January 31

M.D. Harmon: Casino gambling an exploitative ‘sucker trap,’ not harmless game

Rather than expanding it in Maine, lawmakers should be searching for a way out.

Bills seeking to expand casino gambling in Maine reportedly are still very much alive in Augusta. Really?

Americans may not know more about gambling than we used to, but we now know that the “gaming industry” (a favored euphemism) knows more about us than ever.

And it uses that knowledge to benefit itself – and harm us.

As The Associated Press reported Monday, “Maine’s two casinos say the market for slot machines is already saturated, but others wanting in on the action – including a horse racing track, veterans groups and the Passamaquoddy Tribe – have no plans to give up.”

While most of these bills (except one allowing slot machines for veterans’ groups) failed to gain committee support, they could still pass on the floor.

As a vet myself, I otherwise sympathize with such organizations, but there are good reasons to think that Maine’s two current casinos are not only enough, they are likely two too many.

To find out why, let’s examine how slots play with their players’ minds.

David Blankenhorn, a nationally prominent social scientist who heads the nonpartisan Institute for American Values (www.americanvalues.org), has studied gambling in New York state. His research was digested Dec. 19 on the American Interest website (www.the-american-interest.com):

He says the idea that gambling is “harmless entertainment” isn’t just wrong, it is a falsehood deliberately sold by casino operators to deceive clients for the purpose of emptying their wallets, inevitably driving substantial numbers of their customers into addiction, poverty and bankruptcy.

Slot machines, which were invented in the 1880s, were called “the biggest sucker trap in gambling” by Life magazine way back in the 1950s.

“More recently,” Blankenhorn says, “a 2004 New York Times Magazine essay called the modern, computer-based slot machine a ‘pulse-quickening bandit.’ These traits, inextricably connected to the quality of unfairness, help explain why most American political jurisdictions made slot machines illegal in the first place.”

But, seduced by the lure of gaining revenue without raising taxes, many states adopted lotteries and then slot machines (quickly expanded to include table games) beginning in the 1970s.

Slots are carefully designed to extract money efficiently from those who play them regularly. Since the odds always favor the casino, no one who plays them over time can avoid losing money.

As Blankenhorn says, “The primary goal of today’s slot machine designers is to take a simple computer that has been programmed to cause the player to lose, and imbue it with enough lights, animation, interactive videos, noisemakers, spinning colors, ‘cherry dribbles’ (small payouts) and ‘near misses’ (false suggestions that you ‘nearly won’ your last spin) to maximize what they call ‘time on device.’ ”

“Let’s be clear,” he says. “There are no exceptions to this rule. Whether the slot machine ‘game’ in question is being ‘played’ by a math genius from MIT or a casually curious chimpanzee, the results do not and cannot vary over time. For the steady player, it cannot be a question of winning or losing. The only question is how fast you lose – and that’s a question the designers care about deeply.”

Words count: Styling gambling as “gaming,” a form of “entertainment,” conceals major differences from real pastimes.

“No other form of ‘entertainment,’ ” Blankenhorn writes, “causes significant harm to people who ‘enjoy’ it frequently, including the loss of thousands of dollars per hour,” or “depends on profits generated by those who suffer from problems of addiction,” or “typically refuses to provide information to those being entertained about its risks,” or “provides free alcohol to those being entertained with the express purpose of encouraging impulsivity, faulty cognition and reckless behavior.”

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