. . . Wednesday July 7, 2004

Above the Slotted Plains

My old bookie Rocco is getting a bad rap. See, Rocco could soon be the last guy in America who’s breaking the law by offering gambling services. He isn’t a Native American. He isn’t a racetrack. He’s not operating a lotto. He doesn’t invite celebrities to gamble and drink as part of an ongoing television series. He doesn’t run an online operation with an offshore address.

Rocco has become a bootlegger in a post-prohibition world.

Beyond Bingo

In many states, gambling is not only legal, it’s encouraged. This beyond-Bingo trend started with the introduction of state sponsored lotteries. Somehow lotteries were positioned as not really being a form of gambling even though they effectively targeted those most vulnerable to gambling’s downside (those who blow dough needed for necessities). Even if they are gambling, the lotteries were justified by politicians because they raised additional capital for schools, low-income housing, etc. This justification would inevitably lead to the rollout of additional forms of legalized gambling which, thanks to tax laws, all just happen to help states pay the bills.

In states with lotteries, the transformation of every corner store into a micro-casino turned the notion of illegal gambling into the ultimate hypocrisy. You can gamble at the corner store. You can place horse racing bets in off track betting outlets conveniently located throughout cities such as New York. And then there are all of those card rooms. But you can’t use your Visa to place an online bet? Poker is OK, but Blackjack is unthinkable? And Rocco is still a wanted man? If I didn’t know better, I’d think the states were only interested in restricting that gambling which fails to provide them with an additional income stream.

Sitting Donald

Next up in the gambling rollout plan was the rediscovery of Native American reservations in many states. The first few of these casino openings likely did involve American Indians and have provided a decent stream of cash to communities that desperately needed it. But now many of these casinos are run by major gambling outfits (some publicly traded) who find a good spot for a casino first and then try to find some descendant of an obscure tribe that barely still exists in any form. Put it this way: You probably don’t think of Donald Trump as a Native American (Trump Teepee?), but he runs a so-called Indian casino in Palm Springs that is most famous because they allow guests to compete in a tic tac toe match with a rooster (and nothing celebrates Native American culture quite like that, eh?).

Here in California, these casinos are popping up everywhere. Each year, my wife and I have shorter roundtrip commutes to get our video poker fix. Do we feel bad about the improving proximity of our addiction? Of course not. We are supporting Native Americans and improving our schools with every quarter we spend. We view gambling as a civic duty.

So the states are making money, gambling is becoming more prevalent and the hypocrisy of not letting it spread further is becoming more self-evident. And guess what? That means more slots.

The Royal Flush

Earlier this week, Pennsylvania moved to allow the installation of 61,000 slot machines throughout the state. And the logic of the move seems to make perfect sense. Some of the slots will be installed at racetracks. How could one possibly argue that slot machines are inappropriate at a betting venue? Now if your state is going to allow horse betting and slot playing at racetracks, why not at least extend it to a few more places (why should your revenue be limited by the number of racehorses you can attract)? So Pennsylvania will also allow slots at several standalone parlors as well as at a couple of resorts.

Pennsylvania had another motivation/excuse to allow slots in additional venues. Anyone who lives, say, in Philly and wanted to gamble would just go to Jersey and play the slots at Atlantic City (and soon, many more places throughout that state). If residents of your state are going to throw their cash into a large toilet, it might as well be your toilet, no?

The ultimate extension of this, of course, is to allow you to gamble in your own home. Mark my words. One day, in some states, it will be illegal to gamble at online offshore casinos, while it will be legal to gamble online at sites run within your state of residence.

The State-House

And thus it spreads. From corner store to Indian reservation to cardrooms to resorts to downtown slot halls. Television shows us poker matches, newspapers give us betting lines and billboards point us to the next casino. And we already know it pays off for a lot of people. Even beyond the Strip, Las Vegas could be the fastest growing metropolis in American history.

So what’s the downside? Are we sliding down a slippery moral slope? Are we creating a generation of gambling addicts? Based on my own extensive qualitative study (which you can support by sending a roll of quarters to my home address), I can tell you that nearly every Indian casino in California is packed all the time and the parking lot, so far, doesn’t seem to be filled with limos. The other side of the argument is that people will have their vices and they’re going to gamble anyway, so why shouldn’t the states see some upside (the same argument could be used to legalize crack). The house always wins. We know that. And more and more often, the state is the house. Isn’t it better that we improve our schools than if Rocco (after threatening to break my fingers) adds a new set of rims to his souped-up Nissan Altima.

But are schools in states that allow gambling actually doing better? Sorry, folks. No time for such details.

Where will this cultural trend lead us? It’s difficult to predict much other than the fact that we will have more and more slots in more and more states. The roulette ball is motion. There will, heretofore, always be a decent excuse for installing a few one-armed bandits within your statelines. Maybe we’ll just burnout on gambling as the legality of it all makes it less interesting. Perhaps watching a drunken Daniel Baldwin playing No Limit Hold ‘Em on Bravo will mark the deepest valley of our disease.

Maybe we’ll find another vice that states couldn’t possibly enable (unless the money was just too good). Even my wife and I have started to get a bit bored with video poker. We recently switched to another vice that’s much more taboo in Northern California. Every couple of weeks, we crank up the stereo, invite over a few friends, and carbo load exclusively on non-organic foods that have been sprayed with controversial pesticides. (Rocco is now growing the stuff in his backyard).

But long before the fad wears off, the ever expanding American casino experiment will spread from purple mountains across the fruited plains. I’m just wondering which state will be the first to offer all residents complimentary cocktails.

Concentration is important!