Column: Mainstream gambling

Switch on ESPN any Tuesday. Below the ticker showing the latest golf scores from Dubai is a clock counting down the seconds to the channel’s most anticipated weekly show. Unless you’ve been living in a cable television-proof cave, you know I’m talking about the World Series of Poker.

My poker instincts tell me most of the people who tune in do not do so to watch a card game, but rather to watch the players. Professional card players, yes people play poker for a living, are an odd sort. Take for example, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson. Under his ten-gallon hat and dark sunglasses, he sports a Christ-like hair-do and beard. He can also throw a playing card fast enough to split a pickle in half.

Mixed in with these poker pros are an ever-increasing number of regular people. By regular, I mean people whose gross yearly income isn’t determined by a flop of cards. This movement of poker into the mainstream has political implications as well. In both of my home towns – Nebraska and D.C. – gambling will be a major issue this November.

In Nebraska, four referendums have been placed on the ballot seeking to legalize casino gambling. Here in D.C., a petition drive to allow for slot machines in Northeast Washington is caught up in a legal battle. It is possible that this too will be on the ballot in November.

Much, if not most of the gambling that would take place in these gaming establishments is far different than the gambling shown on cable television. The cash cow for a casino is the slot machine.

A simple math lesson shows how effective these machines are at making money. Say, for example, a casino promises a 97 percent return. For every four quarters you put in, the casino makes three cents. Assuming you spend two dollars a minute, in an hour the casino will have made almost four dollars off you. The proposal for the D.C. site has 3,500 machines. Odds are, even with half the slots occupied; the casino will make $7,000 per hour. No wonder the buffets are always so cheap.

Despite the many mathematical reasons to be against gambling, I find many of the arguments put forth by gambling’s opponents to make as much sense as dropping a quarter into the slot and expecting a payout.

The main argument against allowing gambling in Nebraska are the social costs involved, higher crime, gambling addiction and others. These may be valid points, except that casinos surround Nebraska. What greater impact is it going to have putting a casino literally two blocks closer? Gaming opponents also try to paint gambling as something foreign to Nebraska. Not only in Nebraska do we play the Powerball lottery. For decades, one of our biggest attractions was the Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack where patrons placed bets on the horses.

I suspect most voters will decide how to vote based upon some of the arguments listed above. I’ll admit I haven’t yet made up my mind. What I suspect will be the clinching factor for me is the chutzpah of the casino industry. They have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the effort to legalize gambling. The largest group received more than a quarter of a million dollars from Coast Casinos. Yet they have the nerve to call themselves “Keep the Money in Nebraska.” For comparison, two St. Croix based firms have spent $2 million in the campaign to put slots in Northeastern D.C.

For all the money that is going to be spent on ads in this election, there is no better ad for the casinos than what is shown every Tuesday night on ESPN.

Sure they show losers, but it seems even the losers they show win something. The editing on the show is brilliant. I’ve played enough poker to know most hands really aren’t that exciting. Careful editing, and an intermixing of player interviews draw the viewer into watching. It helps greatly that the viewer at home gets a peek at each players’ cards. This makes it look easy at home, something it usually isn’t at the card table itself.

Beaming high-stakes gambling into the homes of tens of millions – for good or ill – raises the profile of gambling. It makes it seem like a normal everyday activity, perhaps one that should be allowed where I live. Certainly this will be on the minds of many voters as they go into the voting booth and pull the lever.

-The writer, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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