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The Gambling Plague – Part 1

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The Gambling Plague

Part 1

Gambling is exploding in popularity and, for many, has progressed from a pastime to something much worse.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Like a disease, it spreads throughout the nations of the world infecting virtually every household, young and old, rich and poor, ignorant and educated. From high-stakes casinos and online poker games to government-run lotteries, penny-ante bingo matches, and office pools, gambling is everywhere—and is becoming more common with each passing year.

The practice of gambling can be described as staking something of value on the outcome of an event that involves chance, in hopes of gaining objects of value that have been staked on the event by others. In other words, risk motivated by riches.

The history of this practice stretches to nearly the beginning of human history. In the modern age, as technology expands and the character of individuals and nations declines, gambling is quickly becoming an epidemic.

Types of Gambling

Modern gambling exists in many forms, which vary in popularity among different cultures and groups. These include: (1) betting on sports or games of skill, including horse and dog races, football, baseball, basketball, hockey, boxing prizefights and others; (2) card games, including poker and blackjack, which may be played at casinos or in private homes; (3) dice games such as craps; (4) lotteries and “scratch-off” games (typically sanctioned by state or federal governments, with tickets sold at stores); (5) bingo; (6) mechanized betting such as electronic slot machines (known as “one armed bandits”) and video poker; and (7) other casino games including roulette, big six, and keno.

In a world connected by instant communication, gamblers can also place bets on an endless array of world events, including the elections of successors to popes or presidents!

A method of organized public betting often used at horse or dog tracks is the pari-mutuel system, which translates to “mutual stake” in French. This system pools bettors’ money and distributes winnings in proportion to the amount wagered. Its intent is to facilitate tax collection and prevent theft.

Growing Problem

The growth of gambling in wealthy, developed countries has exceeded overall population growth, as ever larger percentages of individuals yield to the temptation. Many of these nations are so prosperous that even those considered below the poverty line enjoy a standard of living that is higher than the majority in the developing world. Yet these peoples still seek easy avenues to increase their net worth.

Gambling, both in its legal forms and otherwise, has long been one of the most popular methods of pursuing this goal. Recent statistics gathered in these countries bring the expanding scope of the problem into focus.

United States: According to the American Gaming Association’s 2013 State of the States report: “Nearly one-third (32 percent) of the U.S. adult population gambled in casinos during 2012. This is a significant increase from the 27 percent who visited casinos to gamble in 2011.”

Of the 76.1 million people who spent time and money in casinos last year, nearly half make more than $60,000 per year. The trade group also reported that in 2012, commercial casinos across the U.S. earned a little more than $37 billion in gross gaming revenue.

Gambling in some form is legal in all states except Hawaii and Utah. Forty-three of the 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, conduct lotteries. Also, many of these states participate in combined multistate lotteries such as Powerball.

A Gallup Poll in 2008 noted that nearly half of Americans participated in state lotteries—the most popular form of gambling.

Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that the capital of the American gaming industry, Las Vegas, Nevada, is still getting back on its feet after a recession that saw skyrocketing unemployment and foreclosure rates. The population of Las Vegas grew 22 percent to 583,756, according to 2010 census data.

Robert Lang, an urban expert at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV), told USA Today that “Nevada held on to its population gains largely because the recession ‘was so large and universal that it froze people in place even if there were no jobs.’”

“The flood of people coming into the state has slowed,” the media outlet reported. “‘In the ‘90s, our population growth was driven by migration, accounting for 72%. Since 2000, it’s about 57%,’” Jeff Hardcastle, the state demographer, told the newspaper.

Still a popular destination, more than 368 million people visited Sin City in 2011, compared to a paltry 6.7 million visitors in 1970, according to the official city of Las Vegas website. More than 19,000 conventions were held in Las Vegas in 2009. UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research statistics show that Nevada’s Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, took in $9.4 billion in gambling revenue as of October 2013.

The Wynn Las Vegas hotel has been symbolic of the city’s “golden age.” At a total cost of $2.7 billion at the time of its opening in 2005, it is the most expensive casino resort in the world, with each room carrying an average construction cost of $1 million. It established a new benchmark of opulence, featuring a manmade mountain, a three-acre artificial lake with a 70-foot waterfall, a golf course, 18 restaurants, an art gallery, exclusive shops, and an in-house Ferrari-Maserati dealership.

Canada: Since 1992, net revenue from government-run lotteries, video lottery terminals, and casinos has mushroomed from $2.7 billion (CAD) to $13.7 billion in 2011, according to a Statistics Canada report. Revenue generated from casino gambling represents 34 percent of the gaming industry while revenue from lotteries represents 27 percent. Revenue from slot machines located in venues other than casinos represents 21 percent of the industry and video lottery terminals represent 19 percent. Forty-six percent of households with incomes under $20,000 spent an average of $390 on gambling that year while 75 percent of households with incomes of $80,000 or more spent an average of $620.

United Kingdom: The British gambling industry took in gross revenue of 6.2 billion pounds, or $9.7 billion, between October 2011 and September 2012.

According to the British Gambling Prevalence Survey, 73 percent of Britain’s population—about 35.5 million adults—took part in some form of gambling during 2010. The National Lottery was the most popular activity, with about 59 percent of adults participating. Men were more likely to gamble than women—75 percent as compared to 71 percent.

Eighty-three percent of Britons said they gambled for the chance to win big money, 78 percent gambled for fun, 59 percent said they gambled to make money, and 51 percent enjoyed the excitement.

Australia: Australia’s ABC News reported that from 2008 to 2009 Australians wasted more than $19 billion (AUD) on gambling—an average loss of $1,500 per gambler! This should not be surprising since more than 20 percent of the world’s poker machines are in Australia. According to a Productivity Commission report the news outlet cited, “Problem gamblers contribute 40 per cent of the money put into poker machines.”

Kate Roberts, a member of the country’s Ministerial Expert Advisory Group on Gambling and founder of the Gambling Impact Society, said easy access to poker machines is to blame. She told ABC News: “This is not about sick people…It’s about machines that are on every corner, that are ruining people’s lives.”

According to the report cited by ABC News, “About 115,000 Australians are classified as ‘problem gamblers’ with a further 280,000 people at ‘moderate risk’. The risk for people who only play lotteries and scratchies is low but rises steeply with the frequency of gambling on table games, wagering and especially gaming machines.”

From Casino to Computer

The Internet has made it easier for people to indulge in their gambling habits. The arrival of online gaming is a major factor in the explosion of gambling’s overall popularity. The availability of it “at the click of a mouse” any hour of day or night, equals increased convenience. Gone are the times when one needed to travel to a casino or recruit players for a card game at home to indulge an appetite for gambling.

Morgan Stanley expects online gambling to be “big business.” Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the financial services firm “projects that the American market alone will be worth $9.3 billion by 2020.”

As it stands now, the global online gambling industry has a net worth of $30 billion, and it is expected to grow over the next five years, according to an analysis by Aruvian’s R’search. The market research and consulting firm reported, “Currently, Europe appears to be the quickest expanding online gambling market. In 2012, European online gambling business operators recorded almost a 45% increase in the total online gambling yield.”

According to a Businessweek report, online gambling was illegal in the United States until a 2011 ruling by the U.S. Department of Justice “made all gambling except sports betting legal at the federal level, so long as the state in which the wager is made has authorized it, too. Three states—Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey—have already legalized Internet gambling, and players in Nevada returned to lawful online games back in April. Other states, including California, Massachusetts, and Illinois, are considering laws of their own.”

Gambling’s Image

Even in the relatively recent past, the practice of gambling carried a sense of dishonor and was considered a vice. This is no longer the case. Social organizations—even religious groups—commonly sponsor bingo games, riverboat gambling trips, and other events that involve games of chance. Bingo and gambling “outings” are now common even at nursing homes and at group homes for the mentally disabled.

As with many social trends, this shift in public opinion may be to some degree influenced by media outlets including television and motion pictures. Several cable television shows currently exist that are based on Texas Hold ‘Em, a version of the card game poker. The groundbreaking program “World Poker Tour” first appeared on the Travel Channel in 2003, and became the highest-rated program in the network’s history, drawing five million viewers per show.

Competing cable channels followed suit with their own variations on the theme, including Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” ESPN’s “World Series of Poker,” and Fox Sports Network’s “Championship Poker at The Plaza.” The success of these shows encouraged the development of poker tours and tournaments co-sponsored by companies such as Harrah’s Entertainment, a casino gambling powerhouse, and networks such as ESPN.

Other television programs featuring gambling themes include NBC’s “Las Vegas” and CBS’ “Dr. Vegas,” as well as the “reality” shows “The Casino” on FOX and Discovery Channel’s “American Casino.” A cable channel devoted entirely to gaming entertainment is also available in Canada.

Prior to the television phenomenon, a remake of the 1960 film “Ocean’s Eleven” appeared in theaters in 2001, boasting a number of top-flight actors in its cast. The highly successful movie, along with its 2004 and 2007 sequels, followed a group of gamblers and professional con artists as they planned elaborate thefts in Las Vegas and Europe. The storylines of the trilogy deliberately glamorized the gambling habit while blurring the roles of hero and villain—and the audience felt compelled to cheer for the main characters as they committed various robberies.

The increased interest in gambling, in particular Texas Hold ‘Em, trickled down to the average American household. Home poker parties were the hot trend of the mid-2000s, and the retail industry responded enthusiastically to the demands of this lucrative market. Mainstream retail chains—including toy stores—stocked equipment such as poker chips and portable game kits as well as scores of books devoted to the subject.

Even corporations seemingly outside the realm of gambling recognized an opportunity for crossover market exposure. For example, professional baseball, football and basketball leagues licensed team logos and other proprietary images for use on playing cards and poker chips.

The image of Las Vegas underwent what has been called an “identity crisis” during the 1990s. The city spent much of the decade pursuing a “family-friendly” approach to the planning of resort properties, building amusement parks and other attractions appealing to those with children. This was partly due to competition from the many Native American tribe-operated casinos springing up across the rest of the country.

One apparent result of this approach is the flood of permanent residents, which led to a 1994 Time magazine cover story proclaiming it the “New All-American City.”

In recent years, however, the city’s marketing strategy has shifted back to a focus on vice, excess and the appeal of the forbidden—with a determination to push the envelope on each. This is seen in Vegas’ now-familiar marketing tagline, “What Happens Here…Stays Here,” featured in suggestive television commercials promoting an “edgier” Vegas experience.

According to the CEO of the agency responsible for these ads, “We need to set Las Vegas apart. When people are in Las Vegas, they are less inhibited,” he stated in USA Today.

Likewise, the city’s tourist attractions have changed with the times. For example, Treasure Island, built in the mid-1990s as a Disney-style family resort, has changed its name to “TI.” It now hosts a racy theater piece titled “Sirens of TI,” as well as a burlesque bar. Also, a business promoted as “the world’s largest strip club” opened in Vegas in December 2004, part of a wave of additions to the city’s adult entertainment industry.

Tempting Budget Remedy

Many nations of the Western world struggle with worsening debt. According to a Reuters report, in 2012, America’s 50 states owed a combined $4.19 trillion. That total included outstanding bonds, unfunded pensions, and budget gaps. Citing State Budget Solutions, a nonpartisan research advocacy group, the media outlet reported that California owed the most debt—a whopping $617.6 billion! That was more than double the total that the next state on the list, New York, owed. It was saddled with a debt load of $300.1 billion.

This problem has prompted state officials to view revenue generated by casino taxes, lotteries and other forms of legal gambling as a source of much-needed cash. In 2010 alone, 12 states passed or enacted laws that maintained or increased gambling availability. Many other ballot proposals are in the works, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

While some citizens oppose this approach on moral grounds, tolerance for funding the government through gambling is increasing. This is especially true when it is presented as an alternative to increased taxes on individuals. Property taxes, used in many states to fund public education, are often reduced or stabilized using this alternate source of money. Gambling helps finance schools, starting at the elementary level all the way through secondary education.

State governments have a longstanding love/hate relationship with gambling. Lottery profits were used in building Jamestown, Virginia, the first American colony, in the early 1600s. This type of funding has also been used to finance the United States colonial army, colleges (such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton), courthouses, hospitals, libraries and many other public endeavors—including churches.

This lenient environment in early America led to the creation of many private lotteries by the 19th century. Corruption, though, became widespread in such games. Often, a “winner” would receive a lesser prize than advertised—or no prize at all! This sparked an eventual nationwide ban on state involvement in gambling, which lasted from approximately 1878 to 1964.

The dry spell ended in March 1964 with the introduction of a “sweepstakes” in the state of New Hampshire. This libertarian state’s avoidance of the term “lottery,” among other clever tactics, enabled lawmakers to evade Federal anti-lottery laws. Other states followed New Hampshire’s example, and a trend of gambling expansion was soon underway.

America’s northern neighbor, Canada, has historically paralleled the U.S. in its gambling legislation. In 1817, a law to ban all games of chance failed to pass in Lower Canada (modern Quebec) due to intense popular opposition. In 1856, however, the Act Concerning Lotteries did pass, which banned this particular form of gaming. This law most directly affected the young nation’s Catholic clergy, who had been using lottery profits for nearly a century.

According to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, legal gambling returned to Canada in 1969, as the country’s criminal code was amended to allow provincial lotteries, casinos and lottery licenses for charitable and religious organizations.

Since gambling proceeds are commonly used by churches to fund their endeavors, can it be assumed that this practice is biblical? What about the scriptural accounts of casting lots?

In Part 2 of this series, we will answer these questions and look at the root cause of gambling’s popularity in modern society. 

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