Friday, May 12, 2006

Vegas: part of the American Dream?

Gambling, like mining, is part of the romance of the Old West. Hollywood in fact makes much of gambling imagery: whether if it’s whiskey-drinkin’ hombres in an old saloon, or fancy ladies of the evenin’ and their gents at the roulette wheel, gangsters playing poker and smoking a few stogies, or James Bond-like high-rollers in Monaco, gambling imagery is generally a crowdpleaser, and sexxay as well. And Vegas, has since its creation—a creation, like the building of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, assisted with lots of funds from the Mob—depended on gambling; the Nevada economy as a whole depends largely on legalized gambling.

The romantics and libertarians in favor of legal casinos and online poker and blackjack (a multi-billion-dollar per year business) generally avoid discussing the negatives of legalized gambling, however. Unfortunately, there seem to be millions of Americans who haven’t realized the odds are always in favor of the house, unless one is playing poker; and for high stakes poker, the odds are, not surprisingly, in favor of a tycoon—imagine Jerry Buss sitting at the end of the table, grinning—not the working guys having’ some fun. Although blackjack odds can be nearly even at some houses—say 50.5 to 49.5—but even with only a 1 percentage point difference in favor of the house, and “Hoyle” strategy the great majority of people will lose as well, regardless of a few winning runs, and all those few hundred bucks losses add up to mega-profits for the house. (proficient card counters may increase their odds, and may win, but the pit guys watch for CC very closely, and the auto-shuffle machines with 6+ decks and a variable shoe make counting very difficult).

In effect billions of dollars are being thrown away to the casino owners: and looking at the holdings of a big Vegas player such as Steve Wynn—the Bellagio, or his newest ugly Vegas skyscraper—one obtains a sense of what sort of profits the casino owners are earning. Nearly everyone loses in Vegas, except the casino owners. And the native owners of the CA casinos are raking in big profits as well (tho’ at least there the profits are fairly well-spread among the tribe).

There’s another issue regarding gambling that many pro-gambling people do not consider. You are a hard-working and educated citizen ; whereas a successful gambler or casino owner may not be. Merely by the luck of the draw, say he wins consistently: and makes 10 times what you do (if he started with a Paris- Hilton- type of wealth, he can also do a lot of “leveraging” to increase his chances of winning—high bets, raises, etc.). Like his ancestor, the prospector, the gambler does no real work except finding wealth by the easiest possible means.

It’s doubtful that the Founding Fathers wanted to include gambling and the world of casinos (and associated practices, such as prostitution and organized crime, alcoholism) in their vision of America. Indeed an early American writer such as Thoreau took issue with both gambling and mining, and saw the parallel between the two practices: “The gold-digger in the ravines of the mountains is as much a gambler as his fellow in the saloons of San Francisco. What difference does it make whether you shake dirt or shake dice? If you win, society is the loser.”

Californians would do well to ponder Thoreau’s point and work towards the control and regulation if not outright banning of Casinopolis, and online gambling as well. Educating people--especially po’ folks throwing away hundreds a month in dreams of hitting the big jackpot, blackjack run, or even lotto ticket—about the real costs of gambling also should be a priority for those humans who do not look upon the Vegas Strip with admiration.

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