Tuesday, March 20, 2012

There's One Born Every Minute, So Take Your Time; No Need To Immediately Rob All Of Them Blind

[Photo from The Slots Guy.]

(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 suldog@aol.com]


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.


Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, they should've published it. I really don't have much of an opinion on casinos myself. I've been a few times and find myself bored to tears within an hour or so.

It's true that gambling has wrecked lives, but I think the vast majority of people play to have fun and are able to stop when they've reached their limit. So are you going to ban casinos for that small minority? In which case, to be consistent, you should also ban alcohol, no?

The minimum payback on slot machines sounds like a great idea. I don't know if we have that in Quebec...

Michelle H. said...

Yeah, gambling is... gambling. Sounds obvious when watching those people on welfare who are capable of getting a job using government money (which means taxpayer's money) to play the slots. Eh, whatever. I have no complaints when the money is, technically, going back to the state for other state-funded projects.

I've never been in a casino even though we have them here.

I like the new window. Been trying to do the same for my blog but blogger acts goofy on me. Maybe I'll try again.

Craig said...

In Michigan, casinos came to us via the 'autonomous tribal government' on Indian reservation lands. For years and years, that meant that there was one small casino buried somewhere in the woods in the Upper Peninsula, which was a pain in the ass to get to, and far away from the population centers of the state.

Then someone noticed that, hey, there are Indian reservation lands in the Lower Peninsula, too, and they're a lot easier to get to than the ones five hours' drive away, and in the middle of noplace. After that, it was a short trip to creating new reservations on, say, single blocks of downtown Detroit.

But hey, the casinos have brought all sorts of social progress in their wake - the number of prostitutes in some of the smallish cities that are host to the casinos has increased something like ten-fold since their advent. . .

And there are no more bingo games in Catholic parishes. . . ;)

Jeni said...

Although, as I think I've told you before when you posted information about gambling, odds and such about football (was it that or basketball -some sport stuff anyway), I tend to get really confused when "odds" are mentioned. Be that as it may, I did understand completely what your point is in this letter though and frankly, I agree with you and also with all three of the comments left above mine too! The letter really should have been published because you made very good, clear and concise points about rules being needed to protect -actually ALL concerned, not just the "suckers" doing the gambling. To me, the old adage "one hand washes the other" comes to mind here in that if people have a good time and don't feel they are being ripped off in the process or at least not too much, they will most likely return and keep returning. Isn't that part of good business overall though? Well, put that way, maybe that explains why the state may not agree with your theories then cause managing a "good" business isn't always much of a strength (my opinion there) a lot of the time, is it?

lime said...

i HATE that my state has casinos now. it was debated for decades. tom ridge, who will mainly and laughably be remembered as the first homeland security guy, was actually a half decent governor and while their was a lot of pressure on him to allow casinos he said it would be put to referendum and he'd go by what the voters said. (gee, ,ain't that how democracy is supposed to work? wild that it;s such a novel concept to actually see in action). the voters said no. then rendell got in after ridge (ok, technically after the forgettable lt. gov who finished ridge's term). he was in bed with all the folks who wanted casinos and rammed it all down our throats and spewed the bs that it would reduce property taxes. and then the scandals about the regulatory body and casino owners. yeah, right. the whole thing has worked out really well.

ok, i'll stop my rant. sorry.

lime said...

on a more positive note i am really glad we agree on the issue of split pea soup.

stephen Hayes said...

Here in Oregon we pay for our schools and libraries with "sin" taxes. Lotteries, liquor taxes, tobacco taxes--these are what we use to finance public education. In order for our public schools to prosper, we all need to gamble, drink and smoke as much as possible. I don't think this sets a good example for our kids.

Anonymous said...

You make very valid points. I hope they listen to you. You sent this to your reps, didn't you?

messymimi said...

Excellent points. In our state, the politicians used to cover up the pocket lining. Now they just use the casinos.

Anonymous said...

"...decent minimum payout percentages..."

Whoo-freaking hoo!

I would go!

Not really. *smile*

Nah, it's much easier and comfy to stay at home and click my life away at PCH online sweepstakes. Everytime the doorbell rings, my heart flutters.

Still fluttering.


Good idea Suldog. Good idea.

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip said...

I dealt blackjack (well, really it was "21"), too. No, I don't play the game now ...hardly gamble, in fact.
I liked it just fine when all of it was in Nevada. A short journey to Lake Tahoe was just about right.
OTOH, I understand the states thinking they have to keep gambling monies at home. I just finished reading an article in The Economist on the subject of how many places have expanded the opportunities for folks to "sin"
That said, suppose, for example, a state set the minimum payout at 85%. That doesn't preclude a casino operator from paying out 88% and drawing more business to his place
Or is that too much like a free market?

notactuallygod said...

Sometimes the only way to win is not to play.
I got that from WarGames.

Suldog said...

Skip - Yes, it's more rightly called "21", but since "Blackjack" is the more popularly known name, that's what I used.

You raise a good point that I failed to note. Mandated minimum payouts do not preclude higher payouts. My hope is that competition between, say, MA and CT casinos would drive operators to go above the minimums. However, for the short term, I still think it's extremely important to have the minimums in place.

Jenn Flynn-Shon said...

Its interesting to me to read that the casino bill passed in Mass. They were so brutally against it for so long I thought everyone had given up trying to get it through.

I have gambled a few times - the requisite Foxwoods trip at 1:00AM when everyone is half in the bag, 1 time in Atlantic City, scratch/lottery tix - but don't really feel drawn to giving over my hard earned cash to a glitzy corporation just to get a few free drinks.

Now, with that said, if the state does adopt your theories here and gives people a chance to win and experience that rush of the dumping of coins, it allows them good feelings to come back, doesn't bleed them dry in an already precarious economy, AND provides revenue for the state (one that is losing residents left & right aka revenue) then I say why not bring it in!

Wish this had been published in the paper but happy you shared it here.

Buck said...

Soon, with more bettor stuff.


Well said. I've never understood the thrill of gambling, thank The Deity At Hand. I have a semi-addictive personality and I could easily see this fool being parted with what lil money I have IF I enjoyed it. Hell, I don't even buy lottery tickets...

Nope gimmee the usual: wine, women and song. Double up on the wine, please.

Buck said...

Oh: I like this comment form. I switched to it a couple o' weeks back.

Sandi McBride said...

South Carolina once was home to one armed bandits...I can't tell you the number of people I
booked for bad checks when I was "on the job" a few of them professionals...the best thing the voters here ever did was outlaw them...but now we have scratch cards and they are not much better! Great article, hope you got your toenails done.

flutterby said...

Casinos have been around my province for about 20 years, now. Much like in Craig's home state, they are governed, run and privatized through the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Association.

I know nothing of the in and outs of gambling. I am hard-pressed to have my arm-twisted to spend even $5 in those places. I'd have as much fun setting a match to the cash and enjoying the flame. :) That said, there are some pretty good bands and shows that tour the circuit and the buffets are always great! lol

Shammickite said...

There are a few casinos around here that are on Indian lands and run by the local indigenous people. I went on a bus trip to one of them once, a long time ago. I think I gambled about $10 and lost, but the highlight of the trip was the $5 dinner! And the people watching.
Toronto is debating whether to change the laws and allow casinos, but I don't know the details as I'm not really interested. Gasically I don't gamble. I don't even buy lottery tickets. And that's why I'll never be rich. Or broke.

Shammickite said...

There are a few casinos around here that are on Indian lands and run by the local indigenous people. I went on a bus trip to one of them once, a long time ago. I think I gambled about $10 and lost, but the highlight of the trip was the $5 dinner! And the people watching.
Toronto is debating whether to change the laws and allow casinos, but I don't know the details as I'm not really interested. Gasically I don't gamble. I don't even buy lottery tickets. And that's why I'll never be rich. Or broke.

The Broad said...

I expect that you are right. However, gambling turns me off -- there is a casino here in Southport and we used to go occasionally -- they had a wonderful restaurant. It was kind of fun initially watching the roulette and blackjack tables. However, I began to notice these rather wealthy looking ladies with the blue rinse and long painted fingernails and some glittery baubles decorating their necks, arms and fingers with endless 20 pound notes and expensive chips just going down the 'drain' so to speak. And I thought that it was really sad that these people had nothing better to do with their money and time than watch most of it go to naught. But as you say, people are going to do it one way or the other so best to have some decent laws to control what's what.

Daryl said...

I dont care .... as long as the gawdawful WV is not invoked .. another way to milk suckers, I do care about this because casinos are smoke filled and the house almost always wins

Sueann said...

Here in NM we have many casinos....the owners get rich and those that plug away at the slots get more destitute. It is sad and pathetic. Just saying.

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip said...

I found a link to the article I mentioned above. Maybe you can read it without a subscription?. The bit about gambling in MA is about halfway down, if you're interested.

Suldog said...

Thanks, Skip. Yeah, I was able to access it. The good thing about expanded gaming, for gamblers, is that competition usually brings increased payoffs without having to resort to law.

Just Stuff From a Boomer said...

I'm rather indifferent to Casinos. Terry and I used to go to Las Vegas a couple of times a year, back in the 90's. He played craps. I played slots. We always considered the $$ we took to be the "cost of entertainment", same as tickets into Disney or the price of a cruise. You know you are not comeing home with it. To me, most of the fun is the people watching and the big name shows.

When Casinos came to Michigan, I can say we visisted a couple of times. Never went to Detroit though. These casinos are limited and pretty much have you captive. I like to wander.

Joanna Jenkins said...

I had no idea. I wonder what the laws are here in California.... I'm guessing not great.

Thanks for the heads up, Jim.

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