re you curious why so many U.S. states—New York recently became the 25th—are turning to casinos as a source of revenue, and why so many voters seem to favor the idea? Perhaps politicians and citizens alike are unperturbed because the key words needed to speak intelligibly about the subject, not least “gambling” and “casino”, have lost nearly all integrity and moral charge. Indeed, you can hardly find these words at all in recent debates. Those with big money at stake in the gambling industry—pardon me, the “gaming” industry—have spent enormous sums of time and money trying to convince Americans that what they once viewed as “gambling” does not exist and that “casinos” are places where Americans go for harmless entertainment. They are lying about this, and they are lying for the basest of reasons: greed. Gambling does not mean playing games. It is anything but harmless, and cannot honestly be described as simply another form of entertainment.
The incomparable Lewis Carroll alerted us long ago to the perilous fungibility of language: “‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’” And the equally incomparable George Orwell counseled us what to do about it. He first warned that “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He later added: “We have now sunk to such a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” That, precisely, is what we are about to do as we examine the pernicious role and brazen encroachments of gamble-speak in our national conversation.
he Oxford English Dictionary tells us that historically a “gambler” was a “fraudulent gamester” or “sharper” (someone who cheats) and that “gambling” meant cheating or playing unfairly in games of chance involving a financial exchange. The OED follows Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary of 1755, which defines a “gamester” as “a knave whose practice it is to invite the unwary to game and cheat them.” It de-fines the phrase “to game” as “to play wantonly and extravagantly for money.” The OED and later the Encyclopedia Britannica both state that the terms “gambling” and “gambler” have historically been “terms of reproach.”
The notion of gambling as cheating, more specifically as treating another person (especially a vulnerable person) unfairly to gain possession of that person’s money, is deeply ensconced in American culture and law. A U.S. church commission once called gambling “theft by indirection.”1 Entirely typical, too, was the Oklahoma penal code of 1919, which specified various types of “vagrants”, including beggars, drunkards, anyone involved in what the law delicately called a “house of ill fame”, and “any professional gambler, or gamblers commonly known as tin horn gamblers, card players or card sharps.” In The Hustler, Walter Tevis’s masterful 1959 novel about the world of big-time pool players, “gambler” is another term for “hustler”, which means a skilled player who deceives the unwary.Notwithstanding the efforts of today’s “gaming executives” to convince us of the benign quality of casino “entertainment” and the pleasures of “destination gaming locations”, the notion of unfairness that permeates these words lingers, as well it should.
Just as “gambler” and “cheat” often went hand in hand well into 20th-century America, so the terms “bandit” and “sucker” have been publicly linked to slot machines ever since their invention in New York and California in the 1880s. A 1950 Life essay called the mid-century slot machine “the biggest sucker trap in gambling.” More recently, a 2004 New York Times Magazine essay called the modern, computer-based slot machine a “pulse-quickening bandit.”These traits, inextricably connected to the quality of unfair-ness, help explain why most American political jurisdictions made slot machines illegal in the first place.
But we’re not quite finished with this remarkable word, “gambler.” If, as we’ve seen, a professional gambler (as opposed to friends who sit down for a private recreational poker game from time to time) is someone who makes his money by victimizing the vulnerable at games of chance, a contemporary “gam-bling house” does exactly the same thing, only on a larger, more organized scale. And consider the irony in this: Notwithstanding the use of the word “gambling” to describe such people and institutions, “gambling” in the sense of taking a risk is exactly what these people and institutions never do. The business model of the gambling house avoids actual gambling with as much fastidiousness as a Sunday school superintendent and all the determination of an old-fashioned temperance crusader.
Hence the notorious criminal Arnold Rothstein was often described in the press as a “gambler”, but he never actually gambled. When he fixed baseball’s 1919 World Series for the sake of a large insider bet against the Chicago White Sox, he was betting on a sure thing, since he had already bribed the White Sox to lose.2 So it is with gambling houses. Gambling houses never gamble. To gamble, Godfather author Ma-rio Puzo wrote in his 1977 book Inside Las Vegas, is to risk—and gambling houses in America take in billions each year precisely because they do not take risks. Puzo dearly loved Las Vegas. He gambled there often and with great pleasure for many years. At the same time, he knew that a real-world bottom line exists, which he aptly called the “ruin factor”: “Gambling is foolish because you cannot win. The casino or house has that 2 percent to 14 percent edge on the player in every kind of gambling. A gambler is a loser.”
Gamblers Anonymous, the self-help organization for gambling addicts, agrees; as one member put it, “Show me a winner, and I’ll show you a liar.”3 Even those who design slot machines concur. Researching his 2004 piece for the New York Times Magazine, Gary Rivlin asked a prominent slot machine designer at International Game Technology if he ever put his own money into the machines he designed. The man “acted as if I had insulted him”, Rivlin wrote: “‘Slots are for losers’, he spat.”
The designer is right, and he should know. After all, the primary goal of today’s slot machine designers is to take a simple computer that has been programmed to cause the player to lose, and imbue it with enough lights, animation, interactive videos, noisemakers, spinning colors, “cherry dribbles” (small payouts) and “near misses” (false suggestions that you “nearly won” your last spin) to maximize what they call “time on device.” This metric matters immensely, because it determines how much money the casino makes and how much, on average, the player loses. And let’s be clear: There are no exceptions to this rule. Whether the slot machine “game” in question is being “played” by a math genius from MIT or a casually curious chimpanzee, the results do not and cannot vary over time. For the steady player, it cannot be a question of winning or losing. The only question is how fast you lose—and that’s a question the designers care about deeply.
These facts explain why professionals in the “gaming” industry almost never themselves “game.” Of what other profession can this be said? Movie moguls watch movies. Auto executives drive cars. Tobacco company executives typically take pride in pointing out that they themselves are smokers. But the people who run organized gambling seem never to spin a wheel, throw dice or put some of their own money into a slot machine. Why would they? Gambling is for losers.
Everyone in and around the gambling industry knows this. David G. Schwartz’s 2003 book Suburban Xanadu exalts the value and wholesomeness of casino gambling, possibly in part because his Center for Gaming Research at UNLV is funded by gambling corporations. Not surprisingly, Schwartz begins the book with this sentence: “A great number of Americans gamble although some, like me, don’t.”Steve Wynn, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Wynn Resorts, Limited, and the man who more than anyone else created the modern Las Vegas strip, thinks Schwartz’s book is terrific, and yet he doesn’t gamble either. “The only way to win in a casino is to own one”, Wynn said in an interview.4
asino owners prefer the word “gaming” rather than “gambling” to describe what goes on in their establishments, but the best word of all from their perspective is “entertainment.” To hear them tell it, it’s all about how we choose to “entertain” ourselves. Some choose the opera, others prefer baseball games, and some choose casinos. The gambler—sorry, the person being “entertained” by the casino—is alleged to be saying, in effect, “I enjoy betting, and I pay for the pleasure, just as you pay for travel or the theater.”
Sorry. Entertainment, as a dictionary will tell you, is activity that aims to delight, amuse or please. Sometimes it involves a financial exchange (buying a concert ticket), and sometimes it doesn’t (playing charades). When a financial exchange is involved, the exchange (buying the ticket) exists only to facilitate something else (enjoying the concert).
But gambling is always and in essence a financial exchange. Any entertainment connected to the exchange—any pleasure, excitement or stimulation—stems from the exchange itself and cannot exist without it. (Would people go to casinos if no one could win or lose money in them?)
Gambling, then, is a non-instrumental financial exchange, which takes place not in order to facilitate something else, but for its own sake. Conflating the terms “gambling” and “entertainment” therefore constitutes a category mistake. It is disingenuous to claim that the former can be a sub-category of the latter. There is some subtlety to acknowledge here, just as there is subtlety in other comparisons of non-alike experiences. For example, some people prone to violence may be delighted or entertained by killing their enemies. Some people suffering from depression may derive pleasure from getting drunk with their friends. But neither murderers nor drunkards have ever proposed that murder and drunkenness are simply two forms of entertainment, because to do so would constitute an obvious attempt to mislead.
All forms of casino gambling have in common numerous characteristics that don’t exist in actual entertainments, such as attending your daughter’s soccer game or listening to music. For example:
- No other form of “entertainment” causes significant harm to people who “enjoy” it frequently, including the loss of thousands of dollars per hour.
- No other form of “entertainment” depends on profits generated by those who suffer from problems of addiction linked to the entertainment.
- No other form of “entertainment” is often urged (and typically refuses) to provide information to those being entertained about its risks.
- No other form of “entertainment” provides free alcohol to those being entertained with the express purpose of encouraging impulsivity, faulty cognition and reckless behavior.
- No other purported form of “entertainment” requires such high levels of taxation, regulation and government oversight when it constitutes a business as opposed to a private, small-scale activity and, most regrettable of all:
- No other form of “entertainment”, in recent times, is heavily promoted by government.
ust as gambling does not mean gaming or entertainment, a “casino” these days is not a casino. A “casino” is the diminutive of the Italian word “casa”, so casino is literally “a small house.” Today, in Italian, the word “casino” mainly means a bordello. So how did the word acquire its contemporary English meaning?
In 1897, Architectural Record published a long photo essay titled “The Villas of Rome.” The word “casino” appears many times in this essay, along with photos of lovely old casinos, since for most of the word’s history “casino” referred to the pleasure-house, or second or country home, of the Italian aristocracy. Over time, however, especially as the owners of these homes, in Spain as well as in Italy, made them increasingly available for certain upscale public purposes—theatrical performances, musical concerts, public balls and artistic exhibitions—the word shed its connotation of private and assumed the connotation of a public space.
By the 19th century, the word “casino”, at least in the United States, had come to mean a public house used for purposes of pleasure and entertainment. In New York City, the Central Park Casino, which opened in the mid-1860s, housed expensive restaurants and nightclubs catering to the political elite. The Metropolitan Casino, located at Broadway and 41st Street, opened as a theater in 1880. By the early 20th century, scores of casinos devoted to popular entertainments had spread across the city. A popular play of the era, too, was The Casino Girl, a farce by Harry B. Smith in which the heroine sings and dances in a casino. In a prematurely ironic use of language, when in 1911 the New York gambling magnate Richard A. Canfield was forced to close his high-end gambling “clubhouse” in Saratoga, the premises Canfield had so elegantly refurbished (he had gone to Europe to study its famous “casinos”) were purchased by the village of Saratoga Springs. Saratoga Springs officials then proudly announced their plan to convert the building into a “free casino”, complete with reading rooms open to the public.
In much of Europe, meanwhile, “casino” was coming to mean a facility that houses and accommodates gambling activities. In 1856, the ruling family of Monaco, facing bankruptcy, opened a “Grand Casino” in Monte Carlo, which soon became the world’s grandest and most famous gambling house. (Monte Carlo truly was a “destination gaming location”, complete with a rule prohibiting local residents from even entering the Grand Casino.) The Italian spa community of Bagni di Lucca, as well as the German spa towns of Baden Baden and Bad Homburg—where Dostoevsky compulsively gambled and which he described in his novel The Gambler—similarly operated well-known gambling casinos catering to the European elites who visited in summer to relax in luxury, watch (and gamble on) horse races, and enjoy the waters and the exclusive company.
Not surprisingly, then, when Nevada became the first U.S. state to legalize most forms of gambling in 1931, the mobsters and their partners who built the swanky gambling houses in Las Vegas turned to the upscale, gambling-centric, Europeanized conception of “casino” to describe their new business ventures. A new vocabulary developed in the desert: out-of-state “marks” and “whales” checked into gaudy “resorts” along the “Strip.” There was a lot of booze, rich food, “entertainment”, and many “girls.” And when it came time to gamble—the main activity and focal point of the visit—one only needed to stroll over to the glittering “casino”, usually adjoining the hotel.
This meaning of “casino” remained fairly stable for many years, until it was hijacked by today’s corporate predators. The multinational corporations that mainly build and operate today’s American gambling houses still boastfully use the word “casino” to designate these establishments, but they hardly resemble the Vegas-style resort casino that is part of our cultural consciousness. To understand what is actually meant in almost every instance today by the word “casino”, we need a new word. I propose “slotino”, defined as any gambling location in which most of the floor space is devoted to slot machines and most of the house revenue comes from them.
Consider how useful this word might have been in the recent debate on legalizing casino gambling in New York State. Often people spoke of “casinos”, usually in the context of “destination gaming resorts.” Sometimes they spoke of “racinos.” And sometimes Governor Andrew Cuomo and other politicians referred to “video gaming terminals” or “video lottery terminals.” Some of the main differences among these various operations involve either permissible location sites—a “racino”, for example, has to be located near a race track—or which private sector companies are eligible to compete for operating licenses.
Now, given the superficial diversity of forms, one might get the idea that various forms of gambling are somehow in competition with one another, and that, accordingly, policymakers and concerned citizens need to weigh the pros and cons of each. This idea would be wrong. If you walk into a casino, the main activity you’ll see is people putting money into slot machines. If you walk into a racino, nearly the only activity you’ll see is people putting money into slot machines. And if you walk into a video lottery terminal or a video gaming facility, all you’ll see is people putting money into slot machines. Gambling operatives and their political sponsors are using diverse and confusing names for the same basic activity.
There are two ways, already noted in the definition of a slotino, to measure the slot machine’s conquest of the modern American gambling house: percentage of floor space and percentage of revenue. If we follow the money we recognize that the turning point occurred in 1983, when revenue from slot machines for the first time surpassed revenue from table games in Nevada casinos. By 1989, slot machines were generating nearly 60 percent of Nevada’s gambling revenue. That same year, Charles N. Mathewson, chairman of International Game Technology, the world’s leading producer of slot machines, bragged that “the lowly slot machine is now the life blood of the casino industry.”5 By 2000, slot revenue had reached 64 percent of all gambling revenue in Nevada; in 2008, it had topped 67 percent.
Across the country, the story is basically the same. According to a widely used 2009 hospitality industry textbook, slot revenue constitutes about 70 percent of all Atlantic City gambling revenue and 70–75 percent of total gambling revenue from Indian-owned riverboat and newer (regional) casinos. As for the latter, according to a 2008 textbook on casino management, about 86 percent of all casino gambling revenue in Illinois comes from slot machines. In Missouri, the figure is 88 percent; in Iowa, 89 percent. The textbook author, E. Malcolm Greenlees, concludes that “the most significant change” in the casino industry over the past two decades is “the growing domination of slot machines as the major revenue generating sources in most casinos, regardless of their type, ownership, or geographic location.”6
To what degree do slot machines dominate casino floor space? About 60–70 percent of the floor space in casinos along the Las Vegas Strip is dedicated to slot machines. A 2013 Albuquerque Journal story, “Casinos Make Even More Room for Slots”, reports that slot machines now take up 70–80 percent of all floor space in New Mexico’s casinos. And a 2010 report by the predictably named American Gaming Association says, “the slot machine’s share of the gaming floor at American casinos has grown from about 40 percent in the 1970s to almost 70 percent today.” That is particularly revealing because in 1978 there were virtually no legal slot machines in the United States outside of Nevada. In 1991 there were about 184,000, and by 2010 about 947,000, a more than five-fold increase in less than two decades. That means that virtually all the post-1978 expansion in casino gambling in the United States has been dominated by slot machines.
y now there are certainly more than a million of these machines on casino floors. How, exactly, are they “entertaining” us?
MIT anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll recently spent several years studying computer-based slot machines and interviewing those who play them. Analytically most important to her is what she calls the “machine zone”, which fosters addiction. She examined the machines’ pulsating rhythms and rapid repetitions: Press the button and get the jolt, press the button and get the jolt, occasionally a very large jolt, over and over. These patterns are designed to usher the gambler into an unreal world, to provide an escape from reality, in which time, physical space and even social identity are suspended. It is, as the title of her book puts it, “addiction by design.” Very talented people design these machines. They know their neuroscience. They know that addiction to substances and experiences both involve chemical and metabolic changes in the addict. Schüll writes:
Every feature of a slot machine—its mathematical structure, visual graphics, sound dynamics, seating and screen ergonomics—is calibrated to increase a gambler’s “time on device” and to encourage “play to extinction”, which is industry jargon for playing until all your money is gone.
What does the addictive experience look like from the perspective of the victim? Heavy and problem gamblers report that being in the “machine zone” is an intensely desirable feeling, like the rush of ingesting cocaine. While it lasts, boredom, depression, anxiety and the humdrum drudgeries of life fade out. Gamblers in the “zone” therefore often go to considerable lengths to avoid interrupting the flow of play. Sometimes they urinate in paper cups, which they put on the floor beside the machine to be removed later, rather than taking time out to use a toilet, thereby re-entering the world of real time. Frederick and Steven Barthelme, themselves heavy gamblers in the late 1990s and today our best writers about modern American casinos, describe the experience:
You’re ready to leave and go look for your wife, find her sitting at a slot machine in a dark, smoky aisle several rows over. “Melanie”, you say a little loudly, so as to be heard over the music of the machines, the bells ringing and horns tooting and quarters slapping down into the trays. She makes another bet, hits the button, spins the reels again. “Melanie”, you say, still louder, a little closer to her ear, so close that you have to check whether it is Melanie, because if it isn’t you’re going to get arrested. Still nothing. She keeps playing the machine, winning, losing. You touch her shoulder, and she glances up in your direction, then quickly back at the machine in front of her, punches the Bet Max Coins button, and the wheels spin again. Finally, instead of out-and-out shouting, you get her attention by putting a hand between her and the buttons. Only then does she recognize you, with a slightly puzzled look, and return from wherever she has been.
Studies consistently show that 35–55 percent of all casino gambling revenue comes from problem gamblers whose addiction causes serious problems for themselves and those around them. It is upon these vulnerable people that casinos decisively depend for their revenue base.
room full of modern, computer-based slot machines is perhaps the ultimate plug-in drug. But “gaming” executives never use such language and deny its applicability when others use it. They try to make the evil they do disappear by gaining control over vocabulary in such a way that it cannot be named. As the criminal mastermind Keyser Söze says in Christopher McQuarrie’s 1995 film The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Here is the rule of thumb: If a practice is basically dishonest, its advocates will speak of it dishonestly. They will call it by wrong names. They will allege that its purposes are other than what they are. They will engage in this fraudulent language partly to hide the dishonesty of the actual activity, and partly because they themselves are at least somewhat ashamed of what they are doing. And they should be ashamed. Slot machines are inherently dishonest. As far back as the 1930s, the great New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called them “mechanical pick-pockets”, and in those days the mechanisms took your money more slowly and with less illusion. La Guardia created a brochure for New Yorkers called “You Can’t Win in the Slot Machine Racket.” Because you can’t. Slot machines are cheating machines that prey upon the very people who can least afford it. There is nothing lovely or uplifting or redeeming or genuinely entertaining about them.
If you want a sad experience, go into a casino and watch people putting their money into slot machines. And I say “watch” advisedly, because watching someone else is as close to this activity as you are likely to get. If you are reading this essay, the likelihood that you regularly put your own money into slot machines is extremely low—about as low as the likelihood that your state Governor consistently puts his or her money into slot machines, or that any of your old college friends do. This class divide, when it comes to who is being fleeced by slot machines and who is benefitting in some ways from the fleecing, is the dirty little secret of state-sanctioned gambling today, and one of the deepest reasons for its bipartisan popularity among state politicians looking for ways to pay for state government without raising property taxes for the affluent.
Contrary to the claims of their political sponsors, the casinos now rapidly spreading across our country do not exist to provide jobs, grow the economy, or expand entertainment options for the American public. (Much research suggests that casinos do not contribute to economic growth over time, primarily because they don’t produce anything of value.) State leaders today in both red and blue states, from Mississippi to Massachusetts, are supporting casinos for one reason only: to take money from the vulnerable and unwary, overwhelmingly via slot machines, and deliver a large portion of that money to the state.
They should be ashamed of what they are doing. Some of them are, at least in part, which is why you never see photos of them visiting casinos or “playing” slot machines, and why they so reflexively resort to gamble-speak whenever they are asked in public to explain what they are supporting. Gamble-speak is one of their best friends and most important allies. Gamble-speak has their back. Gamble-speak aims to, and often does, render those who oppose state-sponsored gambling largely tongue-tied, turning the most important words into gibberish before the conversation even starts.
For anyone who cares about the politics and economics of American gambling, and particularly about public policies contributing to inequality, one of today’s most important tasks is to put gamble-speak in its natural place in our public discourse: as a source of inspiration for joke writers, a recognized indicator of second-rate thinking, and, above all, a telltale sign of the intention to deceive.
1“Report of the Committee Against Gambling”, in Minutes of the National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States (Congregational Sunday School and Publishing Society, 1898), p. 322.
2See Michael MacDougall’s 1939 Gamblers Don’t Gamble, still one of the best books about the crookedness inherent in professional gambling.
3Quoted in “Gamblers Anonymous Bids City Consider It a Safe Bet”, New York Times, March 16, 1971.
4“Casino Mogul Steve Wynn’s Midas Touch”, 60 Minutes, April 12, 2009.
5Quoted in Richard W. Stevenson, “Slot Machine Maker Hits Jackpot”, New York Times, September 12, 1989.
6Greenlees, Casino Accounting and Financial Management (University of Nevada Press, 2008).