Updated on 09/17/2011 10:02AM

Hyperbole hides truth: Americans love to bet


Hyperbole hides truth: Americans love to bet


WASHINGTON, March 3 - Readers of The Washington Post should by now be aware of the mortal danger facing us. The prospect that slot machines might be installed in Maryland's racetracks is threatening the very fabric of our society.

The rhetoric about slots has become so overheated that many people in the state's racing industry complain vehemently about the way the news media - particularly The Post - have covered this issue. I cannot rebut their contention that the treatment of this subject has been unbalanced. Saddam Hussein gets more evenhanded coverage than advocates of gambling in Maryland.

News stories have repeatedly emphasized that greedy track owners are grasping for an unfair share of slot revenues and buying influence with legislators to do so. Post columnist Marc Fisher wrote last week that Thoroughbred racing in Maryland should be allowed to die, concluding: "It's not like there aren't alternatives for the horse industry. The steaks really aren't that bad. I recommend a generous splash of A.1. sauce."

The editorial and op-ed pages continually sound the themes that slots exploit the poor and the uneducated, that they amount to a tax on people who can least afford it, and that they would corrode the quality of life in Maryland. A Democratic delegate wrote in The Post that slots would lead to "spousal and child abuse, youth and underage gambling, alcoholism and drug abuse, mental illness . . . prostitution, theft, embezzlement and bankruptcy." The Baltimore Sun - which shares the Post's views except that it doesn't want Thoroughbreds on the dinner table - declared the machines "would change the character of the state."

All these hyperbolic anti-gambling arguments ignore a fundamental truth. Gambling is already ubiquitous, and is here to stay. It's here to stay because Americans love to bet. If Maryland doesn't approve slot machines in racetracks, its citizens will still play the lottery, go to racetracks, play slots in Delaware and West Virginia, drive to the casinos in Atlantic City, bet sports with a bookmaker or gamble at any of thousands of online Web sites. Have the people worried about slots tuned in lately to any sports-oriented radio station? Their programs now are filled with advertisements by bookmakers, who take bets via 800 telephone numbers or computers operating offshore and outside U.S. laws. The idea is laughable that we can protect society and stem the tide of gambling by keeping slots out of Maryland. The dam has already burst.

Governments ought to be more concerned about regulating gambling so their citizens don't get cheated, and taxing it so some of the revenue can be used for society's general good. Railing about the supposed evils of gambling is fruitless, and in most cases, it's hypocritical, too.

If the anti-gambling moralists were truly committed to their position, they would have taken a stand long ago against the most pernicious of gambling games: the lottery. No form of gambling is so extortionate: The lottery takes 50 percent of every dollar bet (compared with about 8 percent for a slot machine.) And no form of gambling is so intrusive in everyday life. While most Marylanders could go through their lives without being aware that there is a racetrack (with or without slots) in Laurel, the lottery is in everybody's face every day: with a barrage of ads, with sales in convenience stores, with daily drawings on television. Almost any argument against slot machines can be made tenfold against the lottery (except, of course, that greedy racetrack owners can't be blamed). Yet editorialists and politicians who denounce the social evils of slot machines calmly accept state governments' promotion of their lotteries.

What annoys me most about the anti-slot forces, more than their hypocrisy and the futility of their crusade, is the way they view people who like to bet. They invariably portray gamblers as ignorant, helpless, pathetic self-destructive souls throwing away their few dollars (which they probably got from a welfare check) in the delusional pursuit of a windfall. The Miami Herald - another member of the media establishment's anti-gambling brigade - recently published an article about slot machines at Charles Town. It began by describing a customer waiting at 6:45 on a snowy morning for the gates to open so he could try to recoup the $1,200 he lost in the machines the night before.

I'm a gambler, and I've spent my life in the company of gamblers. I rarely think of my brethren as the helpless, pathetic types the media depict. Of course, most gamblers lose, and most know they are going to lose. But few are self-destructive. Most share the opinion of the legendary plunger Nick the Greek, who said, "Gambling improves the flavor of living." Winning and losing generates excitement that most people don't get in the routine activity of their lives - particularly the people from the socioeconomic levels that gravitate to slot machines. For the vast majority of us who love to bet, gambling is a joy, not a sickness, and the moralists in the media will never persuade us otherwise.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post

Time to give up ghost instead of taxing poor


WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 - In six hours of testimony about slot machines in Annapolis the other day, the most persuasive argument against opening Maryland to a new wave of state-sponsored gambling came from Bobby Hairspray himself:

"Horse racing is done, let it go, let it die," the governor said. "It's generational. If young people don't want to go to the track, let it go." Gov. Bob Ehrlich compared the nostalgic urge to buck up the state's horse racing industry to the arguments we heard not long ago from tobacco farmers, and he reminded us that "we're letting that go."

Unfortunately, the governor halted this logical line of thought and called it "a legitimate view that I reject wholeheartedly." Then he was off to the races, portraying the state as a patient in intensive care with two options: slots or taxes, the latter of which he considers far worse than death.

Ehrlich's dramatic appearance in the well of the House Ways and Means Committee chamber kicked off a cavalcade of desperation in which it became clear that the racetrack companies are calling the shots, deciding how much money they will make and how little they will permit the state to take home to the kiddies. The most depressing moment came when Maryland's secretary of education, Nancy S. Grasmick, had the gall to trumpet her support for slots "for Maryland's 900,000 children." She noted that the 21st century "is defined by industries of the mind," and then said that the only way we can prepare our children for such advanced brainwork is to mortgage the state to an industry of the gutter.

The cynicism of the slots machine knows no bounds. When critics suggested that slots prey on poor blacks, who can least afford losses, Ehrlich scoffed: "We're talking about adults, regardless of color, making adult decisions." He compared the choice to gamble to decisions about "candy or fast food."

The governor proudly touted his decision to budget $500,000 to handle gambling addiction. Later, when Del. Anne Healey wondered how Ehrlich came up with the $500,000 figure, the governor's liaison to the legislature, Ken Masters, replied, in the most honest statement of the day, that: "It seemed like a substantial number. I'm not sure there was any particular analysis."

That's how this whole slots hysteria has been handled, of course. Chuck Brown said it best: We want the money, money, money.

I listened as horse trainers and breeders and riders and farmers told heartwarming stories of their romance with the animals, stories of faded glory and good old times.

If legislators were literary critics, they would be well advised to bail out the horse industry with lots of slots. But they're not. Horse racing is a lovely, poetic sport. I spent many sweet afternoons watching the horses and flamingos at Hialeah. But horse racing is another generation's game. The empty grandstands at any Maryland track prove that.

The most powerful voices at the hearing were silent men in $1,000 suits, the track owners, the big boys who stand to multiply their millions on the backs of Maryland's poor. These guys need not speak in public; they've got anyone and everyone's ears backstage.

I asked Joe De Francis, owner of Laurel and Pimlico, what he made of the notion that racing is past its prime. "Racing was doing just fine in Maryland until Delaware and West Virginia started slots," he said. "Our best years ever were '94 and '95, the two years before Delaware started slots."

Yes, slots bring out more people. But let's not kid ourselves about why they are there. Visit any Delaware "racino" and you will find big crowds at the one-armed bandits and hardly anybody at the track, which is virtually hidden behind the Vegas-style slots casino. There is no natural connection between horses and slots - if it's slots Maryland wants, they might as well put them in supermarkets or shopping malls.

As for horse racing, some good things in life just go away. I liked Fudge Town cookies and Larimer's market and Top 40 radio and the Biograph theater, and they're all gone. That's life. It'd be sad to see the tracks go. But it's not like there aren't alternatives for the horse industry. The steaks really aren't that bad. I recommend a generous splash of A.1. sauce.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post

Marc Fisher is a Metro columnist for The Washington Post.