Even as I approach the gambling hall, as soon as I hear, two rooms away, the jingle of money poured onto the table, I almost go into convulsions.—Dostoevsky, The Gambler
For the longest time these sorts of convulsions prompted human beings to talk about vice and social corruption. Today they are translated into easy and enormous bucks not only for big business, but big government as well. The emerging rematch between former Governor Robert Ehrlich and current Governor Martin O’Malley and their views on slots betrays an uncanny similarity.
It is now undeniable that both candidates agree and condone that the State of Maryland should assume the role of scam artists. The easy prey will be their own citizens and neighbors. There is no other way to understand their mutual embrace of legalized slot machines.
Consider the slot machine itself. Its pre-1980s forerunner, found in such sundry locales as bowling alleys and cafeterias, was aptly named the “one-armed bandit.” Operated by gears, pulleys and cylinders, it usually featured various fruits, blanks and wild cards. If a machine had three wheels, with each wheel featuring fifteen or twenty icons, players felt that they could learn and eventually beat the machine, and maybe hit the jackpot. It was assumed that a machine gradually developed a bias. As its mechanical parts started getting worn, patterns or tendencies supposedly became more pronounced. Learning this and finding the exact time to pull its “arm” could slightly tilt the advantage to the bettor, and defeating the wanna-be-bandit.
Thus gamblers felt they could eventually make reliable predictions and control the game. Obviously, this requires lots of time, concentration, and money spent on losing before detecting the game’s inner weaknesses. One could first wind up broke.
Today’s slot machines offer no such challenge. They are run by elaborate computers. Continually scrambling the possible combinations across five windows, they make it impossible for even an alert gambling mind to keep track of any pattern or bias. The “arm” is strictly a gimmick. As mathematician Joseph Mazur lucidly describes in his remarkable study of numbers, odds and the gambler’s illusion, once a coin or token is dropped into the slot machine, the outcome is already determined. Those seconds of rolling images and pulling the “arm” are tricks. They have no bearing on the final display. Promotional signs about the casino paying off 95%, the clamoring of bells to announce an occasional winner, and free drinks to any player all contribute to the illusion.
In this sense slot machines, and anyone benefiting from their use, are pulling off a scam. A fair gamble means that each participant has a chance at winning. A scam means one participant is being duped into believing he or she has a chance of winning in the long run, but in fact does not. The incessant marketing of the rare jackpot winner underscores the scam.
Scams succeed because the mark is weak or ignorant. Indeed, there is considerable speculation that not all gambling is about winning. To the contrary, some experts claim that gamblers are psychological masochists who want to lose. Others hypothesize that they seek something akin to a high. For example, one friend still remembers a heart-thumping moment when he was on a roll at the craps table and dozens of people were betting on or against him.
Another theory holds that adult gamblers are still reworking the trauma of being potty-trained. For them money symbolizes bodily waste. As a baby or toddler, the future slots player was suddenly forbidden to delight in the body’s various pleasures; hence the phrases about “shooting one’s wad” or “filthy money.” Next time you visit a casino, observe how frequently players are fondling their coins and bills. For them, the issue is not leaving ahead but simply the duration spent at the machine or table. These explanations, however, bring us to the shadows of pathology.
In any event, Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. O”Malley agree that the State of Maryland should engage in this con game, taking advantage of citizens with potential convulsions rather than protecting them. We should be debating whether either candidate is fit to be our next governor.
Dr. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University.
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