David Bouchier: You Can Bet On It

Jan 15, 2018

My father never gambled, except for a few penny bets on card games with friends at home. My mother and grandmother allowed themselves what they called “a flutter” on the big annual horse race called the Grand National. But that was only because the queen had a horse in the race, and the bet was never more than a couple of dollars. I am quite risk-averse myself, but I will occasionally buy a lottery ticket, as a gesture towards financial planning. So our family was never in much danger of gambling addiction.

The news that a huge new casino is to be opened in the Catskills, with others planned in Connecticut and Massachusetts, therefore left me cold, although it must have gladdened the hearts of many dedicated gamblers. Everything I know about casino gambling comes from old James Bond movies. From a distance, I have admired the magnificent casino buildings at Monte Carlo and Baden-Baden, but was never tempted. Casinos seem to me places more suitable for upper-class playboys with unlimited amounts of money to throw away, and the beautiful women who are anxious to help them.

For the rest of us, money is hard to earn, and it seems strange to dispose of it so carelessly without much chance of getting anything in return. But the fantasy of winning is stronger than the reality. Everybody wants to be a winner, although casino profits suggest that the flow of money is almost entirely in the other direction. It seems that groundless optimism is in our DNA. It must be what encouraged the early immigrants from Europe to cross the Atlantic in the hope of finding an earthly paradise.

Gambling never goes out of style. It was popular in China two thousand years ago, and the ancient Romans were obsessed with it, betting on everything from chariot races to gladiators to a throw of the dice. The mighty Roman emperor Augustus was an enthusiastic gambler, although he was not himself a casino operator. He lost a lot of money and finally decided that gambling was poisoning the Roman Empire because it drove so many people into poverty. When he tried to control it, he failed.

This is an old story. Gambling was illegal and even condemned as sinful in much of the United States until the 1970s. Las Vegas, Sin City, was about the only place you could waste so much money so quickly without actually burning it. Then the laws changed and the floodgates opened. Now it’s not sin, it’s fun, it’s everywhere, and it’s a $250 billion industry. You can’t argue with that kind of success.

Gambling has spread through the culture until it virtually is the culture, as it was in ancient Rome. Wall Street is nothing but a gigantic gaming house, and most economic policy and personal planning seems to be based on the hope that our winning number is bound to come up sometime so that the debts can be paid off. The business of government, always a gamble at the best of times, seems more and more to be conducted on the lines of a casino. The advertising is shameless, the entertainment is loud and tacky, the odds are stacked against us, and the casino operators are the only ones getting rich.

Copyright: David Bouchier