Volume XI, Issue 13 ~ March 27 - April 2, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Gambling on Slots

Gambling promises the poor what Property performs for the rich.
—George Bernard Shaw: The Revolutionist’s Handbook

Cards, dice, wheels, horses, athletic games, dogs, jai alai, lotteries, scratch-offs, Keno, bingo, slots, boxing, wrestling, billiards, turkey shoots, office pools, cock fights, street-corner numbers, tickets in a jar, who catches the next or biggest fish — and who knows what else? One can gamble on any of them in hope of cashing in on anything from a little extra pocket money all the way to early retirement.

The second defintion of the G-word in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary on my desk is brief and right to the point: Gamble (noun): a risky undertaking.

Playing the Odds
We know that, and those who gamble know it. Just about everyone else knows it. Yet can it be that our state senators of Anne Arundel County (with the exception of John Astle, D-Annapolis, and Philip Jimeno, D-Brooklyn Park) don’t know it?

Or are they just gambling that the introduction of yet another gambling avenue won’t be risky business for the state of Maryland? War is hell, and the only thing that can be said for what’s going on in Iraq is that for the time being it has pushed gambling deliberations from the headlines of the daily press.

In The Devil’s Dictionary, journalist Ambrose Bierce wrote in 1906: “The gambling known as business looks with austere disfavor upon the business known as gambling.” But times have changed, and some business, (as well as some people, including legislators and Gov. Bob Ehrlich) don’t look upon gambling with such austere eyes as they did back at the turn of the previous century.

Some business leaders figure that at the bottom line, with gambling they would lose less in profit from sales that they would have to pay in additional taxes if slot machines were not legalized as revenue-raisers at racetracks to get the state out of its biggest financial mess ever.

Many average citizens also see slots as a means to avoid higher taxes. Gov. Ehrlich and a significant number of legislators view the appropriately named one-armed bandits as saviors in the fight to come close to balancing the budget without, heaven forbid, raising taxes.

Thoroughbred track interests (including many horse owners), politicians, lobbyists, some tourism interests and others — including those seeking employment in casinos — look upon slots as a way of putting money in their pockets; a new ‘payroll’ or revenue source.

And there are those who like to gamble and consider slots as still another avenue of chance that could bring a life of luxury. Most know the astronomical odds. They’re familiar with Merriam-Webster’s defintion, but they’re willing to take that risk. It’s the outhouse or castle philosophy — and in a state where there are so many more of the former than of the latter.

To Play — Or Not to Play
Me? I enjoy conservative gambling, a good game of moderate-stakes poker, blackjack, gin rummy, cribbage, a few scratch-offs a week; sometimes even a lottery ticket, a football pool — and always a friendly wager. But where I stand on all of this slot machines business, I cannot decide much as I have tried. It’s a tough call.

Up front, I admit that it can be more exciting — for the moment at least — to put change in the slot of a one-armed bandit than in the slot of granddaughter Grumpy’s see-through piggy bank. But when the pocket change goes into a slot machine, it’s usually gone forever. In the pale green piggy bank, I can see the contents gradually get higher. So can Grumpy.

If I live long enough, there’ll be a jackpot of several hundred bucks in the piggy bank for sure. Admittedly the two of us will get no clanging bells, whistles and such, and no fortune tumbling out of a glitzy metal bandit. But we’ll have the thrill of counting the saved change, then heading for the bank or the mall.

Should I choose the slot in the piggy bank to deposit my copper and silver — well, castles are indeed rare, and we already have indoor plumbing at 178 Park Road.

Dividing the Pot
I have nothing against slot machines, and probably would drop a few coins or more in one conveniently located, but I have the nagging impression that our state, like so many others, is going overboard on legalized gambling as a source of revenue. To depend on that revenue as a source of government funding: What message does that send?

Methinks something is wrong when a state promotes gambling — a state that at the same time still has the authority to arrest you and me if we’re caught in a friendly low-stakes poker game in the privacy of my home. In addition, they could confiscate all the cash on the table.

Yet you know that in a poker game in my house, all of the players — and only the players — would get the money dropped on the green felt tabletop. No one else would get a cut of the pot.

In the state’s gambling endeavors, the players only get half, if that, of all the money wagered. The remainder goes for promotion, programs to cure compulsive gamblers, printing, labor, advertising, administration costs, commissions to those who actually sell the chances, perhaps a lobbyist or two and who knows what else. What’s left over goes to anything from education to building stadiums for threadbare professional sports owners.

Think those odds are in your favor?

But the very state that promotes that kind of gambling could arrest you and me for drawing to inside straights in a game in which only, yes, only one or more of the players around the table would end up with all the cash wagered.

So now we have everyone imaginable fighting to get a share of the pot: Racetracks that want to increase takes or help balance their budgets, casino operators, education, organized gambling interests, minorities, local governments, lobbyists, would-be employees and who knows who else? Guess how much is left for you and me if perchance when we pull the lever we see three or four bars in a row — and the bells ring and the sirens blow.

First off, if racetracks can’t make it on their own, is it reasonable to bail them out by introducing still another gambling routine? Some other questions: Will slot machines siphon off some or much of the cash that would be otherwise spent for scratch-offs, Keno or lotteries already budgeted by the state?

Also, is it not reasonable to assume, especially in these times, there is only so much money available from the citizenry for gambling without putting their household budget at risk. Aren’t compulsive gamblers more vulnerable to losing more — which they can’t afford — when sitting on a stool in front of a one-armed bandit with a hungry mouth? Instant gratification.

Also, if slot machines can be such a great revenue-raiser and the state needs money to bail it out after the free-wheeling Glendening days, why cut the racestracks in? Why not operate the slots in state-owned casinos, reap the profits — and lessen the chances of organized-gambling interests hitting a jackpot of their own?

The biggest question of all: Is society on the right track in promoting gambling big-time to avoid increasing taxes to balance budgets? I tend to think not. Enough said …



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Last updated March 27, 2003 @ 1:57am