to Atlantic City Thursday to learn the little tricks that game operators use to get the edge and how New Jersey inspectors try to keep them from going too far. I also wanted to confirm, to myself, that I was the Pete Maravich of boardwalk basketball despite what appears to be a dismal shot percentage.
The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs was on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City for "Safe Summer 2012," a public-service campaign to warn about sun exposure, lead poisoning, riptides and other very important things.
Inspectors were checking out Boardwalk stores for "bath salts," synthetic marijuana and other potentially dangerous wares. I was following Joseph Chessere, an investigator with the division's Legalized Games of Chance Control Commission. Rest assured, if there's something to be inspected in New Jersey, there's an inspector. It's libertarian hell. Chessere said that Jersey's the only state that inspects carnival-type games this closely.
Chessere, strolling through Schiff's Central Pier, confirmed some of my fears. Some game operators over-inflate the basketball so that it rebounds like a pingpong ball. He whipped out a level to make sure that the rim was true, and made the operator drop the ball through the hoop, to confirm that it could fit, even if it's not a perfect circle. Schiff's passed all the tests. Some don't, though.
"We were at a fair once, and the ball actually got stuck in the rim," Chessere said. "We shut it down and called the police."
The claw games, the ones where a claw picks up a stuffed animal and immediately drops it, are also regulated. The claw has to have a certain adjusted tension, Chessere said, and at least be able to pick the item up. He tried to pick up a karate-themed lemon a few times and lost, and since I couldn't find a big hoops game, I blew $5 on seven tries at an Annoying Orange stuffed animal and came away empty.
Ricardo Coreas, the general manager at Schiff's, pointed to a monitor showing people holding up prizes the claw didn't drop.
"People do win," he said.
In the balloon-pop game, the balloon can't be under-inflated, and the darts must be sharp. Then there's the basket toss, where the goal is to get two softballs to stay inside a tilted plastic bucket. Some unscrupulous operators will tape rubber to the bottom or melt it, till it becomes thin.
"They'll make it like a trampoline," Chessere said.
The goal of these inspections, Chessere said, is not to give the tourists an edge. The house has the advantage, just like in the casinos a few blocks away, and you shouldn't forget it. The difference, Chessere said, is that there's more skill involved in Boardwalk games and a hard-core focus needed to rack up the thousands of tickets in Skee-Ball needed to win a Jack LaLanne Juicer.
And the goal of playing Skee-Ball for three hours shouldn't be a power juicer.
"Please, this whole racket is a ripoff," a woman said to me, while staring into the appliance-display case at Schiff's. "It's fun, though." n