08/08/2001 11:00PM

Kids get a crash course in odds

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LAS VEGAS - One of the first things you notice in Las Vegas are the slot machines.

You see them when you get off the plane at the airport. You see them at the gas station. You see them when you go grocery shopping. The one-armed bandits are around every corner.

And if you see them in non-casino environments, you can be sure children see them, too. In Vegas, you might even think that gambling is taught in the local schools, but that's not the case. Yet.

Today wraps up Responsible Gaming Education Week. This is an annual event sponsored by the casino industry to help employees spot problem gamblers (to get them help, not to take more money from them) and to make sure that people under 21 aren't on the casino floor. But a major focus of this week's discussions have centered on a new educational program called Understanding the Odds, which was developed by the Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions

The goal is to reduce underage problem gambling. Studies show that kids are very susceptible to gambling because it is glamorous and romanticized as a way to get rich quick.

"It's almost a back-door approach to give [children] a basis in reality for what gambling is all about," said Carol O'Hare, executive director for the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. "They are risk-takers, and kids more than anybody will be attracted to the magic around gambling. While it can be a lot of fun, they do need to understand there's a mathematical principle that determines outcomes. It isn't all luck, superstition, and magic."

In other words, the house has the edge in any casino game. They don't keep building bigger and more elaborate casinos because they're losing money.

Understanding the Odds is designed for middle schoolers and is meant to be used in statistics and probability courses. The American Gaming Association is behind the effort and has sent videos describing the program to casinos across the country. The video has been shown on Clark County Public Access this past week and the goal is to get schools to implement the program. Louisiana already is on board.

Another school on the cutting edge is Thurman White Middle School in Henderson, a booming city right next door to Las Vegas. The school has an elective course in which the true odds of gambling are discussed so that students understand the odds are stacked against them. The students learn the odds on craps but also that the lottery is a bad bet if the odds to hit the jackpot are 1 in 80 million yet the prize is only $10 million. The same goes for progressive jackpots such as Megabucks, which make the news whenever a big jackpot is hit.

Students also get educated in "gambles" that are more relevant to their daily lives: for example, how it's cheaper to buy a stuffed animal at a store instead of trying to win one by playing arcade games for hours on end.

Nevada parents shouldn't be shocked this fall if their kid comes home and answers the "What did you do at school today?" question with "Learned how to construct a pick-six ticket." That wouldn't be much different from the nationwide Stock Market Game, in which students from coast to coast compete by buying and selling stocks - with pretend money, but using the actual movements of the stock market to keep score - and trying to build on their initial $100,000 bankroll.

It will be interesting to see how the gambling industry fares with the program. The casinos want to be responsible members of the community, but the program could backfire. These kids might learn that they can't beat the house and decide not to gamble, or they might become so educated that the casino industry unwittingly creates a generation of super-gamblers who can beat the house more often.

But, somehow, I don't think they're worried.