Gaming the System

By July 9, 2019 No Comments

By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor

Since 2005, I’ve easily made more than a dozen trips to Las Vegas, probably more. Here’s a quick list of my five favorite memories.

  1. Won $1,700 when I got a six-high diamond straight flush in a poker game.
  2. Won $600 on a $6 horse-racing bet when the first-place horse was disqualified and my nag got lucky.
  3. Gave $7 to a guy riding a scooter and dressed as Elvis for a picture and a 24-oz can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
  4. Saw Guns-n-Roses live at the Hard Rock Cafe at 3 a.m. with four friends. Duff McKagen showed up, the bourbon flowed like wine.
  1. Saw Paulie Shore wearing a speedo in the lobby of The Venetian hotel casually chatting with a companion

If you notice, my favorite moments have nothing to do with gambling. The two that do were odd happenings that made the wins an event to share with my friends. So, while I do like to play cards, shoot dice and place the occasional baseball parlay in the sports book, I go to Las Vegas for the experience. So, whenever I write about the fact that expanded gambling to help fill state revenue shortfalls is short-sighted and wrongheaded, I do feel a bit hypocritical, because I do gamble from time to time.

But what’s going on in Pennsylvania just isn’t a good idea. I’m not necessarily talking about brick-and-mortar casinos in this instance, but rather the expansion we’ve seen in recent years in online gambling. 

When I talk about online gambling, I’m referring to four distinct sectors: sports betting, online casino slots and table games, online poker and online lottery. I’ve written about gambling a lot in the past 20 years, but I am by no means an expert. But here is my above average layman’s opinion: We’re screwed.

A legislature that once balked at offering expanded gambling, has now greenlit every gambling device possible to separate you from your money. Slots, table games, sports betting, online sports betting, iLottery, online poker and, now, online casino gambling are all on the table in the commonwealth. On July 15, online casinos offering everything from slot machines to three-card poker, can start operations. 

I should start by saying that I don’t think the biggest concern here is online sports gambling and online poker. Why? These games require a certain level of knowledge to play. Also, many experts agree these two forms of wagering are partially skill-based and don’t completely rely on luck. The issue is with online casino gambling and, an even larger problem, iLottery. 

First, games like slot machines, roulette and so-called “carnival games” like four-card poker typically have some of the worst odds in a casino. But people play them, especially slots, because they’re easy to play and often laden with bright, cartoony graphics. While it’s easy enough to get to a casino that’s in your community, you still have to drive there, park and pull out cash from an ATM to gamble. You might not go if it’s rainy or snowy or you’re low on funds. But imagine if you can grab your laptop, put in a credit card number, grab a beer from the fridge and sit down on your couch and play your favorite slot. As of July 15, It will take zero effort to lose your money on a game that is designed to make you lose more than you win. 

The same is true with iLottery which offers video-game style lottery games, essentially digital scratch-offs. You can bet any denomination you wish, but instead of going to the convenience store or the bar to play, you go to your computer or phone. Addiction to scratch-off tickets is very real. Why? Gavin Jenkins said it best in a 2015 story in Vice: “That’s when I realized lottery players run on hope … State lottery agencies have clearly learned this, marketing their games with corny slogans like New Jersey’s ‘Give your dream a chance.’ In Kentucky, it’s ‘Somebody’s gotta win, might as well be you;’ California’s ads ask people to ‘Imagine what a buck could do.’ They’re not just selling lottery tickets—they’re selling hope.”

People are buying into the program, too. In an April Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story, it was reported that the Pennsylvania Lottery is on course for a record year and an estimated $4.5 billion in sales. So, obviously,  just as it is with slot machines, online games like this give patrons the chance to chase that dream as frequently as their bank accounts will allow. 

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