They had lunch at the Ameristar, which technically bills itself as Ameristar Casino Resort Spa Black Hawk. The 33-story hotel opened a year ago, with an October 8, 2009, ceremony presided over by Governor Bill Ritter, just three months after Amendment 50 raised the gambling stakes by literally raising the stakes and allowing gaming 24/7. Casino employees boast that it's the tallest building between Denver and Salt Lake City (even when you don't count the 3,000-foot head start that Black Hawk's altitude offers), and had the developers really been thinking, they might have just gone another ten feet higher and created the tallest building between Denver and Vegas.

Hell, Black Hawk might have thrown enough money into the pot just to secure those bragging rights. "Our goal," says Spellman, "is to never see this city shut down."

And with gambling now going 24/7, Black Hawk never does. — Patricia Calhoun


Casinos big and small are thriving in Black Hawk, where fifth-generation resident David Spellman is the mayor
Anthony Camera
Casinos big and small are thriving in Black Hawk, where fifth-generation resident David Spellman is the mayor
The four-lane Central City Parkway was designed to bring more traffic to the streets of Central City.
Anthony Camera
The four-lane Central City Parkway was designed to bring more traffic to the streets of Central City.

9 a.m.

The streets of Central City are nearly deserted on this overcast morning; the only sign of life is a Bud Light truck unloading cases and kegs. Inside the Doc Holliday Casino, 131 Main Street, the scene is only slightly more lively. Under a grand chandelier hanging from the pressed-copper ceiling and over the speakers pouring out pop songs from throughout the ages — everything from "Footloose" to Whitney Houston's over-the-top "I Will Always Love You" — a mischievous-looking white-haired woman shakes a finger and admonishes, "Don't you steal my machine!" Nearby, a few elderly gentlemen have claimed their own machines and are punching away at buttons. Otherwise, the place is empty.

The original Doc Holliday opened in 1992, across and down the street from its current location. In 2004, as Central City's casino scene shook out, it moved here, into a building that had once housed the legendary Glory Hole bar, then the lavish Glory Hole casino that quickly went bust. Doc Holliday has slot machines and only slot machines, 170 in all, boasting a variety of themes. Miss Kitty. Money Honey. Helen of Troy. 50 Dragons. Tiki Torch. Sea Monkeys. Pharaoh's Fortune. Even Hexbreaker and Kismet, for the superstitious. They're arranged by denomination — penny slots (most of them penny slots), nickel slots and higher — but otherwise, there seems to be no rhyme nor reason to the layout. Sea Monkeys next to the Tiki Torch, with comfortable seats in front of every machine. Ka-ching!

"We buy the slot machines either directly from the manufacturers, or there are a couple of companies in town that sell used machines," manager Bill Sanchez says. "The manufacturers' salesmen come in and say, 'We've got these new games out; they're real popular in this part of the country,' or, 'We've had good success with this.' And they'll sell us a game, or an upgrade, or a different game for an existing box. We can change the computer chips and the glass and make it a whole new game."

So Kismet might have once been Pharaoh's Fortune, and maybe Helen of Troy morphed from Miss Kitty. The players don't know and don't care — as long as you stay away from their machine.

Down the hill, at the Isle of Capri Casino in Black Hawk, the scene is very different. This slick modern building has more contemporary canned music coming out of the loudspeakers, and the elevator floors boast a $100 bill motif. The slot machines here are more organized: Traditional slots are lined up across from more modern games; digital touch-screen slots nestle next to slots with rotating wheels of fortune, and everywhere, the words "triple," "double," "lucky" and "2X pay" assault the eyes. No matter what your interest, there's a slot machine just for you. Twilight Zone. Easter Island. Rome. Camelot. Survivor. Sabertooth. Party in Rio. One called Glitz plays loud snippets of disco house, and the Dean Martin-themed slot talks to passersby in a cool, crooning voice. There are 1,300 slot machines in all, occupying well over half of the casino's gaming floor.

There are no clocks on the wall to track time, and the shades are pulled against even the overcast sky outside. A man in an orange baseball cap sits before the two slot machines he's staked out, pushing buttons efficiently and smoothly. He could do this all day. Maybe he will. — Amber Taufen


11 a.m.

On the first Wednesday of every month, Tommy Donahue and a group of his friends climb aboard a bus bound for Black Hawk. The trip is a pleasant distraction for the 85-year-old retired cattleman, who spends the rest of his time being retired and doing the stuff that retired people do.

With striking blue eyes and a remarkably unweathered face, Tommy's advanced age isn't immediately apparent. Just the same, the silver locks tucked neatly beneath his ballcap make lobbying for a senior discount unnecessary. Then again, Tommy's accumulated enough points on his player's club card that his lunch at Calypso's Buffet in the Isle of Capri Casino is comped. Unlike the rest of the diners, who are seated together in clusters, Tommy is sitting by himself at a table for two. It turns out the other members of his group are up the hill at another casino. But Tommy's undergone a few surgical alterations to his ticker that make the notion of staying at the lower altitude of Black Hawk decidedly more appealing. Besides, he likes the food here — as well he should. The offerings at this buffet justify a trip to Black Hawk just to eat.

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