Rowdy Yahtzee Players Told to Keep it Down

LAKE BENTON, MINN. ( – A chorus of satisfied sighs wafted across the endless fields and farms of this southwest Minnesota town yesterday as the nation’s first “low-stress” gambling casino opened its sky-blue doors for business.

Dozens of serenity-seeking gamblers packed the Sighing Pines Casino & Picnic Grove, where racier games such as black jack and roulette are shunned in favor of more comfortable diversions, such as Go Fish, Tic-Tac-Toe, and Heads or Tails. If you’re bewildered by the rules of craps or made anxious by one-armed bandits, Sighing Pines has some simpler, calmer alternatives. How about crazy eights or King in the Corner? It’s only $10 to get in, and the betting doesn’t stop till the pot reaches $100.

Actor-turned-Casino Owner Don Diamond

Run by a group of former Montessori teachers, Sighing Pines was the brainchild of Don Diamond, best known as the actor who portrayed Hekawi Indian “Crazy Cat” in the 1960s ABC television series “F Troop.”

It was Diamond who found a loophole in federal statutes that allows casinos to be built, not only by federally-recognized Indian tribes, but also by “anyone who has ever played an Indian on TV.” It was also Diamond who converted a drab, yellowing, one-story cinderblock building on the shores of Lake Benton into a drab, yellowing, one-story cinderblock casino on the shores of Lake Benton. And it was Diamond who realized that the glitz, glamour, and complexities associated with the $60 billion gaming industry alienated an entire segment of the gaming public — at least in Minnesota.

Aside from the card games, gamblers at “The Sigh” can try their skills at charades, musical chairs, acrostics, or wander into the Scissors-Paper-Rock Room, which allows bets of up to $20 on a best-of-seven series. If they want to experience just a little of the Vegas flash, they can wager on local youth-league basketball games, or play Spin the Bottle with what Sighing Pines pit boss Larry Storch termed “high-class Minnesota prostitutes.”

Most of the Sigh, however, purposely lacks high style. The magic acts, animal shows and musical revues common to some casinos are eschewed in favor of public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” quietly piped in over the PA system. Instead of scantily-clad cocktail waitresses, players serve themselves out of refrigerators located next to each gaming table, which are actually folding card tables covered with plastic, red-and-white-checked tablecloths. One thing The Sigh hasn’t skimped on is art. There are no neon pyramids or giant ice carvings, but the walls are lined with Norman Rockwell reprints bought at pediatrician-office garage sales.

One of Sighing Pines Popular Betting Games

And what did the gamblers think of The Sigh? Frank Cuccinella, a professed casino-junkie from Minneapolis, said he was surprised by how much he enjoyed the evening, and by how the environment affected him.

“In Vegas, if I turn around $300 at craps in one roll, I’m like, ‘Hell yeah!,'” Cuccinella recalled. “But here, It’s different. I won $15 at the Old Maid table, and I couldn’t stop smiling and saying, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice?'”

Even then, he conceded, he might have overdone it.

“After a while, this old woman next to me leans over, pats my arm, and whispers, ‘Yes dear, very nice. Now please, pipe down.’

“She was such a sweetie,” Cucinella continued. “I bought her a sarsaparilla.”

That air of affability led to a “quietly successful” first day, said Diamond, who claimed Sighing Pines did “well over $1000 in its first 10 hours.” (The casino is open from noon to 10 p.m. except Mondays during winter, when it will close at 9 p.m. in deference to Monday Night Football.) The only complaint came from several gamblers in the Chinese Checkers Room, who wondered if the players in the neighboring Yahtzee Parlour could refrain from yelling “Yahtzee!” every time they got five of a kind.

“It was distracting,” said casino patron Doris Andersen, an executive assistant from Mankato. “We couldn’t hear the ‘News from Lake Wobegon.'”

Industry observers, meanwhile, continue to insist that Sighing Pines itself won’t hear the ring of the cash register, at least not for long.

“We think it’s been fairly well established that gamers are drawn to big and glitzy,” said Frank Prussia, editor of the gambling trade journal Big & Glitzy. “I don’t think a brutal, mob-run industry is quaking in its boots over the prospect of picnic tables and a lake view — even if it is operated by Montessori people.”

Diamond, however, argued that Sighing Pines won’t take a cut from the existing gambling industry. Instead, it will add to it, attracting those who like to play games but never thought to bet on them before.

“Outside Nevada and the Caribbean, people don’t grow up playing slots and baccarat,” said Diamond. “They play Chutes and Ladders or Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Pin that donkey when you’re six and you get cake. Here, you get 50 bucks.”

If all goes well, Sigh Fever may spread beyond Minnesota. There is some talk of placing additional casinos elsewhere in the Mississippi River watershed.

“We’re currently in discussions with Michael Ansara’s people,” said a Sighing Pines spokesman, referring to the actor who portrayed Apache chief Cochise on “Broken Arrow.” Daniel Day-Lewis, who played Hawkeye in the film “Last of the Mohicans,” could not be reached for comment.

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