Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Little Flutter

Casino table games are one of those human pastimes that escape this human's comprehension. You can't beat arithmetic. Once upon a few decades ago, the Phoenix sent yours truly to professional blackjack card-counting school. This was a tremendous experience, but its seminal lesson was that card-counting was about a 1000 times harder way to make a living than any real job, even writing for an alternative newspaper.

Then again, I like a wager from time to time. A $5 Nassau, a football games, a day at the track, those are activities that stir the blood and brain. If one is gambling on creatures that breathe, there are no percentages. Losing, while likely, is not foreordained. Besides, it takes three hours to lose $20 on a ball game, and three seconds to do so at blackjack. It's a far better run for one's money.

So aside from knowing that since this is Massachusetts, whatever happens will turn into a complete cockup, color me neutral on the burning issue of casino gambling. Whether or not there's a gambling hell built in Middleboro, Chicopee, or anywhere else in the Commonwealth, I'm not going. Foxwoods has been an hour plus away for 15 years, and I've never been, despite the fact that due to social connections, I could get comped for a weekend.

Gov. Patrick's plan to build three casino-resorts to help fund infrastructure is flawed, but not morally. It simply projects the usual overoptimism of all political ideas. These resorts would make money for the state, but not nearly as much as Patrick wishes. Besides, if these resorts are built in the middle of nowhere, as seems likely, then they'll boost the already considerable infrastructure needs of our state by a significant amount before they even open.

There is also the aspect of competition. There are only so many gamblers, and rest assured Connecticut will not stand on its two cards of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun if casinos go up just a few miles north up I-91. The only means casinos have of competing is either find more losers, or cut the house's percentage. A price war hurts all sides.

Local opposition to proposed casinos also make sense. If I lived in Middleboro, I'd be against it. Having a major tourist attraction in one's backyard is a big pain in the ass. Lexington needs new business, but I'd oppose a casino on the same grounds.

Those are the REAL objections to casinos. As a revenue raiser, they may not work. As neighbors, they're as disruptive as any other large business. Those, however, are about the 138th and 139th most-uttered criticisms of Patrick's idea. The anti-casino forces rest their case on tired, pompous, and above all, hypocritical grounds that gambling is a sin. It's BAD for you.

This is true for some folks. Gambling can be a destructive force in people's lives, just like alcohol, tobacco, the Internet, and financial markets, to name a few pastimes the state wouldn't dream of forbidding. Gambling addicts have legal means of self-destruction on sale in grocery stores for God's sake. I'm very sorry for Dave D'Alessandro that a close family member was a compulsive gambler, but how does a guy who ran an INSURANCE COMPANY have the standing to somebody's else's business is a ripoff?

Haven't we learned this lesson through millennia of human life? Addicts will find a way to feed their sickness, come what may. The only person who can stop them is them. They can be helped, but it's got to be a cooperative process.

Then there's the "casinos attract an undesirable element" wheeze from opponents with too much exposure to the films of Martin Scorcese. We will expose the ludricrousness of that argument with the following true story.

Back in the late 1970s, New Jersey was debating whether to legalize casinos in Atlantic City. A statewide referendum was held. During the election campaign, I paid a visit to my friend Rob, who was then a grad student at Temple Medical School in Philadelphia. Rob's roommate was from Jersey, so after a few relaxants both legal and illegal, the issue came up. I asked the roomie how he was going to vote.

"Oh, I'm voting no," he said. "I wouldn't want to see organized crime get into New Jersey like that."

Thirty years later, my jaw still drops at the memory.

It comes as no surprise that opinionists at the Globe are lining up against casinos. The Globe is a good newspaper, if not what it once was, but for the 30 plus years I've read it every day, the stick the size of a Louisville Slugger that's rammed up the paper's collective butt has remained firmly in place. Casinos are vulgar, don't you know. It's where the wrong sort enjoy themselves. And of course, as glorious guardians of good, the Globies want to protect "the poor" who make up a disproportionate percentage of gamblers, or so we're told.

Not at Foxwoods, they don't. Casinos have two prime customer demographics, people with money who like to gamble, and old people who're so bored even slot machines provide a thrill. Surely, the wise men and women who write opinions for the Globe have noticed the common fact about the megalottery winners who pop up on the news two or three times a year. Let's just say none of them are Guster fans. Does the phrase "Earlybird Special" ring a bell? If some senior wants to squander their kids' inheritance at video poker, hey, it's their money.

Opinions I disagree with are one thing. Misrepresentation of the facts are quite another. In a column this week, Steve Bailey of the Globe resorted to outright distortion to argue against casinos. Bailey stated that statistics show that Rhode Island residents spend much more on legal gambling (on lottery tickets and machine gambling at Lincoln) than those of other New England states, proving they were stupid.

Ignore the slur. Bailey surely knows that the money fed into the slots has no return address. If people from Massachusetts go to Rhode Island to gamble, and they do, their spending show up on Rhode Island's gaming balance sheet, and since Rhode Island is small, they have a disproportionate effect on the stat Bailey cited. So either Bailey is complete innumerate, or he'll twist the facts to make a case. Both scenarios cast considerable doubt on his credentials as a financial analyst.

Go to it, casino opponents and proponents. Argue, lobby, threaten, and bribe to your heart's content. Based on the experience of the Big Dig, the first Massachusetts casino will open sometime in the summer of 2043. It will be the first casino since the death of Bugsy Siegel to lose money on a regular basis.

Now, if you'll all excuse me, I must be off. It's Mass Cap day at Suffolk Downs, and I'd like to get there for the double.


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