Illustration by Sean Hurley

There are 14 taverns in White Center. They've all got pull-tabs, but only the Locker Room lets you dump the spent tabs on the floor. A dozen men sit at the Locker Room's horseshoe bar drinking canned beer and talking to Rick, the owner. The floor is ankle-deep in used pull-tabs, all of them losers. Winning tabs get handed to Rick, who pays them off with cash from the till. "Everyone wins a lot here," Rick says. His face is hard to read. The more I lose, the more welcome I feel. I spend $30, losing all but three—enough to cover my two beers. It's five o'clock, and dark outside. I go to Chubby and Tubby, cash a check for $40, then lose it all on tabs.

Pull-tabs are thumb-sized slats of cardboard with a trio of figures printed inside a serrated tab. A dollar buys you two. Pulling the tab reveals the figures; the right combo pays off anywhere from one to five hundred dollars. The tabs come in bins, five to six thousand in a bin, with four or five hundred winners among them. The winners are listed on a big sign, called a flare. Each time a winner gets pulled, the bartender crosses it off the flare. Over 6 billion tabs are sold each year in Washington, the biggest market in the country. Every tavern, bowling alley, and bingo hall I've ever been to has them.

Rick keeps a dozen or so bets running at a time. I play them all—Grand Casino, Cow Tippin', Mars Rocks, Tail Gaters, Thunder Buck, Show Me the Money, Murphy's Law, Cherries, Saltin' of Slime. In Cherries I get three cherries in a row, which is how I win my three bucks. Saltin' of Slime turns up a gallery of cartoon slugs, all of them different. Cow Tippin' has cows, yokel farmers, and outhouses. Thunder Buck is cartoon heads of presidents, symbols from U.S. currency. I ask Rick, "Who makes all this stuff up?"

"I think it's the pull-tab factory," he says.

The biggest pull-tab factory in the world is in Lynnwood. I drive there on a Saturday morning. The sun has burned through fog and glints off cars, blinding me, and I get lost. I pass Lake Serene Ridge and Fender Drive. The factory, Trade Products, is on Lincoln Way. I stop for directions at a drive-through coffee stand where two women buying lattes tell me they've never heard of Trade Products, or Lincoln Way—they just moved here. They're jogging, wearing stretch nylon, looking very fit. I buy coffee then drive around and find the pull-tab factory near Highway 99.

Trade Products makes over 3 billion pull-tabs a year. The tabs are legal tender, so the factory keeps its garbage sealed. Because it's Saturday, no one answers when I knock. The building is enormous, faceless. It's a glorified shed, big as a football field. The windows are glazed, reflecting mountains, which are very beautiful this morning, white with fresh snow. I crawl under the dumpster. It's huge, sealed like a space capsule, but garbage has spilled from its mouth. The ground is filthy and stinks like vinegar—print chemicals—and I get dizzy. Ink capsules, print sheets, shrink-wrap, beer cans, spilled crystals... I have to lie on my belly because the dumpster sits low to the ground. Neighbors packing their car with fishing gear yell at me. I slide further under the dumpster. In a pile of broken glass I find a Red Hot 7, a pull-tab, a one-dollar winner.

It takes four and a half minutes to walk around the building. A tropical plant is dying in the foyer. Trade Products has its own fleet of trucks. Barbed wire fences keep the neighbors out. A pick-up truck in the dirt lot of O'Finnigan's Tavern has backed over the fence. I climb across the crushed barbed wire and get some beer at O'Finnigan's. It's 11:00 a.m. I'm the only customer. They've got pull-tabs and I buy $15 of Road Again.

Road Again is a Trade Products game featuring mattresses, street signs, lost sneakers, sharks with briefcases, and various roadkill. A row of three dead frogs wins me one dollar. I pocket the dollar and talk to the bartender. "Everyone wins a lot here," she tells me. "We paid out more than $1,000 last night." O'Finnigan's has a dozen bins, plus cheap "theme tabs," a dime a tab, which can be special-ordered from the factory. "We've got Cougars and Huskies," she tells me. I wish the bar wasn't empty. Alone, I scribble notes on napkins and ask the bartender a lot of questions, until she avoids me. The TV shows football. They're giving away a Harley; maybe it's a biker bar. I drink another beer, but no bikers, no one, comes in. O'Finnigan's doesn't play Red Hot 7s, so I can't cash the winner I found.

Cary Telefson of the State Gambling Commission says $332 million dollars are paid out to tab players each year in Washington. It's a weekday, and now I'm at my office. Cary phones me from her car. "Just a second," she says through static. "I'm merging onto the freeway." I wait while she swears, and then sighs. "Okay, Minnesota has the biggest dollar market for tabs, but Washington's actually number one for volume."

It's too nice a day to be inside. "What's the average return?" I ask.

"By law it's a 65 percent return on all pull-tab bins, minimum."

I realize I'm not a very lucky tab player, not even making the legal minimum. "Where are you?" I ask. We've never met. Cary works in Olympia.

"Where am I now? Near Tacoma. I'm headed north." She's driving to Sea-Tac to fly home for Thanksgiving.

"So, where do you think they get the ideas for all those pictures?"

Cary laughs at my question and says I should visit Trade Products. "They could tell you." I don't tell her I've already been there.

On Thanksgiving I call my family and say I'm sick. The weather is lousy. I go to work, but no one's there. I can't concentrate. I play tabs down the street at a bar—research. The bar is crowded, full of strangers, and I win on dollar on Ja Makin' Me Money. A drunk next to me plays Drop Zone and wins $100. I ask him about pull-tabs, but he's incoherent. The bartender tells me they pay out $600 on an average night. I don't see Red Hot 7s and I'm broke in about 20 minutes. The simplicity of the game is starting to wear on me—the money, the tabs, my bad luck, the beer. On the wall, a sign for Gamblers Anonymous lists a phone number, and I call.

I go to Gamblers Anonymous on Tuesday. I'm sworn to secrecy, but you can imagine the scene—a church basement, folding chairs in a circle, coffee, and cookies. I tell them my name is Dave K, and that I've got a problem with slots. I can't drive past a casino without stopping. I steal from my wife. I'm lying, which gives me a jolt of energy, a great contrast to the lassitude of the pull-tabs. I could feel close to these people. They've got problems with slots too; the guy beside me says it's a disease with no cure.

We take turns reading a yellow pamphlet out loud. My page says, "What are some characteristics of a person who is a compulsive gambler? 1. Inability and unwillingness to accept reality. Hence the escape into the dream world of gambling." Reading out loud I realize that, in fact I have this problem, and—ambushed by this moment of true feeling—I confess it to the group. "That's what attracts me, the escape from reality."

Pull-tabs are legal because the state has an easy time regulating them. Cary Telefson says slots and video poker, to name two, are too easy to fix or chat on, so they're illegal. Pull-tabs also have a low-tech appeal. It's like eating peanuts—you just sit at the bar and pop them open, making a lot of trash and losing money. Pull-tabs leave residue, which is more satisfying than a video machine.

I drive to Roxbury Lanes and play tabs at a sterile Formica counter. I ask the woman for a beer, but she's only selling tabs. "My name's Dave," I say, giving her $15 for Oodles of Noodles. "Do people win here a lot?" She shrugs and looks past me. A dozen kids bowling scream and bicker by their lane. The woman is surprised to hear Washington has the biggest pull-tab market in the country. "Who do you think makes up all that stuff for the games?" I ask.

She thinks my question is rhetorical and answers, "I don't know. Who?"

I phone Stuart Entertainment, a multi-national pull-tab company in Iowa. Tim Stuart, the CEO, answers the phone. "The games are kind of a mirror of society," Tim tells me. "They mirror what's going on."

"What's going on?"

"It's 8:00 here," Tim says. "I've really got to go." Tim is meeting friends for a hunting trip. He tells me to call Deborah Shore at Trade Products in Lynnwood. "They're the biggest producer in the country"

"Okay," I answer. "I think I've heard of them."

I'm early for Gamblers Anonymous (which by now I'm calling GA), so I stop at the Kort Hause Tavern. I buy a burger and beer then play Rush Hour and Cherry Master until I'm broke. I hit seven winners, so losing all my money takes a while, and I miss the meeting. That's okay, since now I'm lying to the bartender, which feels just as good as lying at GA. "I've never played pull-tabs before," I tell her. "Do people win a lot here?"

"Oh, yeah. That's what keeps them coming back."

"I find it really exciting, thrilling even, pulling the tabs open."

"Oh yeah." She gives me a free beer, a schooner, now that I'm broke.

I drive 40 miles north on Highway 99, into Everett, playing pull-tabs at a dozen taverns. Trade Products is a dark silhouette behind me. The day has drained out the edge of the sky. The mountains fade, black against the flat horizon. It's wrong to drink and drive. I tell people lies and ask questions about pull-tabs. I'm looking for Red Hot 7s. Life seems more interesting driving around. Every tavern is the same. I don't like the men I meet. At each stop one of them plays a winning pull-tab—$25, $75, $200—and I think "Why don't they buy us all a round of drinks?" At Cheers on Pacific Highway the players leave spent tabs in piles on the floor, I like the residue, so I stay and watch basketball on TV.

Page three of the Gamblers Anonymous pamphlet asks, What is the dream world of the compulsive gambler?... When compulsive gamblers succeed, they gamble to dream still greater dreams. When failing, they gamble in reckless desperation and the depths of their misery are fathomless as their dream world comes crashing down. Sadly, they will struggle back, dream more dreams and of course suffer more misery. No one can convince them that their great scheme will not someday come true. They believe they will, for without this dream world, life for them would not be tolerable.

Deborah Shore at Trade Products returns my call. She tells me I can't visit the factory—"There's nothing to see."

Disappointed, I ask, "But who makes up all that stuff for the games?"

Shore sighs. Then she's all business: "A lot of ideas come from tavern owners, or players like yourself. People will tell us, 'I'd love to see a ticket with tools or airplanes,' for example. Or it'll be seasonal. Right now we're working on Kris-Kross Kringle and Winter Wonderland. Then there's fads, like cigars or motorcycles. We might do peace symbols, or a Star Wars theme."

"But who actually makes the choices? I mean, is there a meeting, like with people?"

My question, or my tone, gives her pause. "There's a design team. Sometimes we just tell the art department you know, 'Cigars.'" It's late. We both should be going home. This is all she'll give me.

"But Deborah, is there anything you avoid?"

"We'll avoid current events like the OJ trial. We would never do the OJ trial"

I want to ask one more question—"Do you like the fantasy of it, the fantasy and escape?"—but Shore hangs up before I can ask it.

At the Locker Room, I escape into my dream world: I win $150 on a tab. I'm drinking Lucky Beer in cans and making up details for that Highway 99 scene. I buy drinks for everyone at the bar—that's about $20 for a dozen beers, plus a huge tip for Rick. I wonder how I'm going to lose the rest in one night. Rick warms up to me. "What's that you're writing?"

"An article about pull-tabs." Rick laughs. He thinks I'm a liar. Rick has Red Hot 7s, and I cash my soiled dollar winner. I buy $50 of Show Me the Money, and lose all but five. "Do people win here a lot?" I ask, drunk, rhetorical.

"Rick wins here a lot," the guy beside me says. I buy another $50 of tabs, and lose all of it. This guy beside me seems so interesting.

"My name's Dave," I say.

"Larry."

I buy Larry some pull-tabs. The floor is thick with them. Larry's tabs are all losers. He's drunk and inarticulate. "Ever win much here?" I ask.

"Oh yeah."

His face is hard and flat, out-of-focus. I want to peel it back like a tab. "Yeah," I tell him, "me too." recommended