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Sun, 31 Jan 2010

You Pays Your Money and You Takes Your Choice

Throughout time immemorial, human beings have been fascinated with gambling. Psychologists have spent countless hours theorizing on what exactly it is that attracts most people to the notion of the big payoff, beating the odds, getting something for nothing more than a lucky toss of the dice or the turn of a card.

The notion of luck has a lot to do with it, of course. By and large, people tend to think of themselves as roughly inherently equal (not necessarily in some broad philosophical or ethical way, but in the basic sense that, "I'm not all that different from everybody else"). So even in our earliest days, I am sure that there was some inextricable linking of inborn differences in certain skills to the notion of luck -- Ogg may be simply a more skillful hunter or fisher, more attuned to subtle clues and indications that make him more productive, but to many others in his tribe, his proficiency was no doubt largely attributed to Ogg's good luck. I also have no doubt that once the concept of luck entered humankind's collective vocabulary, there followed hard on its heels the notion that having or using certain talismans could bring good luck to those who knew about and took advantage of them. Charms, chants, and ritualized behaviors quickly emerged as necessary practices to ensure a bountiful harvest, or successful hunting, or a victorious campaign against the tribe further down the river.

While gambling games of all kinds have always been played, it wasn't until the seventeenth century that serious mathematical analysis of probabilities and games of chance first began. Mathematicians like Fermat, Pascal, and Bernoulli laid a numerical foundation for understanding how games of chance worked, and how to predict in a general sense what the long term outcome of a given game would be. And, of course, once one could understand the mathematics of a game, one could also alter the rules of the game to bias the results in certain directions.

My own experiences with the world of gambling started innocently enough, with the toss of a coin. My grandfather was an avid fisherman, and he had two fine rod and reel sets which he no longer used and wanted to give to me and my younger brother. But how to decide who would get which? He said he would toss a coin and I would choose heads or tails; if my choice matched the coin, I had my pick of the two outfits, and my brother would have to take the other. Now both were very nice, so in an absolute sense neither I nor my brother would really "lose", but one set was a larger, saltwater surfcasting outfit, while the other was smaller and intended more for freshwater fishing. Grandpa tossed a quarter into the air, caught it, held it under his hand on his forearm, and asked me to choose. I chose tails, and he revealed that the coin was indeed tails-side up. I happily selected the surfcasting rig, and enjoyed my good fortune. (From that day forward, I have also always selected tails whenever I have to choose a coin toss, just to commemorate the occasion.)

On those same summertime visits to my grandparents house, I also got exposed to a somewhat more sophisticated form of gambling, albeit an innocent one. In the evenings, after supper, the family would gather around the dining room table and break out a game called Pokeno. For the first times in my life, I gambled with real money -- quite a thrill for an eight year old. Pokeno was a funny cross between bingo and poker. The game came with a set of cardboard cards about the size of a sheet of paper, on each of which was printed a 5x5 grid of pictures of playing cards in various denominations and suits. Although it was not apparent to us when we were young, the rows, columns, and diagonals of the cards actually made up various poker hands: high card, a pair, two pair, three of a kind, full house, straight, and flush. We also had a series of cups, into which each player would ante one penny; the cups were labeled "Center", "Vertical", "Diagonal", "Four Corners", and "Pokeno". Each player would take a pile of bingo chips, a deck of cards would be shuffled, and one by one, the cards would be turned over and called out. If the card called was on your grid, you covered it with a bingo chip. If you managed to cover cards on your grid that matched one of the patterns described on one of the cups (the center space of the grid, a vertical row, a diagonal row, or the four corners of the grid) you would all out the name of the cup and win its contents. "Pokeno" was filling a horizontal row in the grid, and someone getting that prize ended the round. Any unwon money in a cup carried over into the next round, and between my siblings, parents, and grandparents all playing, sometimes the kitty in a cup would get relatively large. (The final round of the evening was inevitably played so that "Pokeno" did not end the round; we played until all the cups were won.) Sometimes during the day I would spend time looking at each of the grid cards in the game box, studying the patterns of cards, trying to see if I could discern any pattern that would seem more likely to win later that evening. Of course, I knew almost nothing about poker at that age, and since we weren't using the various poker hands on the cards for anything in our way of playing the game, it didn't dawn on me that it really didn't make any difference which grid I used -- they could have just as easily been completely random arrangements of cards from a deck instead of various poker hands. Yet we all believed certain grids were "better" than others, and the one with the Ace of Spades in its center was, for some reason, especially prized by us all; we would sometimes get into squabbles over who got to pick it first out of the box, until Dad finally put a stop to it by declaring that we would have to select our grid cards face down after being mixed.

Off and on during the rest of my youth, I picked up bits and pieces of information about gambling in general, and card games in particular. I obtained an initial grasp of the nuances of games like blackjack and poker, but since we rarely played for any significant stakes, my knowledge of the gambling world was pretty limited.

The first real indication of what gambling could really be like was when I took a trip to Las Vegas for a computer software user conference a few years after I started work. (By the way, has anyone ever noticed that these junkets are almost inevitably held in resort locations like Disney World or Las Vegas or Hawaii or Fort Lauderdale, or a major city like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, and rarely if ever in low-key, out-of-the-way, inexpensive places like Sheboygan, Omaha, Oklahoma City, or Dubuque?) I knew about Las Vegas and some of its history, but I was very naive about the whole culture of gambling that permeated the place.

All that started during the flight, as we approached the city from the northeast. Looking out the window, the first thing that struck me about Las Vegas was how isolated it was. Having grown up in the suburbs of New York City, where the greater metropolitan area extends for more than a fifty miles in all directions and merges with those of other cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington into a more or less continuous megalopolis, I was unprepared for how starkly situated Las Vegas was. Stopping pretty much at the city limits, civilization suddenly and abruptly came screeching to a halt. On all sides, nothing but desert as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by the Amargosa Mountains to the west, with Death Valley beyond. Only a few ribbons of highways radiated outwards from it, tenuous-seeming links to the rest of the civilized world. And yet, here in the middle of Absolutely Nowhere, USA, stood a city with bright lights. tall buildings, and all the usual amenities one would expect. Only then did it begin to dawn on me how immensely profitable the gambling business must be in order to keep a place like this going in a place like this.

The next sign that the world of gambling was not like the rest of the world to which I was accustomed showed up when I stepped off the jetway and into the terminal at the Las Vegas airport: there, lined up along the wall in the main part of the terminal, were slot machines. Not five minutes after stepping off the plane, and before I had even had a chance to pick up my luggage, I was already being enticed to drop a dollar into a slot, pull the lever, and try my luck. If I was successful, maybe I could add to the modest pot of money I had brought along to use in the casino at which I was staying. I popped four quarters into the slot and pulled the lever -- spin, click, click, click -- nothing. Not the most auspicious start to my trip. (I only learned later that the airport slots were fiddled with to pay off somewhat more frequently than the "normal" slots downtown, which might help explain how a colleague, waiting for our flight back to New York to board a few days later, won $1000 for his $1 bet in one of these machines, nearly missing the flight as he rushed to cash in his winnings.)

Although they don't compare to the mega-casinos you find in Las Vegas today, even then the larger casinos on the Strip were impressive in their scale. It wasn't until my second night there that I ventured down to the gaming floor of the MGM Grand to take in the casino itself. Going through the doors from the hotel lobby, I was immediately assaulted by the noise: clinking, clacking, and ringing from the slot machines, the thip-thip-thip-thip-thip of the wheel of fortune spinning over its table, the rattle of the ball in the roulette wheel, and everywhere, a hubbub of talking, calling, announcing, cheering, and occasional groaning. The space was larger than a couple of football fields, brightly but not garishly lit, and not at all hazy or stuffy despite the large number of people inside smoking. (And, as you've always heard, there were no clocks or windows (at least that I could see) to give you any sense of the passage of time.) It was a world in miniature, devoted to just one thing -- money. And not in the sense like a bank is devoted to money. Here the goal was to encourage you to hand your money over to the casino in a relatively pain-free and even mildly entertaining manner. In some sense, you were supposed to feel good after losing however much you cared to wager.

I did not play a great many games of chance during that trip. My resources were a bit limited, and I contented myself at the $5 and $10 blackjack tables, nursing my stake along for as long as I could, until finally I was tapped out after several hours of play. Only then did I start to realize that it was foolhardy to think of parlaying a small stake into a large sum. Instead, I had to think of my stake as money I was planning to spend anyway: I could have dinner and see a show, go to a concert, see a movie -- or come in here and gamble as my evening's entertainment. Once I came to that realization, I had no psychological hangups about winning or losing: anything I had in my pocket at quitting time was a bonus.

So I came to Las Vegas, and spent a modest sum, and had a couple of drinks on the house, and went home a little wiser in the ways that the gambling world worked, and certainly much more aware of its power and influence. It was still a little hard to believe that gambling alone was the whole reason for the continued existence of the city, yet that is the case to this very day.

Of course, these days the casinos are even larger and more lush and more lavish and more spectacular, and are trying to "diversify" the city's image with a Disneyesque kind of experience aimed at luring tourists who are not primarily interested in gambling at all. Frankly, I think they're only kidding themselves, and even Las Vegas's latest tourism tagline, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" is a not-alltogether-subtle allusion to the town's old moniker of "Sin City". Dancing fountain water shows, laser lights, gondoliers, and a roller coaster on the top of a skyscraper will perhaps keep people from wandering off to check out the next casino over, but I doubt they will wind up turning Las Vegas into a big-time destination for families.

In the years since the casinos opened in Las Vegas, governments all over the country have looked enviously at the large sums seeming available for next to nothing by permitting legalized gambling to take place, and sought ways to grab a share of these revenues for themselves. One of the first kinds of legalized gambling that states allowed were lotteries. They generally required voter approval, and so were "sold" to the voters as being earmarked for education, or senior citizens, or other such worthy causes. In reality, it did not take long for lotteries to be simply counted as just another source of general revenue -- "a tax on the mathematically disadvantaged", as more than one wag has described them. The next big breakthrough was when Atlantic City, New Jersey was permitted to open the first legalized casinos on the East Coast. Visions of a new "Las Vegas East" danced in the legislator's heads. Unfortunately, the money made there has not made a great deal of difference for the many impoverished residents of Atlantic City. Many of the worst slum neighborhoods have been cleaned up, but real improvements are still largely confined to the area around the Boardwalk and the casinos themselves. Certainly there are jobs in the casinos, and in the supporting infrastructure that has grown up around them, but in some ways Atlantic City's relative proximity to big cities like New York and Philadelphia has meant that a significant percentage of people gambling there are day-trippers, riding the bus down in the morning, playing the slots all day, having a late lunch at the casino buffet, and taking the bus back home again in the evening. People end up "commuting" to the Atlantic City casinos because they can -- it's a relatively short, relatively easy trip. The nearest big cities to Las Vegas -- Los Angeles, Phoenix, Flagstaff -- are five to six hours away, and comparatively few people would be willing to spend twelve hours on a bus in a single day to play the slots. So instead, people going to Las Vegas tend to stay, at least overnight, and often longer, which means spending on food and lodging of which Atlantic City sees far less.

And now Pennsylvania is experimenting with casino gambling, trying to lure people from traveling to Atlantic City by touting the fact that the eastern Pennsylvania casinos in Bethlehem and the Poconos are closer to New York than Atlantic City is. Unfortunately, after a promising start a year or so ago, the revenues are not meeting expectations, and I still have yet to see fleets of buses touting 90 minute trips from New York to the Sands casino in Bethlehem over the two-hour-plus trip to Atlantic City. (I guess people would rather see the ocean and eat salt water taffy than see the rusting remains of old Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces and eat fastnachts, which is about all that Southside Bethlehem has to offer.) Now the Pennsylvania legislature is looking around for new sources of revenue to close a budget shortfall, and their latest gimmick will be to allow the casinos to expand beyond slot machines into "table games" -- mainly blackjack, craps, poker, and roulette -- and thus become full-fledged casinos, ready to compete head-to-head with Atlantic City. But if the past is any guide to the future, it's not likely that Pennsylvania casinos will be the magic revenue sources their supporters envision.

Now I am not opposed to casinos or gambling in general. I would rather see it regulated and taxed than in the grip of mobsters and other criminals. Yes, the mob built modern-day Las Vegas, and there are still elements of shady dealings and criminality sometimes involved in the casino business, but that will be true of any kind of business where there are substantial sums of money involved. Nowadays we have collectively learned enough of the lessons from gambling's past to keep criminality at a "normal" level.

I don't see gambling as being anything immoral. True, some people fall prey to gambling addictions, and the financial and social consequences of that can be devastating to those involved. But people can develop addictions to many other things, and few of these are banned outright (drugs being the most conspicuous exception). Restrictions on gambling hearken back to our Puritan forebears, and their "lead us not into temptation" mentality that perceived most things that were enjoyable or pleasurable as a danger to be legislated out of existence. The healthiest and most rational way to look at gambling is as just another kind of entertainment on which you can spend your money.

And if restrictions on most forms of gambling were loosened on a large scale, I think what would happen is that, when no longer limited to a few locations within a wide area, people would stop making trips to places relatively far away to gamble, and would stick to a much more "local" casino. The gambling tax revenues would be much more highly localized, and would thus tend to stay in the community rather than being sent on to the state capitol to be lumped in with general revenues and redistributed by the legislature.

That's an outcome I would be willing to bet on.

Posted Jan 31, 2010 at 21:40 UTC, 3108 words,  [/richPermalink