GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. Like the sport of gambling itself, I was so close, yet apparently still so far, from being able to log onto a computer and play Atlantic City casino slots and table games on Tuesday, the first day New Jersey allowed online gaming.
Four hours' worth of attempts - from the comfort of my home a few miles away - had proved fruitless in getting the pretty icons of the computer slot machine reels to spin for me. So I came here, to a Starbucks, and Tropicanacasinos.com finally registered me and took my $20.
But still, I couldn't play. I couldn't be located and verified as in New Jersey by the casino's geo-tracking software. So I went home to try again.
Was it me? Despite living within a dozen miles of Atlantic City for more than half my life, I've never been much of a gambler, and have probably lost less than $100 at the slots and blackjack tables in the quarter-century there has been gaming there.
The Inquirer authorized me and my colleague Jonathan Lai to test the world of online gaming on the day of its launch. I had a limit of $20; Jon gambled $25.
For me, it was a day of false starts: successful log-ins, then unable to move past basic casino website pages; trying to pay with a Visa card and finding out the site would only make an Automated Clearing House withdrawal from my bank account; odd issues with browsers and a laundry list of programs that had to be disabled or enabled.
And even though I was less than 10 miles from Atlantic City nearly the entire time, all three of the casino sites I tried - Caesars, Borgata. and Tropicana - kept telling me that I wasn't in New Jersey. Under the new law, if you're not in the Garden State, you can't gamble on their sites.
After finally verifying my location, through an intricately downloaded geo-map plug-in that had to send me three text messages and accompanying "secret codes," the Tropicana finally let me in.
This was only after a nearly hour-long Web chat in which the Tropicana IT person walked me through myriad steps that enabled my computer - and iPhone - to play along. Whoever this was on the other end could see what programs were running on my computer and what could be the issues that weren't allowing me to log in and play.
By the end of nearly 10 hours of trying to log into a casino website - any casino website - and gamble with $20 in company funds, finally, eureka!
But it had been a long and winding road. One that started at home, took the side trip to Starbucks to try its WiFi, and ended up - back home.
For Jon, depositing $25 into his account at tropicanacasinos.com at 4:37 p.m. was the easy part. But it was only after he had to hand over part of his Social Security number and bank account information, and install software sending text messages and confirming codes, that Tropicana said it could locate his computer as being in Cherry Hill.
After more than 40 minutes, he was able to play the Ghost Busters, Cleopatra, Monopoly, and Star Trek slots. It didn't take long for him to get down to 11 cents: after 31 minutes of flashing screens and energetic music, he was out of play.
"She played coy, but I think Cleopatra was judging me as I closed my browser window," Lai said of his first online gambling experience.
My day lasted a bit longer. I had started out on Caesars' website, since Caesars Atlantic City had been promoting its online gaming.
I expected easy click-ability, but instead found a confusing website that wouldn't let me get beyond registering as a loyal Caesars customer. I gave up after about an hour.
It was on to Borgata, but two more hours or so were spent on its site trying to register. After attempting to get into a live chat with Borgata's help desk - I was 17th in a line that took more than an hour to move through five customers - the website kicked me off for "inactivity." While I was there, I could see a ticker indicating how many people were actually on the site playing and how many gaming tables were active. At midday there averaged between 56 and 65 players at 140 tables.
So I tried Tropicana when I got to the Starbucks in Galloway. I was finally able to make enough headway into a casino website to deposit $20 so I could play.
Yes, handing over my money was the easy part. Because it would be another couple of hours before I could work out all the glitches with Tropicana's help desk and actually play.
After 45 exchanges (the Tropicana IT support employee and I were getting quite chatty), I asked my help-line companion if others were having as much trouble as I had.
And his reply was yes, and that "unfortunately due to regulations" there were "a few pains that had to be worked on" before people were able to play. So it wasn't just me.
But as soon as I got into the site, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Pressing the "Spin" button on the Monopoly and Cleopatra slots seemed somewhat mindless to me, perhaps a step up from playing Farmville.
Then I clicked on the Blackjack button. I had found my game.
I enjoyed the graphics and the sound effects of cards swiping from the dealer's shoe and the casino crowd sounds in the background. It was like being there - without having to worry about getting pick-pocketed or rubbing elbows with casino waitresses.
And by the time I finished - about 40 minutes into playing - I was up $3.50.