There is much talk this week about the government building and opening a new casino in Toronto. This, the government says, will increase revenues and help to drive down the provincial debt.
There are a few things about this that don’t sit well with me. First, I am not a gambler. I understand that it is exciting for some folks and I have heard all kinds of pro-casino arguments from people. I know one fellow for instance, who tells me he is not a theatre patron. He rationalizes budgeting $150 at a casino instead of spending a similar amount seeing Cirque du Soleil, Celine Dion, Le Miserables, or (I swear he said this) Cats. Good for him. He can rationalize all he wants to. I wasn’t judging him. I just mentioned in passing, that gambling was of no interest to me. He leapt on my comment and vigorously defended gaming (that’s what he called it) like a meat eater defending his diet to a vegetarian. I didn’t mention that the theatre and casinos are not comparable, that you can leave the theatre enriched by the experience, and from a casino with only empty pockets. I just stood there gawping. He, like many, has a good income, is seemingly well balanced, and has self control, although, I wonder if he always keeps to his casino budget. He can easily get into his car and drive to a casino an hour or so away and enjoy his diversion. The remote nature of most casinos, here, makes it necessary for people to get into cars or go on a long bus ride to gamble. Driving for an hour to get there creates a psychological barrier for some people and a physical barrier for others. You really have to be motivated to go to a casino. But the government wants to build a casino in Toronto. They want to make it easier for people to get there and spend their money — their hard-earned money. Yes that sounds like a cliché. They are trying to remove the physical and psychological barriers that prevent people from going to casinos, by putting them within reach. Who’s reach? People without cars, people with less money, people who are looking for a dream to rescue them from a desperate situation, and young people, the video game generation. Those who feel that they can translate their success on an Xbox, to a slot machine. Have you been to a casino? The people there don’t look anything like the folks in the James Bond movies.
You can bet they will build the casino on a bus line or near a subway station.
All this money that will go to the government to pay down the debt — where will that come from? It will not magically appear in people’s pockets on the way to the casino. There is only a certain amount of money available. The money spent at the casino will be paid out at the expense of food, rent, bus fare, savings, visits to the dentist or any of the other unnecessary frills. Don’t think for a moment that the people in charge haven’t thought about this. This is all part of the business plan. Put the casino where the heavy users can get to it.
Everyone knows the odds of winning at the lottery or a casino are dismal, but we are all seduced by the dream of winning. There is a story of a conference in Las Vegas where a mathematician was teaching about the odds against winning and how if someone gambled regularly, they would get a far better return if they just deposited that money they would normally spend, in a savings account or a retirement fund. He argued convincingly that even in Vegas where a casino advertised a 98% payback rate on their slot machines, the ever diminishing return meant that eventually you would be left with no coins to put into the slot. The crowd diligently took notes and applauded with vigour at the end of his seminar. They were convinced. Later on that evening, one of the seminar attendees, while walking through the casino to get to the restaurant, spotted the mathematician feeding quarters into a slot machine. He was surprised enough to approach the mathematician, saying, “I was at the seminar today. You convinced me that this was futile, that the odds are in the favour of the casino. That there was only the slightest chance of winning.”
“Right. The odds are against me,” said the mathematician. “But, you never know.” He too was seduced by the dream.
The problem with a dream, however, is that you have to experience it with your eyes closed.