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Hard luck at the Hard Rock

If there’s one English word that perfectly describes the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, it’s disarming. The facade has a fountain full of neon lights and is adorned by a giant sign and its trademark electric guitar. But the glitz and glamour don’t end there.

Inside, rows of hundreds of haggard people pumping money into slot machines made quite a spectacle. Patrons of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, their eyes dilated by flashing lights, fed quarters and dollars into esoteric devices with whirling screens.

Most gamblers carry a veneer of cynicism, but deep inside, each one hopes to be the big winner. And why shouldn’t they? The atmosphere is fiendishly calculated. Shiny new cars with signs that say “Win me!” and walls lined with authentic rock star memorabilia make one yearn for a suite full of champagne and celebrities.

Others are just there for a little amusement or a tiny taste of easy money and Tampa nightlife. For these casual gamblers, the casino is harmless entertainment to be indulged – guilt-free – after payday.

After approaching this bastion of vice with shifty-eyed skepticism, I was immediately seduced.

Upon entering the casino floor, the din of beeps, rings and alarms emanating from 2,500 slot machines drowned out the capacity for higher thought. A buxom waitress handed me a double Jack & Diet Coke and smiled – disarmingly.

“Good luck,” she said, and all the promises of the Hard Rock were in her lilting voice.

The whiskey lit fires in my belly, and I hit the ATM with the lurid gleam of avarice in my eyes.

Playing slots means surrendering to the pitiless gods of statistical chance – gods who infinitely favor the casino. As a Christian monotheist, I can’t stomach that kind of masochistic devil worship, so I moved decisively towards the poker tables.

Tim Holmes, a USF sophomore majoring in finance, started playing Texas Hold ‘Em at the Hard Rock after watching the World Series of Poker on TV.

Soon he was gambling with $500 to $1,000, four to five times a week.

“For sure, it was addictive,” he said. “I don’t know what it is about the casino, you just want to play. You just get carried away. It’s ridiculous.”

Holmes lost about $5,000 over the course of a year, but eventually was able to slow down.

“It cost me so much money,” Holmes said. “But I learned my lesson.”

This reporter, however, still had a lesson to learn.

The poker room is sectioned off from the rest of the casino. In a flurry of activity, cards and chips flew in every direction. As a school of piranhas devoured each other’s chips, each gambler infiltrated the others’ minds.

I bought my chips, was assigned a table, and sat down as nine pairs of eyes hungrily sized me up.

I’d decided to by $100 in chips, twice the minimum buy-in for the low stakes table, with the logic that it’s important to establish an authoritative presence and the rationalization that I wouldn’t gamble with all of it. A sizable student loan was sitting fresh in my account, minimizing any pangs I felt at making such a foolhardy withdrawal.

My initial strategy was shot to pieces as I noticed that the chip stacks to my right and left dwarfed my own. But no matter, game on.

The denizens of my table were eclectic. Ages ranged from 20 to about 200, my future nemesis being on the high end of this scale. There were representatives of both sexes and numerous nationalities.

A modicum of friendly chatter welcomed me to the table, but the dealer kept the game moving at such a blistering pace that soon my full attention was required to keep up. His hands moved like a concert pianist. In a blur, he pushed chips around, called out commands and flung cards several feet across the table, each one landing neatly in front of its respective player.

I couldn’t help but betray my ignorance by asking a few primitive questions: Was that a raise? Is this no limit? But after that I settled into the flow of the game, folding often and sipping my drink reservedly.

From the moment I got my first two cards, excitement welled up in my chest. Gambling is visceral and – win or lose – thrill seekers get their money’s worth. The intensity of the thrill is directly proportional to the size of the bet.

Fifteen minutes into the game, I got my first decent hand. I had top pair, queens, with a jack for my kicker and no sign of a straight or flush draw on the flop.

The emaciated old man across from me bet big and everyone else folded. With his eyes hidden by dark aviator glasses, he betrayed no hint of emotion. His bet put me in for all of my chips and I thought, “this cadaver thinks he can push me around!” All the same, I hesitated. My heart was pounding and my food budget was on the line.

“No balls, no blue chips,” someone chided, and that was enough for me. Like the great, lumbering fool that I am, I pushed in my entire stack.

“F— it,” I said. “I’m all in.”

My opponent, the mummy, smirked and showed his pocket aces. “Good try, Junior,” I thought. “Enjoy your drive home.” As I got up, Father Time tipped his cocktail glass at me and, cavalierly, I raised mine back.

“Cheers,” I said. You marrow sucking vulture. Cheers indeed.

Sobered by a sudden defeat, I left without trying to win my money back.

“I would tell people not to get involved with it,” Holmes said. “Or, just play to have a good time. If you’re playing to win it’s going to beat you up real bad.”

If you lose twenty bucks, in return you got an hour or so of entertainment. It’s an even trade, and at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, that’s the best deal you’re going to get.