Let Gamblers Gamble

Why is it only okay when the government runs the racket?


Baptists do not abide drunkenness, which is why (it has been said) they never recognize one another in the liquor store. In much the same vein, Virginia will not abide gambling.

Gaming and the laying of odds, however, are another matter.

Gambling is a low and dirty act that starts in cupidity and ends in crime, bankruptcy and broken homes—or at least so say its foes, as they have been saying for centuries. As early as 1727, Virginia adopted the Statute of Anne—which rendered gambling debts unenforceable—and in 1744 the colony prohibited gambling in public places altogether.

Such attitudes linger today. Thirty-nine states have some form of casino gambling, but Virginia is not one of them, noted a Washington Post article a little while ago. The story quoted Richard Saslaw, the Democratic leader in the state Senate: "Forty-nine states will have it before we get it," he said before adding, "maybe 48" — a nod to Utah's Mormon ways. Small chance, then, that Sen. Louise Lucas' proposal will win approval. She wants to introduce casino gambling to Hampton Roads.

Yet if gambling as an end in itself is an outrage against decency in the state's eyes, then wagering as a means to other ends is something else altogether. Thus the state runs a hugely successful lottery. And like all those in the numbers racket, Virginia's "house" fixes the odds in its own favor: Last year alone, the state raked in nearly half a billion from suckers who played its games of chance and lost.

But the official line denies that this constitutes gambling. It is, rather, government-provided "fun"—and it raises money for the schools! One hundred percent of the state's proceeds go to Virginia's K-12 education system, the lottery website notes. (It does not note that this transfer thereby frees up money for lawmakers to spend on other things.)

Likewise, you can bet on horse races in Virginia by attending a race at Colonial Downs in New Kent. Mind you, this is not gambling for gambling's sake, either. Rather, it is a way to sustain the Old Dominion's venerable equine industry. "No sport or pastime," held a Virginia judge in 1851, "has been more favourably [sic] and extensively indulged by all ranks of society in Virginia than horse racing." No one may call himself a true son of the state unless he not only knows the name of Robert E. Lee's horse (Traveller) but also can spell it correctly (two l's).

If you can't make it to Colonial Downs, you can visit one of the numerous off-track betting (OTB) parlors around the state. Off-track betting did not start up when the racetrack did, though. OTB parlors came along a few years later—and they were not sold as a means to let gamblers gamble, either. They were justified on the grounds that the track needed them to remain financially sustainable. (As Times-Dispatch sports writer Paul Woody noted recently, attendance at Colonial Downs averages just a hair over 2,000 per race—about a third of the number of fans who go to a typical Double-A baseball game at The Diamond in Richmond.) And since the track is necessary for the horse industry, and OTBs are necessary for the track, then OTBs are, through the transitive property, a means to sustain the equine tradition as well.

The same transitive relation is being applied to another kind of gambl … er, another kind of entertainment now: bingo. Roughly 400 groups around the state run regular bingo operations. But again, the playing of games of chance for money and prizes is not gambling. Heavens, no. It is, rather, a form of entertainment that raises money for worthy causes. Hence the bingo operations are overseen by Virginia's Charitable Gaming Board, even though they rake in several hundred million dollars a year by offering prizes that, by law, cannot exceed $1,000.

Make that "could not." As of Jan. 1, a new law permits "network" bingo. In network bingo, gambl . . . ah, players at multiple halls play together as an online streaming service calls the numbers from a single location. This allows for jackpots up to $25,000. The goal is to revive player interest and the revenue that comes with it, both of which have fallen off in recent years.

Fundraisers are excited. Social conservatives, not so much: Del. Thomas C. Wright of Lunenberg County, a Republican, says network bingo takes the state "in the wrong direction" because it becomes less about "a community event for people to have a good time" and more about "gambling and the money."

Well, yes.

The pretense that placing bets in Virginia is not sin-drenched gambling but merely a means to some virtuous end is growing gossamer thin. But it always has seemed fishy. An activity can be more than one thing, after all: Hunting can be both a sport and a means of feeding your family; basketball can be both fun with friends and good exercise. Some people who gamble might do so to raise money for a worthy cause—though writing a check would be less work and more direct. Most are gambling in order to gamble.

In that regard, casinos are no different than the lottery—and there is no good reason to allow one but not the other.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  1. Why are people prohibited from killing other people but the state is not? Why are people prevented taking other’s property away by force but the state is not? Ad infinitum.

    1. Why are people prohibited from killing other people but the state is not?

      They arent. Under the proper circumstances, you can kill some one. Ditto for the state, although the circumstances are different.

      1. “Proper circumstances” which you may have to convince a jury of your peers of. Which can be expensive… and you may not be able to convince the jury.

        The state’s “proper circumstances” if not proven don’t lead to the governor, district attorney or prosecutor being thrown in jail for life, on the other hand.

  2. Interesting point about the law referring to ‘games of chance’: I believe Reason had an item about a legal argument being made that poker is not a game of chance but a game of skill. In that vein, I recall years ago reading about a guy charged with running a gambling establishment where the law forbade games of chance and he argued that since he ran a crooked house with rigged games, he was not in fact guilty of breaking the law against games of chance. So to with the lottery – with the horribly unconscionable payouts they offer, it’s hardly fair to refer to them as a ‘game of chance’ any more than you would refer to playing Russian Roulette with a semi-automatic as a game of chance.

    1. Unless one picks up psychological or physical cues from a face-to-face opponent, I think it’s a game of chance myself….

      1. Clues can be picked up other than face to face.

        Why do you want declare that only face to face clues determine chance or skill ?

        1. Personal experience.

          I do much better against AI or online opponents than FtF. The game slows down FtF and I get impatient and subsequently do stupid things.

          I thought that some governing body of statisticians determined that it was a game of chance.

          What other things would you look for, minus visual or sensory clues?

          1. What other things would you look for, minus visual or sensory clues?

            Primarily, you use your knowledge of what your opponents have played in prior similar situations to make inferences about the possible range of hands your opponent has in this particular hand. Then, based on that range, you decide whether continuing in the hand is a good proposition or not. Google, “poker combinatorics”, “Sklansky bucks” and “Galfond bucks” for more of what I’m talking about.

            For more of a sensory take, I’ve heard of people using how long someone takes to make a bet, as a clue to whether the person has a good hand, a bad hand, or is just confused.

            Poker’s definitely a game of skill, but the edges aren’t as dramatic as in, say, darts or baseball.

          2. What other things would you look for, minus visual or sensory clues?

            This is why you lose at poker.

            Betting in and of itself, particularly pattern recognition and odds manipulation (in no limit games), provide a lot more information to good poker players than one’s “poker face”.

            1. “I thought that some governing body of statisticians determined that it was a game of chance.”

              you may have it backwards, mongo. i believe the freakonomics crew proved it was a game of skill.

  3. Gambling can be bad for many people, but it is not bad for every person.

    The state has no right to determine what is bad for me or not. Only I can determine that, and should not have fear of the state making such a choice worse for me than the actual act, especially!

    Preaching to the choir. 🙂

    1. True. There are gambling addicts whose choices — whether completely conscious or not — lead to broken homes, bankruptcy, etc.

      Making gambling illegal, however, is the exact WRONG way to deal with this problem. You make it more expensive for people to indulge in their addiction (which will lead to broken homes and bankruptcy faster) and make it harder for people to seek help since they are ostracized for doing something “illegal”.

      1. Or make it even more dangerous.

        My ex-wife racked up six figures of debt to online and Delaware casinos.

        What if she’d ran up that debt to the Wilmington version of Tony Soprano?

        I might not be around to make this post.

  4. But what about the KIDZ?

  5. Two years ago, I learned how to play Texas Hold ‘Em and loved it! Growing up, I never got into the other poker games though.

    This past year, I learned how to play Pai Gow poker (very simple but superfun).

    Over the past holiday, I learned how to play Dominos. I think I’m the only downtown cracker who knows how to play it so tha bruthaz on tha street better watchit.

  6. There would be no state-run lottery if gambling were legal. Private black-market lotteries used to be called “running numbers” or “the numbers racket”. States shut them down to crush competition, then started their own numbers rackets (state lotteries), keeping 50% of the loot for themselves, and paying some favored company 10% to run the numbers game, allowing 40% to go to the players in prize money (taxable of course). Yet the private lotteries only kept 10-20% of the loot.

    1. You can bitcoin gamble pretty easily now. Wonder if that will catch on.

  7. This isn’t just a Virginny SoCon thing either, as the article seems to suggest. Gambling really is the last American taboo. Just as liable to drop jaws at the Folsom Street Fair as at the United Methodist Church of Bumfuck. Not for exactly the same reasons, but it’s the one issue where busybodies of all stripe seem to be in lockstep agreement.

  8. True…anyone with a pulse likes to make wagers, many people are stupid when making wagers, what’s new. The multi state lotteries rob their participants far more than Vegas, in Vegas if you are knowledgeable about sports you have a chance. With these lotteries you have a miracles chance. I know something about football, I’ll take my chances there.

  9. my neighbor’s aunt makes 68 dollars/hour on the laptop. She has been out of a job for nine months but last month her pay check was 15377 dollars just working on the laptop for a few hours. read the full info here


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