Gambling's high stakes: Reporter became expert on machines for story

Before this spring, I’d never sat down at a gaming machine in a convenience store.

I rarely go into the stores unless I’m traveling.

I’d never paid attention to the games or the people playing them.

Gambling isn’t my thing. I’ve played slot machines in casinos, but my winnings never amounted to much.

As part of my reporting about the machines, though, I stopped at a store near my house one morning to try out the games.

About 8:30, there was a steady stream of customers going to the front counter to buy cigarettes, pay for gas or get a cup of coffee.

But I was alone at the machines.

I sat down and fed in a dollar.

Betting the minimum 25 cents a hand, I lost my dollar in mere seconds.

I moved to another machine and put in another dollar. Again, it was gone in less than a minute.

Discouraged, I moved to a third machine and fed in $5, hoping I might win if I could play more than four times.

My luck changed!

Matching up three cartoon figures in a swamp-themed game called “Everglades,” I hit the right combination to move on to a bonus round. For the first time, the credits in the machine started to inch upward instead of steadily down.

At $7, I figured I’d won back my money and I asked a clerk to “cash out.” I wanted to walk away while I was still a little ahead.

The clerk responded I could only cash out in increments of $5, so I kept playing.

Surprisingly, it took just a couple minutes to win the extra $3. But by then, the clerk was gone.

Emboldened by my winning streak, I tried for $15. I hit a losing stretch, though, and quickly lost it all.

Thinking I could win again, I fed another $5 bill into the same machine.

I landed on another bonus round and doubled my $5 again.

Excited that I’d won -- and not wanting to lose again -- I waved down another clerk and asked to cash out.

After pressing a button on the machine, a receipt printed out behind the front counter.

Without saying another word, the clerk took a $10 bill out of the cash register and offered it as my prize.

Over the course of the next month or so, I played games at about 20 stores in Macon, Warner Robins and Centerville.

Most times I played, no one else was in the store except for the clerk. In others, three or four people were playing.

Clerks at a handful of stores made a point to talk to me as soon as I sat down to play, saying they’d never seen me before. They adamantly said they didn’t pay cash to winners.

Playing $5 at each store, I lost a little more than half the time.

It felt good to win, though.

A small mound of 2-liter soft drinks, chips and other snacks in The Telegraph’s break room is a reminder of my lucky streaks.

Amy Leigh Womack covers courts news for The Telegraph. She can be reached at 744-4398.