Easy Money: Gambling in America

Nancy Marie Brown
December 01, 1986

When the woman in the lime green stretch pants gathers up her chips and steps away, Jim Smith takes her place at the table. He snaps a bill stiff in his hand—a bill he had a moment earlier drawn secretively from his wallet, holding it hidden behind a twenty—and places it face down on the table as close to the opposite side as he can reach without dangling his tie in the way of the dice. The bill is a hundred. The dealer slides it with two fingers over to the boxman, and, with the other hand, as if his hands were connected by a stiff rod, simultaneously pushes two stacks of white chips and one of red out toward Jim. Jim ranks them in his tray, leaving a $1 bet on the pass line.

The boxman smoothes Jim's $100 lengthwise over the slit in the table and pushes it with his clear plastic paddle, forcing it to bow and crinkle and disappear. All the while, he looks at me, standing behind Jim; his clear green eyes, unsmiling, are working at an air of being disgusted by it all. I, too, am trying to look aloof, nodding nonchalantly at Jim with his khaki suit and foulard tie and $100 bill. I am in Atlantic City so that James F. Smith, associate professor of American Studies at Penn State's Ogontz Campus, can demonstrate for me the points about gamblers and gambling raised in The Business of Risk: Commercial Gambling in Mainstream America, a book written by Vicki Abt, an associate professor of sociology at Penn State-Ogontz, with Smith and Eugene Martin Christiansen, a consultant to the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation. Vicki left us at the parking lot as soon as we had reached Atlantic City today, saying she'd rather go shopping than stand around in a casino; we'll meet her at the car in a few hours.

The dice bound across the table from the direction of a curly-headed, cigar-smoking, T-shirt-wearing man by the far left corner of the table, who is keeping track of the rolls—or at least writing something—in a small, spiral-bound notebook. The roll had come from his neighbor, a thin, older woman in a neat brown dress and earrings shaped like roses, who listens carefully to her husband, in a white sport shirt, his belly shadowing his belt, who is giving loud and detailed advice on betting strategy. The dice turns up seven, and the dealer clears away the chips, including the small stack Jim had set on the four.

The next shooter is also a woman, under 30, with shoulder-length blond hair, wearing a red summer top and white slacks. She throws three times and loses three dollars. With his crook, the dealer slides five dice in front of Jim. He chooses two and, without shaking them or even turning them in his hand, sends them ricocheting against the rippled green foam of the table wall. He snaps his fingers as he lets go of the dice and says, more as a command than a wish, 'Now, dice.' They turn up eight. He redistributes his chips, piling them higher on the eight point, and rolls again. Six. Three. Ten. Nine. The dealer gives him a few chips. Seven. He takes his stack out of the tray—only red chips are left—and, with a bounce in his step and a cavalier smile, walks away from the game. The gambler who is a poor loser is even more so a poor gambler, I remember from an article he and Abt wrote. Accepting loss gracefully shows character, style, which is itself a basis for winning respect from fellow gamblers. . . . The gain in social status may well offset the loss of funds.

I follow Jim along the lines of crap shooters, past the blackjack players and the empty baccarat tables cordoned off on a raised floor, between the slot machines and the video poker—where a man with tattooed arms plays two machines at once, straddling a stool midway between them, slipping in quarters and jabbing buttons with alternate hands, turning his head from side to side as if to say, 'No, no.' In exchange for his chips, the cashier gives Jim $75 in fives, tens, and twenties.

'What kind of gambler are you, Jim—casual? occasional?' I ask, referring to two of the seven types of gamblers described in The Business of Risk.

'I'm a serious gambler,' he says, slipping the bills into his wallet. 'That means I'm serious about my gambling. But it's still just entertainment.' He hands his parking ticket to the attendant at another booth and grimaces when she explains that the casino no longer owns that parking lot and she can't reimburse him for his $5.50. 'What keeps me in it,' he continues, as we walk out onto the boardwalk, 'is the people, the stories. There's this guy Peter Griffin, for instance, a blackjack player who's a math professor at the University of California. One time he and I and some others took over a table at Lake Tahoe, $2 bets, and Peter was giving us all tips on how to play. Then came a hand where Peter had a 10 and a 7. Now, any blackjack player knows you never hit a 17, but Peter says to the dealer, 'Hit me with that 4 you're going to deal me,' and she did—it turned up a four. Well, her chin hit the floor. And we were all just laughing. ' How did you know?' she asked Peter. ' Well,' he said, ' you only had 16 cards left, and all of the fours and threes were there. The law of averages. . . .' And that's when we got up and left."

'Serious' gamblers rank fourth on Abt and Smith's scale. Along with the 'casual,' 'occasional,' and 'risky' gamblers, they think of gambling as play. They do it on impulse, to have fun, to get attention, to celebrate, for the same thrill skydivers and rock climbers are after, as a hobby, a pastime in the company of friends. The money they lose is, to them, an admission fee, the price of the ticket. They gamble with money, not necessarily for it: It is fun to reduce money, the almighty dollar, to the value of a toy, a trinket that can give pleasure for a while and be tossed away. And the games themselves, well, they take you away from the boredom and uncertainly of everyday life and make you master of your fate. They let you confront the chancy nature of existence within safe and comfortable bounds. They give you hope, against astronomical odds, of striking it rich—you, the one who has very few actual prospects of realizing the American Dream. But mostly, they are ends in themselves. Keep in mind Johan Huizinga's definition of play, warns The Business of Risk: 'Play lies outside the antithesis of wisdom and folly, and equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil. Although it is a non-material activity it has no moral function. The valuations of virtue and vice do not apply here.' 'Because the medium is money, which is won or lost,' Abt and Smith write, 'people have assumed the medium is the meaning. It is not. Gambling is not meaningful solely because it leaves gamblers richer or poorer; the games—the action, the excitement, the escape—are in and of themselves meaningful. . . . A. Alvarez recounts the anecdote of the expert poker player who because of his skill consistently wins and then goes out onto the casino floor and loses it all on craps—where his skill is of no avail—just for the action. The point is not that he wants to lose, but that the money involved is irrelevant."

There are other gamblers for whom the games are more than play: the 'professional,' 'obsessive,' and 'compulsive' gamblers that Abt and Smith label 'non-conventional.' Gambling to them is a way to replace an unsatisfactory, chaotic life with one in which the rules and meanings are clear and ordered; a way to destroy the world and sate one's psyche with uncontrolled stimulus and response.

These last gamblers, the destroyers, the compulsives, are the ones psychologists and criminologists warn about, the ones who bet their last dimes and bring down ruin on their kin. They make up one percent of the 80 million people who wagered $177 billion on legal and illegal gambling games in 1985, more money than Americans spent on newspapers, magazines, books - all print media; more than they spent on movies, tours, or amusement parks; more than they spent on anything in the leisure marketplace except alcohol; enough money to make gambling organizations, if all the casinos and state lotteries and racetracks and jai alai and offtrack betting stalls and bookies and card rooms and bingo and illegal cards, sports, and horserace betting were lumped into one huge corporation, enough to rank that corporation Number 21 on the Fortune 500 list—right above U.S. steel.

'The people who've looked at gambling up until now,' Vicki Abt says in the car on the way out of Atlantic City, 'have overestimated the impact on the individual and underestimated the impact on society, on cultural values. They do all their worrying about compulsive gamblers—even if everyone followed the advice of ' bet with your head, not over it,' as New Jersey's slogan goes—there'd still be things to worry about."

Abt and Smith have been studying gambling together since 1978. Abt, in part, because she knew people who were high rollers and handicappers, and they didn't fit into the psychologists' model that gamblers are deviant members of society. Smith, because he had been using gambling as an example to his classes of the decadence of popular American culture, and then once, after giving a paper at a conference in Las Vegas, decided to try the casinos and left Las Vegas 'a winner.' 'On the way home,' he remembers, 'I had a long talk with myself. Did I see enough decadence to justify my assertions in class? Yes. I had a whole slew of notes about bad and tacky things. But there was also an attraction to it that I couldn't deny.' Since then, casinos have been legalized in Atlantic City and, in 1984, the decision to hold state lotteries in California, Oregon, Missouri, and West Virginia (Pennsylvania got the lottery in 1973) brought that form of gambling within reach of the majority of the voting population in the United States—completing the lottery's metamorphosis from a dubious and at first unsuccessful financial experiment in public finance into a normal function of state government.

'No longer,' write Smith and Abt, 'is gambling so magnetically naughty.' And that shift, from a vice that Americans condemned but indulged in nonetheless (for Americans, since colonial times, have been notorious gamblers) to an accepted, commercialized, government-endorsed leisure activity, that change—and what it means for American values—has Jim Smith and Vicki Abt worried.

Atlantic City is a dirty, neglected, suffering town once you step off the boardwalk, with the carriages and tram cars run by Resorts International, and the enclosed shopping mall on the site of the old 'Million-Dollar Pier,' from inside of which you can neither see, hear, nor smell the ocean slapping at the piling beneath your feet, and the slim-waisted, clean-cut Salvation Army singers crooning 'All things are possible, all things are possible, all things are possible to them that believe in the Lord,' and the gaudy, tacky, garish, uniform casinos where your heartbeat is quickened by the pulsating signs and your pupils contracted as you step into the oasis of clear light around the crap table, and your palms moistened by the money and the tension and the whispers of hope and fear. We drive down the main shopping street. Dottie's Super Subs. Gem Liquors. A boarded-up storefront. Joseph's Fabrics, the 'h' missing from the sign. A long-haired man, apparently in his 50s and apparently drunk, totters to the corner. An ambulance whines by. A half-dozen youths, black and white, stand against a backdrop of yellow graffiti. 'Live Nude Show 25 Cents,' says a sign. 'Praise the Lord Parking,' says another.

'The people were sucked in,' says Vicki, the words harsh in her New York accent.

'If they expected a whole lot more, then they're hopelessly naive,' says Jim.

'It's not just that the people are naive, the legislature got sucked in.' Vicki tosses her head angrily. She is lounging in the back seat, her sandals off, her dancer's legs (she once danced on Broadway) up on the seat, wearing a fashionable denim jumpsuit, her dark red hair, cut in a Farrah Fawcett style, blowing in the breeze from the window she would keep open for most of our trip, air-conditioning notwithstanding. 'I don't blame the casinos,' she adds, 'I blame the state—the incoherent policy, the cynicism. Gambling shouldn't have to legitimize itself by saying it'll redevelop a neighborhood. It wants a transient population.' She reaches around and locks the door behind her back.

'America's gambling policy is a disaster,' she says. 'That's what our book is about."

Chapter six of the book is called 'Commercial Gambling and American Values.' It begins in colonial times and ends yesterday. It lifts up The American Dream by the feet and shakes it, and what comes out of its pockets is alarming.

The values of colonial America, Abt and Smith write, were defined by the Protestant work ethic, which emphasized a person's accountability to God: You had the obligation to discover your calling and to work at it to the best of your ability. In those days, how hard you tried was the index of your goodness. By Ben Franklin's era, the work ethic had been scrambled by the vast material abundance the settlers found in the American land. Satisfaction in a job well done was still prized, but wealth—if honestly earned—was seen as a sign of God's blessing. The emphasis on how much money you had steadily increased through the 19th and 20th centuries until it came to be seen as the inevitable consequence of hard work, and thus the new measure of success. Your status, with money at its foundation instead of hard, diligent, and necessary work, became much more visible. You presented it to the world in the form of status symbols—big house, big car—instead of through lifelong service to your community. Now, however, arose the possibility and the temptation of purchasing status instead of earning it. If you wanted to raise your status, you bought a bigger car, a bigger status symbol, whether you could afford it or not.

When the idea of purchasing status took hold, the emphasis shifted away from production and work to consumption and leisure: You were judged not on your ability to produce, but on your choices as a consumer. You no longer worked in the hope of future spiritual rewards, you worked to consume—but you also had less and less satisfaction from your consumption for the simple reason that the continued prosperity of America made what had been 'affluence' in the last decade seem like the minimum acceptable standard of living in this decade. You were fighting a losing battle, always trying to top your parents' success, or the Jones's, and by the 1960s and 70s you began rejecting the consumer society and its nose-to-the-grindstone way of life (which, ironically, you could only do because you were so affluent), and turned your attention to leisure, to 'having fun,' and to hoping, somehow, to get the money to keep having fun. 'The new criterion fro success,' write Abt and Smith, 'is making one's fortune without necessarily doing anything intrinsically good or useful in the process.' The idea is that you, as an individual, cannot influence your destiny simply by trying; you're not going to get as much as you deserve. It's only the lucky ones, the ones who get the breaks, who get ahead.

Commercial gambling, along with much of popular American culture, reflects and stimulates this shift in America's driving force. But the work ethic, though turned inside out, is still cherished by today's leisure-loving Americans, at it is the root of the problems Abt and Smith see in the reality of commercial gambling—why it did not rejuvenate Atlantic City, why it has not made an appreciable dent in illegal gambling, and, most of all, why it will not solve the financial problems of states. Americans, Abt and Smith assert, demand from all of their activities, leisure ones included, productive effects. 'Play must uplift or be profitable, or be somehow useful either to the state or to the community or to the individual,' they write. 'It can't just be pleasurable for pleasure's sake. Gambling can't just be valuable in and of itself—because it is exciting or fun or an escape or whatever. It must be useful. To make play useful, Americans do it for profit."

'The games we play reflect on our society,' says Jim, over steak and wine at his suburban Philadelphia home. Even without his tie, his trimmed beard and thick-lensed glasses give him a professional aura. 'But gambling, as a corporation, is redefining society. You have a circle: society shaping game shaping society. And one of the problems that we've found is that the legislators who are approving casinos and lotteries, the legislators we've talked to, know nothing about gambling. They think lotteries are the most benign form of gambling. They're not. They're one of the most extractive. They're the last thing I'd legalize. What would I legalize first? Sports betting. What's more American than betting your brother a few bucks on the Superbowl? But it's illegal outside of Nevada."

'And the public—the voters,' adds Vicki. 'They know nothing about gambling. Who runs the lottery? They'll say, ' the state,' as if it were a homogenous, benevolent entity. They don't realize, typically, how little return they're getting on their dollar. Ten percent goes into commissions for the private company that supplies the machines and the technical backup and for the vendors who sell the tickets—ten percent of the money the lottery brings in has nothing to do with the state or with the winners. The lottery's a monopoly. The state gives one company the right to profit by it—in Pennsylvania, it's Scientific Games, which is Bally, which also runs Bally's Park Place casino in Atlantic City.

'Here's another thing the people of Pennsylvania should know,' Vicki says. 'The state takes 50 cents out of every dollar and says the money will ' benefit senior citizens,' right? Well, from what we've seen, there haven't been any new programs for senior citizens. The lottery money is just funding the old programs that used to be funded by the general revenue, and the legislature is then spending the general revenue on something else—I don't know what—so the state doesn't have to go back to the people and raise taxes to get the money.' According to the state budget, the lottery fund provides the elderly with property tax and rent assistance, an inflation dividend program, a partial rebate of drug and medical costs, and free mass transit. Glancing at the budgets from 1972 to 1986, one learns that each of these items was introduced under the general revenue and later transferred to the lottery fund as lottery revenues increased.

'They call the lottery a ' painless' tax,' Vicki continues, 'but it's worse than a tax. The money doesn't come from the creation of wealth, like it does from other taxes, it comes from somebody's losses. As we say in the book, the economic interests of the government and the gambler are diametrically opposed. The government has a vested interest in the losses of a large and unprotected body of consumers. Who are they? Mostly lower-income. According to the Survey Research Center, families making less than $10,000 a year accounted for about 11 percent of the total income but contributed almost 25 percent of state lottery losses. The states say they need the lottery to help higher education, support programs for the elderly or the poor, but it's the very same people who benefit from those kinds of social programs—the people whose parents are on Social Security and whose children need state loans to get to college—who are giving their dollars to the lottery and losing 50 cents to the state and 10 cents to the operator right off the bat. I'd ask those people, don't you have a right to gamble? Why should you be taxed? What gives the state the right to take 50 cents on every dollar?"

'Because they make the rules,' says Jim.

'Why should they have a monopoly on the rules? I just don't see how the state can take a stand on illegal gambling when it's running a gambling establishment. How can the state put a bookie in jail when the state's another bookie?"

'Right. Bookie, cop, and beneficiary all in one."

'The fox in the henhouse."

'There's the irony,' says Jim. 'The thing the Pennsylvania citizen does not know is that the state is, in fact, the biggest bookie in the state. The state's cut in the lottery and its expenses are much bigger than the bookie's, and the payoff to the gambler is much lower. The bookie operates on a lower margin, and the gambler makes out better. But people assume that if they gamble with the state, they're getting a better deal than they would with the illegal bookie. They're not."

'Also, Pennsylvania has never done a study,' Vicki adds, 'no state has—on the different effects the various games have on the public. They just willy-nilly legalize anything they can make money on, and make illegal what they can't tax. It's also in the state's interest to keep up the psychological myth of gambling—that whether you gamble or not is determined by your personality, that it's nothing the state can do anything about. But gambling is not a psychological thing, it's social. The decision to gamble is not an individual decision. You have to learn how to do it. You have to have a place to do it in. People gamble more when gambling becomes more available—there are many women who gamble now, for example, who never would have done it if it had stayed illegal, if it had stayed a vice. But there's no study that any state has done of the effects of legalization on the public. I think that's horrible. When they put as welfare organization in a community, they do an evaluation study. Why haven't they evaluated the lottery?"

'They need the money."

'Everything about the lottery stinks. It hasn't made any new programs, it's just made some random people into millionaires—and promoted superstition and wishing instead of working and getting an education to change your life. That's the real risk of gambling, making people think they can get something for nothing, that they can become millionaires without doing a thing. The values a society should instill are not the ones commercialized gambling encourages. The stares have legalized all the wrong games for all the wrong reasons—and then they have the nerve to advertise."

She puts her wine glass down, points her finger at me. 'It's robbing Peter to pay Peter—but Peter loses money in the end."

We chew our steaks in silence, look around at the Early American furniture. The public good should be the first and overriding consideration of gambling policy, Abt and Smith say in their book. As we have seen, this has never been the case, not is it the case today.

'They didn't even look like they were having fun in the casino today, did they?' Vicki asks quietly. I shake my head, remembering the lack of laughter, of cheering, of smiles around the crap table. A paragraph from The Business of Risk comes to mind: The growth of institutional leisure has drastically reduced the opportunities for engaging in a genuine creative play or risk. This is a true measure of America's cultural predicament: Play, the traditional restorative for the mental, physical, and emotional stresses of the real world of work and personal relationships, is becoming just another routine. Few leisure activities are free expressions of the individual, and there are few genuine games. Their place is being taken by programmed behaviors that generate profits for leisure institutions. . . . The very qualities that gave gambling a unique social value—excitement, safe risk, escape—are being changed into yet another set of rote behaviors that serve institutional purposes rather than individual needs.

'Americans gamble puritanically,' Vicki continues. 'I'm not really against commercial gambling because it's immoral, I'm against it because it's boring."

On Tuesday, we go to the races. Horse racing and other kinds of parimutuel betting in which gamblers wager among themselves instead of against the operator are dying out, hurt by exorbitant state taxes on top of the already high cost of keeping horses and jockeys and tracks. We arrive at the track late, five minutes before the start of the sixth of nine races. Vicki bets a quick $2 on Proud Jesse and we watch her some in dead last. For the seventh race, Vicki takes her time and, just before our food order comes to our clubhouse table, sends Jim up to bet Native Quack.

Coming around the turn, Native Quack pulls up to third. Vicki and Jim are talking about how dry the summer's been ("Could be the ozone effect,' says Vicki. 'Carl Sagan demonstrated it on TV—it's scary."). They have their backs to the action.

I put down my $6.96 Philadelphia cheesesteak. 'Vicki, your horse! He's third and gaining."

'Go, horse!' she hollers, even before turning around. She pushes her chair back and leans over the rail. 'Go, horse!"

By the time Native Quack is neck-and-neck with the lead horse, we three are all leaning toward the rail, pounding on it, pounding on the table, shouting at the top of our lungs, contributing to the general pandemonium around us.

A dark horse with a red bridle comes out of the pack—Rocky Mount, the filly that had caught my eye at the post parade, but that I hadn't bet 'real money' on. I raise the volume of my, 'Go, horse, go! C'mon, horse!' to accommodate the lead and Rocky Mount draws up second. The two cross the line solid winners, and I find myself standing and shouting and clapping just like Vicki and throwing my hands up into the air and sinking down in my chair. 'We won!' We face each other, laughing.

A hush settles over the tiers of the clubhouse, the bleachers, the empty benches outside. A woman in a floral-print blouse holds up her tickets and watches the scoreboard. Three white-shirted men in brown, black, and gray slacks grip the rail with their tickets between two fingers as if they were cigars. The jockeys jog their mounts back toward the finish line. Some dismount, hand their saddles to their grooms. The 11 TV screens across the glass front of the clubhouse hold steady on the empty scoreboard. The muzak comes quietly back on.

The shouting begins again—staccato 'All right!' and 'Look at that!'—as yellow numbers pop up on the scoreboard. The board and the announcer confirm that my horse was second and Vicki's first. Jim smiles. 'Guess I better go turn in our tickets,' he says, and joins the line of smiling people filing toward the cashiers' windows.

'In the summers of '80 and '81,' Vicki tells me between bites of chicken, 'I spent nearly every day at the races. I was dating a guy—Nick—who's a gambler. I sat here thousands of hours and saw thousands of gamblers. What I saw—and what a survey we did later verified—debunked the idea that gamblers were lonely, on the outskirts of society. You can look at access—if there's no gambling around, few people would gamble—advertising, institutionalization, conventionalization, legitimization. Gambling links an individual's choices to social situations and cultural norms. It's an empirical study, too, a way to look at how the individual's attitudes change when society changes.

'We tend to think of gambling as deviant behavior,' she continues, 'but it's not. People gamble because they need rules. They need to know a race will happen every 15 minutes. They need to know what's expected of them. For example, if you put your copy of the racing form on a seat, that's your sat. Even if you're nowhere around. And no one would be so deviant as to pick up that paper and sit in your seat.' A machine rolls down the track, raking and watering the dirt. A man in a red coat with a long brass bugle leaves a wavering line of inch-deep footprints as he crosses from the stands to the paddock. 'You can see why people who want to get away from it all come here,' Vicki says. 'It's peaceful."

Jim comes back with the money. He hands Vicki $2.20. 'You made 20 cents,' he says.

'What? But we won! What did you bet—number six to win?"

'No, you told me to bet show."

'You listened to me?' She turns to me. 'You never bet to show,' she says. 'That's a coward's bet.' Back to Jim. 'Nick never listened to me."

'I just did."

'Damn. That's why I hate this.' She takes a bite of tomato. 'Well, let's do it again."

'Oh, Vic,' says Jim. Well, Vic, what do you want to bet? Want to bet a bundle?"

'I have to tell you,' I break in, 'that my horse placed second."

Vicki jerks up her head, tossing her hair back like a mane. 'We could've won a fortune!' she shouts. 'We could've bet an exacta!' Then, to me, 'That's when you pick both the first and second horses.' Another shout: 'It would've been $100!' Then , lower, 'Jim,—this is depressing—she had the number two horse. We could've won—what was it? There: $177.40. We could've split it.

'You see,' she leans across the table toward me, 'I hate betting. I like winning."

Vicki Abt, Ph.D, is associate professor of sociology and James F. Smith, Ph.D, is associate professor of English and American Studies at Penn State-Ogontz, 1600 Woodland Road, Abington, PA 19001; 215-886-9400. Smith and Abt have both received AMOCO Foundation awards for outstanding teaching, Smith in 1983 and Abt in 1986. The Business of Risk: Commercial Gambling in Mainstream America was published by the University Press of Kansas in 1985.

Last Updated December 01, 1986