In the lunchroom at MaineToday Media’s World Headquarters here in Metropolis, there is a tall, black machine that serves a useful purpose.

You feed it a $1 bill (in reasonably good condition) and it ponders for a bit and, if your offering is deemed of suitable quality, it spits out four quarters that clang into a little tray, going ching-ching-ching-ching.

But it has a second function. If you feed it a $5 bill, it will do the same thing, except it drops 20 quarters that fall into the tray with a satisfying KA-chung! of metal.

Every time I get the feeling that I want to go to a casino to play the slots, I take a $5 bill into the lunchroom and feed it into that machine instead.

What’s the fun in that, you ask? Well, the most important difference between the change machine in our lunchroom and a slot machine is that, on average, the house margin on slots is 8 percent. Which means, over a period of time, the house keeps 92 percent of all the money its customers wager.

The patrons’ payout is that the excitement of anticipating a win keeps them playing.

And every so often, one or another machine returns something quaintly called a “payoff” to some fortunate individual — who may (or more likely, may not) have invested less in the machines over time than the amount this one gives back.

Yes, I’ve been in casinos, and I know that you don’t pull levers, you push buttons, and you don’t feed them coins or tokens, you hang a card around your neck that is credited with your winnings (or subtracts your losses, should you be a more typical customer).

But the point is that playing the change machine in the company lunchroom gives me all the thrills of playing the slots — and pays off with an 8 percent higher rate of return.

State lotteries, it has been said, are a form of taxation levied exclusively on the mathematically illiterate.

You can’t say slot machines are taxation, but their ideal clientele is the same.

Does that make me a smarter (better?) person than someone who plays the slots — or the lottery, or the ponies, or high-stakes poker, or whatever?

No, not better. Just (on average) a tad more prosperous. My average payoff for putting my money in my wallet is higher than “investing” it in making either the state or some gambling barons a bit richer than they are now.

Yes, there are “winners.” Somebody in Meddybemps or Mooselookmeguntic (or Memphis or Minneapolis) pulls down a ginormous pile of loot, making them set for life — and millions of people read those stories and say, “If I keep on playing, that could be me!”

Or, if you keep on swimming at Old Orchard Beach, you could be eaten by a shark. Or, if you keep on walking in the rain, you could be struck by lightning. Except that the odds of being hit by lightning (or being nibbled on by a shark, for that matter) are higher than winning millions by gambling.

But, you ask, don’t I know that the whole purpose of slot machines is to feed the hungry, provide medicine to the aged and most of all, keep the harness racing industry alive?

I know a bit about the harness racing industry — I have relatives who are or were involved in raising and training horses for the races, both here and in other states — and they have, at various times, found the business to be either profitable or a significant drain, depending on the speed and soundness of their horses. A few of their horses have even been record-holders. Many others have not.

Either way, the idea that harness racing is such a special industry that it requires dedicated revenue from slot machines that other industries don’t get is clearly false.

The dairy business is also in a perilous state in Maine. Where are its gambling revenues? Why should the cows be the only ones to get milked?

Why do we have racinos and not schoolcinos and shipyardcinos and bodyshopcinos and (my favorite) newspapercinos?

Are people who race horses more worthy than we journalists to seek fiscal succor at the expense of our fellow citizens?

And now that the voters of Maine, in their infinite wisdom, have opened the doors to more casinos by approving one in Oxford (leading naturally to other efforts in Biddeford and Calais, but soon to be joined by many others), the state is wide open for one, two, many slots operations and other types of gambling anywhere in Maine.

We appear to be well on our way to conducting a large-scale experiment to determine what the saturation point for gambling is in this state — with “whatever the market will bear” being the guide.

Like any other gambling operation, some casino owners will be winners and others will be losers. Tough to be them, I guess. Of course, that doesn’t change the payout for their customers one bit. It will still remain 92 cents on the dollar.

And other states got there before us. I once stopped to eat in a small family-style restaurant in Missoula, Mont., where the waiter gave me, along with my menu, a handful of tokens he tossed on the table.

“They’re complimentary,” the waiter said. “You can use them in the game room out back.”

The restaurant’s owners, of course, knew that a fair number of customers would not stop feeding the machines once the free tokens were gone.

When I left, the tokens were still on the table. But I hope everybody’s comfortable with Maine potentially becoming the kind of state where family restaurants can also be slot machine parlors.

Unless we finally start figuring the odds.

M.D. Harmon is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6482 or at:

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