Cleveland has just opened its first casino with great fanfare after a great deal of debate on the morality of the gambling, and there have been long lines of people waiting to get in. I don’t really see gambling as a moral issue because there does not seem to be anything intrinsically wrong with people betting on random outcomes as a means of generating pleasure and excitement.
Gambling doesn’t really do anything for me personally because I am a risk-averse person and so the appeal of casinos eludes me. But once the initial crowds die out, I may go to the casino to check out the place but not to gamble, except perhaps for a few hands of blackjack. Over the last five years I attended a couple of education conferences, one in Las Vegas and the other in Biloxi, Mississippi, that were held in a casinos so naturally I visited those floors in the night to see what it was like. I actually spent most of my time talking to the people who worked there and ran the various tables, when there was down time at their site. They were very interesting but did tell me some sad stories about the addicts who came every day and could not seem to leave the place. I did notice that the supervisor kept checking me out, maybe suspecting that I was up to no good since I was just hanging around talking to his staff and not doing anything.
I found the whole atmosphere somewhat depressing, honestly. Very few people seemed to be enjoying themselves. The only exception was the craps table, which had action and a lot of noise and laughter. Another source of fun was the occasional arrival of small groups of young people who clearly were on road trips and just passing through.
The most depressing people to watch were those at the slot machines who played with dour and silent concentration. I just do not see the appeal of slot machines. With the other games one can use at least some strategy, even if the game is based on chance and the odds are always against you. At least the brain is involved to some extent. But the slots machines seem to be purely mechanical, and should have the same appeal as betting on a coin toss. But clearly some people are willing to spend hours and hours at them.
Who exactly patronizes these places and why do they go? I don’t know about casinos but this article in Wired magazine, about someone who cracked the scratch-card lottery ticket code, analyzed the people who purchase them.
While approximately half of Americans buy at least one lottery ticket at some point, the vast majority of tickets are purchased by about 20 percent of the population. These high-frequency players tend to be poor and uneducated, which is why critics refer to lotteries as a regressive tax. (In a 2006 survey, 30 percent of people without a high school degree said that playing the lottery was a wealth-building strategy.) On average, households that make less than $12,400 a year spend 5 percent of their income on lotteries—a source of hope for just a few bucks a throw.
5% of $12,4000 is $620 per year. That is a lot of money even for me, let alone for someone working for below minimum wage.
And this is what worries me about gambling. I don’t care about well-to-do people who lose money that they can do without. I do worry about people who think it can be a means of creating wealth and thus gamble more than they can afford and end up even deeper in poverty. A news report about the opening night in Cleveland had this item about the kind of thing that worries me.
Gayle Crowell, a cleaner for University Hospitals, arrived at 2 p.m. to get a spot third in line behind the wristband winners and was strategically positioned to get an unclaimed wristband when they were distributed. The slots enthusiast said she travels about twice a year to border state casinos like Presque Isle near Erie, Pa., and Mountaineer Casino in Chester, W.Va., but plans to be a regular at the Horseshoe Cleveland.
“I’m glad they are opening. We don’t have to go out of town to gamble,” said Crowell, who is in her 50s. “I’m going to be here all the time.”
As a hospital cleaner, she can’t be making much more than minimum wage. Having to travel to a distant place to gamble twice a year is one thing for a person of modest income. That, coupled with her playing just the slots, would limit her losses. But with a casino nearby she has the option of gambling regularly, perhaps even daily, and that is something else entirely and she could end up getting into serious financial trouble, like the people whose stories I heard about at Biloxi and Las Vegas.
For the right kind of addict, winning an occasional game presumably provides enough pleasure to compensate for the more frequent losses. But what gambling really provides poor people is something they have little of, and that is hope. For most poor people, the only way they can envisage for getting out of poverty is either gambling or, even worse, crime.