Essentially the Gamble is On

January 31, 2014

So, I am back after a short hiatus. Four years. Some changes have taken place: some gains, few losses.

And, in the meantime, Essentially a Gambling People, my short movie essay (completed in 2009), has been screened internationally, accompanied by a lively discussion of gambling in the Czech Republic in 2012. Since gambling there, according to the discussants, is rather a personal activity to hide rather than to advertise, it is not necessarily celebrated in the larger culture in the same way that Americans consider it a mainstream activity. Not that the activity here is without the reality of addiction and personal ruin making, and thus, shame. However, it would be ridiculous to say that the overall tenor of gambling or its discussion is socially taboo. Officially gambling is termed gaming. I have sometimes wondered whether the latter term is less pejorative, less loaded, as it were, than gambling. It seems from a little online research, though, that gaming refers to legal gambling, at least in the U.S. (Gaming may also refer to online games such as multi-player online games).

Back to essentially the gamble/rs.

I live in an area of New York that is likely to be a recipient of state permission to house a casino, as newly passed in a popular referendum. New York State does house casinos on several Indian reservations, and those areas will not be getting new casinos, and neither will New York City or downstate counties be allowed to build casinos for several years. Here, in the Catskill Mountain area, the old Borscht Belt resorts that have languished and fallen into decrepitude are the likely first tier of one and possibly two casino enterprises.

So, what is the local take on casino enterprises here? Local businesses and business groups are putting a mostly positive spin on the prospect. They expect a substantial economic rise from the expected construction (or reconstruction) and influx of visitors and patrons. Their claims for the new jobs that will be good for the local population are at roughly 1,000 jobs. Communities and community groups are skeptical.

Detractors maintain that the job rise is likely to be for the period of building and won’t continue past the first couple of years. Furthermore, the added long-term jobs are low-wage jobs that will not really add purchase-power benefit to the existing communities and their businesses. Furthermore, housing prices have tended to fall in the immediate areas around casinos (with the exception of the boom that Las Vegas experienced). And crime has gone up within a mile or so from casinos.

So, what is the fine print somewhere between the hyped “this will be great!” and the head-shaking “this will be terrible!” texts?

How will “the community” measure the benefits/malignances (or the benefits vs depravities) of the coming windfall? According to two studies I read (linked below), immediate areas surrounding casinos do tend to lose in terms of housing values and social costs in bankruptcy and gambling-related problems (addiction, job loss), as well as gain in crime. Economic gains in those areas can be due to the influx of casino patronage, but usually only if the area is drawing those visitors for extended stays. Day gamblers do not typically add economic benefit. And if the casinos attract the local people to gamble, they add to the local bankruptcy rolls.

On the bright side, the Catskills have other inviting features besides casino resorts that might accentuate the benefits of having casinos in the area. Will the casino marketing also entice patrons to check out outdoor recreation in and around the state parks? Will the casinos take advantage of the area’s bountiful farm products and serve locally sourced meals? Will the casinos actually bring in numbers of patrons from outside the area?

The two counties involved, Ulster and Sullivan, might have different needs and takes on the addition of casinos. For Sullivan County the benefits might really outweigh the negatives. Many of the communities in the area of the old resorts are in need of a boon. Ulster County has a wider spectrum of thriving communities and ones in great need. Will the communities in need see the windfall?

I think that the local community groups, business groups and interested government parties need to do some continuing work to balance out the needs of the communities with the short-term goals of the casinos. Among the quid pro quos that will inevitably be part of the picture should be real support for local agriculture, education and small businesses in the community. Casino business is as much of a chance for all as it is a skeptics’ nightmare. One thing is certain, it is not time to hold one’s breath and see. It is time to talk.

Links to the two reviews I looked at.

The Social Impact of Casinos: Literature Review and Cost Estimates

Click to access Casino%20Social%20Effect%201-21-10.pdf

Economic Impact of Casinos on Home Prices Literature Survey and Issue Analysis NAR Research

Click to access CasinoResearch-NAR.pdf


Why don’t I win the lottery?

March 16, 2010

I started the last entry with some historical notes about English lotteries paying for colonization, as venture capital for slave trades of several sorts. And, it wasn’t just the English who were “taxing the poor” to pay for these activities. Europe was all about the numbers game (when it got out of the dark ages). Gambling helped make the transition to capitalism–sort of the modern primitive of yesteryear. Modernity brought a certain safety and dullness to everyday life. Gambling took a person to the edge, and it still does. Unless you have other pursuits: surfing, race car driving, tattooing, making art, and even, as has been mentioned, shopping. Gets the endorphins going. “You gotta be in it to win it” and every other cliche about wagering something on something.

So, when the lotto or mega millions or power ball drawings get up over 100 milion dollars, people throw the dollar or more in and take a chance. Even though the odds, the odds…, are not really in anyone’s favor. What are the odds of winning the lottery? That is easy enough to find out. The games vary. Overall odds of winning any amount on a $1 mega millions ticket is around 1 in 39. The FAQ page claims that overall odds on a scratch ticket of any amount is between 1 in 4 and 1 in 6. However, the big game winners’ odds are not listed. The instant scratch games’ odds per game are often between 1 in 16 and 1 in 1 million…or more…Who actually wants to win a dollar on a dollar bet? But it’s slightly better than losing the dollar…

In other areas of their lives, most people try to play games with better odds. Attraction has always been both personal and somewhat public. Are we really living in the most vapid time in history, where physical beauty trumps everything else? Modelizers and middle-age crises meet the odds? I have heard individuals actually say that they went after the “best” they could. “Out of my league” usually applies to looks, sometimes intelligence. And, of course, there are long shots. Maybe not like the lottery, maybe just like the lottery. Or maybe like the races, the more people betting, the more the odds change.

changing odds at aqueduct

Gambling with lotteries and life

February 17, 2010

Seems no big secret that gambling and the history of the United States have many intersections if not synonymous meaning. On one hand, for the indigenous people, once the Europeans started colonizing, odds of surviving the disease and violence of the intrusive organisms weren’t on the side of the natives. The newcomers were facing similar slim odds from the trip across the Atlantic to the new lifestyle demands on the new continent.

However, I don’t remember any mention of the lotteries that financed the English colonies. Gambling, except to the Puritans, was considered an English right. Gamblers were on all the frontiers during the western expansion. It was not a minority opinion that Californians (and by extension the whole U.S.) were “essentially a gambling people.”

When I got really interested in gambling: I love the horses (thoroughbreds only), black jack and craps, poker and also sports book, I started reading everything I could about gambling. At first it was thanks to Dave S., my horse and casino game mentor. I can’t handicap with nearly the success that his granddaughters have gotten to with his teaching, but I and many others have benefited from his guidance. And, to boot, we get the stories from the past: the back room parlors, the bets laid off for some really hard characters, the bets not placed and then the horse came in…oops. But Dave S. also turned me onto books like, The Winning Horseplayer (Andrew Beyer, 1983) and Beat the Dealer (Edward O. Thorp, 1962). The latter, Beat the Dealer, is, of course, the book that turned Nevada casinos on their heads and changed the rules for black jack forever.

But then, I started reading histories. John Findlay’s People of Chance (1986) and Herbert Asbury’s (author of Gangs of New York) Sucker’s Progress (1938) gave serious details of the history of gambling in the U.S. and the history of the U.S. as a gambling history. William Poundstone brought the relationship of the Bell Labs computer genius guys (like Ed Thorp) with gangsters and gambling up through internet gambling and Wall Street hedge fund fiascos all together in Fortune’s Formula (2005). I read that twice.

After that, I made three movies, well two and a 3-channel video loop. The first, Wanna Bet (2005-6), is a 10-minute short of Dave S. and his granddaughters at Aqueduct Racetrack.

the morning line versus... from Wanna Bet

The 3-channel loop, Virtually Certain (2006), reworks the footage of Wanna Bet, separating out the main handicappers on one screen, the horses racing on another, and the action at the track centered on the monitors giving the changing odds.

maybe the real message of the odds...from Virtually Certain

still watching the board...Virtually Certain

Last, is the video I recently (2009) “finished”–Essentially a Gambling People–that combines present interviews with gamblers, dealers in Reno, NV, and poker games in Brooklyn with movie footage, gambling-themed blues songs and excerpts from Damon Runyon stories.

Reno, NV...from Essentially a Gambling People

from Essentially a Gambling People