(I have never seen anyone look this way while playing slots. The person involved is usually glassy-eyed, surrounded by a haze of cigarette smoke, certainly isn't drinking champagne, and the diamond necklace would have been in hock. I suppose the above is theoretically possible, as is any staged advertising photo for a casino, but I wouldn't bet on it actually coming into your range of vision any time soon.]
I wrote an op-ed piece last week (in-between trimming my toenails and figuring the on-base percentages for my 1995 softball team) but despite the brilliance of my arguments, both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe rejected it. Having no other alternative (that is, not wishing to have my high opinion of myself dashed against any more rocks) I've decided to foist it upon you.
Some background, which I thought unnecessary if published in a Boston newspaper, may be helpful for those of you outside of the area.
For quite a few years, the Massachusetts legislature had debated whether to allow casino gambling. Somewhat recently, they approved it. No casinos have yet been built. Sites are being considered, bids have been made, and local voters and elected officials are hashing out whether they want such things in their particular communities.
Meanwhile, in other places where casino gambling has been up-and-running for years, legislation has been passed that protects the customers from being fleeced unmercifully. For instance, in New Jersey it is illegal to place a slot machine in play for the public unless it has at least an 82% payback rate. That is, of all monies shoveled into any particular machine, at least 82% must reasonably be expected to be returned to the gamblers over the long run.
(Although machine payouts may vary wildly in the short term, the percentages can be figured quite precisely over the long term. This is calculated via knowing how many combinations of symbols can appear on the reels - in reality, how many electronic "stops" there are, in these days of microchips and whatnot - and then dividing the total money played into the expected total payoffs. 100%, of course, would mean that all money put into the machine was eventually returned.)
In the case of a game that requires a skill component, in which category video poker falls, there are some machines that will return over 100% with perfect play, but learning that play can be quite laborious; usually more complicated than learning to count cards, actually, which is the other way, outside of cheating, to gain a slight edge on a casino offering the standard sort of table games and machines. It's always possible that a new game will be introduced which can then be exploited by those willing to do math that the casino failed to do, but that's a gambler's very rare joy. It's a wide-ranging subject, and in my opinion a highly interesting one, but that's more than you need to know for the following piece.
So there you have it. I hope you find this an enjoyable sort of mild rant. If not, any day now I'll probably be back to writing about my favorite brand of chewing gum as a child, or something else similarly intriguing, so please be patient. I still love you.
Here's the op-ed.
Do you know what constitutes a “full-pay” video poker machine? Are you aware of the differences in “hold” percentage between a blackjack table where a dealer hits on “soft 17” or stands on the same? How about the change, in average losses hourly, sustained over the long run by a slots player if the machine he or she favors paid back 85% of monies played rather than 98%?
Excuse the obvious wordplay, but odds are you don’t.
The people most likely to be hurt – the folks who will fill the pockets of the casino moguls via losses of mortgage money or meager savings - are likely to be ignorant concerning their chances. And the people who should be protecting their interests are either ignorant themselves or turning a blind eye to safeguards which should be in place prior to the gambling parlors opening their doors.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re for or against casino gambling in general. For what it’s worth, I’m for it. I think it can be a pleasant divergence from the humdrum. If the price isn’t too steep, indulging in a few dreams is OK. There are even those people who can turn the tables, so to speak, and make themselves the favorites to win against a casino. Witness the folks from MIT who trained themselves in the art of card counting.
The vast majority of gamblers, however, don’t stand a snowball's chance in hell. Casino owners aren’t clamoring to come here because they’re benevolent benefactors of the community. The places are built in order to siphon money from every person who walks through the doors, and the state will be complicit in this. Of course, those who do walk through the doors and gamble will not do so at gunpoint. Fine. Most everybody knows the story. So, how do we protect the innocent while still making this a long-term profit maker for the state and its casino partners?
Simple. There need to be decent minimum payout percentages, mandated by law, for all slot machines and video poker machines. There need to be liberal rules on table games, allowing for a greater possibility of payback to the players. There need to be laws put in place to disallow strongarm tactics that could be employed by the casinos to keep out smarter players. There need to be laws written that will make it illegal to place ATM machines inside these places.
All in all, there need to be more regulations on the books than have been written or proposed. I’ve read through the bills (H.1039, H.130, S.168, H.3111, among others) and found nothing protecting the suckers. The closest is Section 13 in H.1039, which calls for odds to be posted on electronic gaming devices. That doesn't guarantee any minimum payout, though. The best protection given the players who can’t afford to lose would be minimum payout percentages. A machine that pays back 98% of monies put into it provides entertainment at a fair cost. A machine that only pays back 80% (or 70%, or 60%) will bleed someone dry before they even have a chance to think about what they’re doing to their future.
Why would it be good for the state’s interests to not have a higher percentage flowing into the coffers right away? Why should they care about NOT taking as much as they can as fast as they can? Because a person who loses a little, but who has a good time, will lose that little bit over and over again, while someone who has a hideous experience is likely to never return. Word travels fast in gaming circles. If Massachusetts becomes known as a place giving a fair shake, it will draw more players from competing states. If we become known as a home of clip joints, the money will flow elsewhere.
This state has a choice. It can make lots of money in the short term, but have white elephants on their hands later. Or it can make a reasonable assumption of fair play the law, concomitantly resulting in more revenue in the long run. And, by choosing that latter course, they will also be protecting some of those citizens most vulnerable to the pitfalls inherent in bringing casinos to this state. Win – Win.
I hope the state gaming commissioners, and interested parties in the state legislature, will see to it that Massachusetts doesn’t slaughter the goose before it can lay a few golden eggs.
[Jim Sullivan is a former blackjack dealer, among other things. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]
If you reside in Massachusetts, and you agree, you might consider printing this out and sending it to your state rep.
Soon, with more bettor stuff.