Legalized gambling always corrupts, corrodes society

The Argument

Three new books make clear the dreadful damage caused by the wagering industry.

March 11, 2001|By David W. Marston | David W. Marston,Special to the Sun

"Did we give a lot of information about every team? Yes. But, if you're gonna bet on college basketball, you don't need TV. People are gonna bet on cockroaches."

-- ESPN anchor Bob Ley, fall 1999

Every March, millions of citizens who don't know if Gonzaga is a college or a cheese decide to bet college hoops. Suddenly, in workplaces across the country, basketball pools are as common as coffee, everyone picking winners 32 games out, putting a few bucks on their picks. It's March Madness, the NCAA tournament, a national spring festival, more plays than the Super Bowl. But like the Super Bowl, the game is really only a pretext for the gamble, and the few bucks bet, legal and not, will add up to an estimated $7 billion.

Gambling is the new national pastime, and that's bad. March Madness pools may be as wholesome as church bingo, but the recent explosion of legal gambling, grossing an estimated $638 billion annually -- six times all other U.S. spectator sports and entertainment combined -- promises an inevitable jackpot of corruption, crime and addiction.

As recently as 1988, casino gambling was legal in only two states. Today, 48 states allow some form of gambling, and "Casino-American" Indians of dubious ancestry operate their own lucrative casinos. The next big play, already a booming business on offshore Caribbean sites, is Internet gambling in wide-open cyberspace.

On the surface, none of this seems so ominous. After all, it's no longer Mob-run gambling; now it's called gaming, good clean fun, like March Madness. State lotteries fund popular causes (senior citizens, education, lower taxes) and the games are generally run aboveboard. (An exception: an operator in Pennsylvania figured out how to make the Ping-Pong balls bounce to the right numbers, but he was quickly caught). Private sector gambling creates jobs and pays taxes.

Even Sin City has been cleaned up, as the new family-friendly Las Vegas seems to have served up a posthumous Mob hit: Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky have been replaced by bean-counting MBAs, all employed by the blue-chip corporations that run the casinos. Old-timers see this as a mixed blessing. You can't catch Sinatra at the Desert Inn anymore, but you also are not going to get whacked on your way to the parking lot.

Still, three new books take a fresh look at legalized gambling and its consequences, and their composite picture is sobering. In "The Odds: One Season, Three Gamblers, and the Death of Their Las Vegas" by Chad Millman (Public Affairs, 288 pages, $26), the author dissects the frenetic world of Las Vegas sports betting, bringing to life the nerve-jangling chaos in the windowless "book." The "wiseguys" (professional gamblers) win big and lose big but they are really only playing for the "rush," which makes for an ultimately depressing roller-coaster existence. As depicted in "The Odds," serious gamblers are generally extreme loners, incapable of normal relationships, and their addiction often ends in suicide. (Nevada, no coincidence, has the highest suicide rate in the nation.)

Millman, a former Sports Illustrated reporter, knows sports betting like a Vegas wiseguy, and this edgy account demystifies point spreads and prop bets (wagers on unrelated "propositions": e.g., where Mir will land when it falls to earth). "The Odds" also describes the "hydrogen bomb" of sports, the possibility of athletes and officials betting on -- and then fixing -- their own games, and traces the progress of a federal bill to ban betting on college sports.

The future of Vegas sports betting is uncertain. Nevada took in $6 million less in Super Bowl bets in 1999 compared with 1998, a shortfall likely diverted to the new offshore Internet sports betting sites. Unlike card games or video slots, which might be rigged by software gimmicks, sports betting turns on the outcome of a (presumably) uncontrollable event, the game. That makes it perfect for the Internet -- and with interactive online betting, addicts can bet the next play, the next pitch. So the smart money, this time, is betting against Vegas.

But perhaps the smartest bet in recent years was the 1990 decision of Malaysian billionaire Lim Goh Tong to invest in the proposed Pequot Indian casino in Connecticut. This unlikely partnership is only one of many improbable twists detailed in "The Revenge of the Pequots: How a Small Native American Tribe Created the World's Most Profitable Casino" by Kim Isaac Eisler (Simon & Schuster, 267 pages, $25).

In 1973, the Pequot tribe was down to a single member, Skip Hayward, an unemployed shipyard worker who was 1 / 16 Indian on this mother's side. At his dying grandmother's request, he moved back to the Ledyard, Conn., reservation to prevent officials from turning it into a state park. Enter Tom Tureen, a lawyer who had had landmark success in aggressive litigation for Native Americans.

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