Don's diary: Immune to the gambling bug

December 3, 2004

Invited to give a presentation at the International Herpes Virus Workshop, I accepted without a second thought. Lake Tahoe, Nevada, US - sounds great, I thought.

Twenty-four hours after leaving Edinburgh I arrive at the Silver Legacy Hotel, Reno - advertised as the "biggest little city in the world", with one major industry: gambling. My room is on the 14th floor of the 38-storey block, and I'm so tired that I fall asleep without a second glance.

My day to relax before the conference starts. Now I notice the view from my window: seven high-rise hotels and nine car parks, plus one under construction. But I soon learn to value this window - it is the only one I get to look through the whole time I'm here.

I set out to explore. Hotel staff tell me with pride that the hotel is linked to two others by walkways lined with shops, so I can access all the facilities, including the famous Silver Legacy Casino, without setting foot outside. The outside world ceases to exist as I wander through the air-conditioned walkways, where artificial lighting, piped music and plastic flowers add to my complete disorientation. It could be day or night, winter or summer; I would never know.

I have a craving for fresh fruit - and I'm not alone. Meet a colleague from Glasgow University who admits to "lifting" a banana from a discarded dinner tray in some remote hotel corridor. The nearest I get to fruit is a Razzle-dazzle Smoothie alleged to contain strawberries, raspberries, mango and apple juice.

The conference begins and I eventually locate it in a hall beneath the casino. To get there, I have to negotiate the dimly lit forest of slot machines (no exaggeration, there are 6,000 of them), gaming tables, bars and lotto games. My worst nightmare. But, judging by the number of children, it is a popular spot for a family holiday. When I meet my colleagues it is clear that the Brits are in culture shock.

On each trip to the conference hall I study the gambling clientele. Most are elderly and sit glum-faced, resignedly feeding their slot machines as if they have no option. Only rarely do I hear the sound of discharging coins.

I am accosted in the lift by a morose middle-aged man who tells me he is checking out "NOW!", before he loses any more cash. He sincerely entreats me to do the same.

I'm desperately in need of the outside world, but when I ask directions to the door, the staff look puzzled. What do I want to go out for? A walk to a bookshop would be nice, I say. Too far without a car, they counter, but reluctantly direct me through the murky depths of the casino.

Needless to say, I am soon lost among the slots, and I get no help from the mini-skirted waitresses. It's obviously in their interest to keep people captive, at least until the gambling addiction takes hold.

Eventually, I stagger out into the bright light and devastating heat of a typical Reno afternoon. I walk doggedly to the bookstore and on the way back try to buy postcards. But in Reno it seems to be easier to buy a gun than a postcard (that is if you have any money left after gambling).

I am almost relieved to re-enter the now familiar controlled environment of the Silver Legacy.

Dorothy Crawford is professor of medical microbiology, Edinburgh University.

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