Gambling may be mankind's single most irrational pastime, and everybody knows it's irrational.
Folk wisdom is full of salutary maxims. All horse-players die broke. Everything in life is 7 to 5 against. The cowboy who went back to the crooked roulette wheel night after night because it was the only game in town.
Skilled gamblers are often gifted at calculating odds so that they know, intellectually, that they will most probably lose. And so do the most gullible rubes if they pause in the casino doorway to ask themselves who pays for the glitzy building, the cheap drinks, the bargain buffet, all those lights, the lounge acts, the free bus from the old folks' home and all those beeping, chirping machines.
Lotteries are unabashed at giving odds of 87 million to 1, knowing that people will still line up to buy the tickets. Some people, in what the literary crowd calls willing suspension of disbelief, will buy a second ticket, convincing themselves they have cut the odds in half — and a third, and a fourth and a fifth ticket, etc.
The Internet enabled gamblers to sit at their home computers and send their credit card numbers to online betting services they had never heard of in Caribbean countries they had never heard of to bet on sporting events that, not to be too harsh, they really know nothing about.
Now gambling is about to take a leap from irrationality to lunacy — but it's an efficient lunacy. Casinos are going to armless, coinless slot machines.
In most gambling, even just flipping a coin, you physically have to do something. Roll the dice. Place your bet. Insert the coin and pull the lever. Yell at the stupid horse. Go to the mini-mart to buy lottery tickets. Scratch off numbers. Fill out your pool sheet. Poker was once practically a decathlon, what with the shuffling, dealing and chip counting, but video poker took care of most of that.
With the coinless slot machine, the gambler is freed from the onerous task of inserting coins and pulling a lever. Since slot machines are electronic, the lever is mostly a decoration anyway. The payoff is in the form of a ticket that, if the gambler was semi-rational, could be redeemed for the winnings but, since this isn't rational, can be inserted into the machine to keep on gambling.
The casinos present this as a service to the gamblers. What it means is that the casinos do not have to take the machines out of service to load and unload them, and the gamblers don't have to leave the machines when they run out of change. The casinos' take is a percentage of the money going through the machine, so any increase in volume per gambler and volume per machine is welcome. As for the gamblers, they'll believe whatever they want to believe.
With the social taboos against it breaking down, casino-style gambling will become pervasive. Las Vegas — a city where a city has no business being — is the fastest-growing metro area in the country, a fact not lost on our less robust areas. The Indians can't have all that casino money to themselves. If riverboat casinos never leave the dock, why restrict the casinos to the waterfront? Camden, N.J., is worse off than Atlantic City ever was, and it's closer to Philadelphia.
In Maryland, a state whose governor has successfully fought gambling on all fronts, the horse tracks complain that their business is dying because the bettors are being lured elsewhere. Just let us have slots, the tracks say, and we'll be fine. If the tracks get slots, it's only a matter of time before they decide that the slots would be a lot more profitable without the distraction of the horses.
And that brings us to the ultimate irrationality of gambling: It would be a lot more profitable without either the slot machine or the gambler. The casino is going to get the money anyway, and those two only impede the process.
Thanks to computerized betting, neither the gambler nor the slot machine needs to be present, only a credit card number. Anytime gamblers feel the need for action, they can pick up their cell phones and simply ask, "Did I win or lose?"
Irrationally, many will expect to hear that they won.