MARK PATINKIN Exploring a different kind of Emerald City

I now know what Dorothy saw when she first glimpsed Oz.
It's like seeing the Mohegan Sun casinos.
You drive for an hour into the middle of nowhere, turn a corner, and suddenly, there's the Emerald City, rising from the woods.
I'd bet they even designed it to look like Oz.
It opened in 1996, but not being a gambling type, my first visit was at a recent press event there.
Still, plenty of people from around here go regularly, and it got me thinking: How can places that take your money have become so successful so quickly?
I think one reason is that the Mohegan is like America: It may be in the tiny town of Uncasville, Conn., but everything is big. There's a waterfall bigger than most you see in nature and Big Bubba's Barbeque has a 10-foot fiberglass cowboy.
Then there are the two casinos. They never close.
The Mohegan casinos draw enough people to support 30 restaurants and other food outlets, including three separate Krispy Kreme shops. I guess gamblers like to eat.
They like to smoke, too. I walk into a casino. I realize only a small section of the gambling floor is smoke-free. In that way, it's the opposite of the rest of America. But you don't really notice because the place smells clean.
Another large area has an interesting multicultural twist. There are dozens of tables for Pai Gow poker and Macao-style baccarat with foreign-speaking dealers. I'm walking the property with Melanie Mauro, a Mohegan public-relations person. "We have a lot of Asian buses from Boston and New York," she says.
Mauro says they didn't design Mohegan to look like Oz, but I searched online and found hundreds of other writers and critics who think it does, anyway.
The place is clearly made of money -- every corner is high-quality -- but the rich do get a bit more pampered. In the high-limit areas, there are hot towels and free buffets, including shrimp. But to get them free, it often means $5 per pull on the slot machines. Elsewhere in Mohegan, people get a play for a nickel.
I decide to do some of my own gambling, and head over to the nonsmoking area, where I almost feel exiled for having good habits.
I begin with roulette, and go for broke right away, putting $20 on black. The ball lands on red.
I place smaller bets, but am soon $40 down.
If I were smart, I would cut my losses, but a truth about casinos is that losing only makes you want to play more.
Plus, I'm feeling good because the place sounds like money is everywhere. There's no such thing as a losing buzzer on slot machines. Even when you miss, the things emit spirited jingles. Multiply that about 5,000 times and it leaves you pumped up.
Eventually, I head to the slots. In the old days, you pulled the lever, hoped for three sets of cherries, and knew you'd won if coins came out.
Now, there is no coin slot, no arm and the screens look as complicated as videogames. If so, it's the one videogame that older folks have mastered, because they're everywhere.
A hit
I feed in a twenty -- that's how you begin -- and start to push buttons. At first, I'm not sure whether I'm winning or losing, but after a while, the machine makes more noise than normal. I've hit.
But of course, that makes me want to keep playing. Maybe that's the secret.
I'm sitting near a woman named Melody, who gives her age at 25, her profession as student-teacher, and keeps her last name to herself. She is here with her mom, who is playing next to her. They live a half-hour away.
Her mom, 53, is named Fay and comes twice a week, sometimes for eight hours, and Melody likes to tag along.
I ask why they like it so much.
"You get hooked," says Melody.
I go to cash out my chips and slot machine receipt, and find that after two hours of play, I'm almost even, down about $25 or so.
Because I didn't lose more, I feel like a winner.
A half-hour later, I'm looking at Oz in my rear-view mirror, thinking I may have to come again.
X Mark Patinkin writes for the Providence Journal.

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