I'll bet you can't go the entire day without seeing a commercial or a billboard advertising the lottery, a casino, or some other form of gambling; I'll give you two-to-one if you live in a big city. Thirty-nine states have lotteries, and if you drive across the country, you'll come across more casinos than full-service gas stations. Meanwhile, Las Vegas and other gambling centers have convinced America that visiting their cities is good, clean fun for the whole family.
What's behind all this "wholesome" gambling is, of course, governmental and corporate greed. And all this legalizing and sanitizing has had many effects on our society. When gambling is so accessible, obviously there are more gamblers — and more people with gambling problems. Casinos are so "family friendly" that it's hard to distinguish them from Disneyland. So children are exposed to gambling at a ridiculously young age, and the casinos have an unlimited supply of future players. State lotteries — which brought in $38 billion last year — were called the "numbers racket" in the mobster days, and similarly prey on the dreams of the poor.
But I want to talk about another serious effect that all this manufactured respectability is having: it's taking the fun out of gambling for me.
There's a place on the French Riviera called Cap d'Agde and nicknamed the "Naked City." You walk into the bank, and the tellers are naked. Neither customers nor waiters wear clothes in the restaurants. And on the links, golfers show off more than their swings. Yet people who have been there tell me it's the least erotic place in the world. There's no mystery, no naughtiness, and everything is just too wholesome to be sexy. And the same sad thing has happened to gambling.
When I was growing up, respectable people didn't talk out loud about their gambling. They did it in their basements or in secret rooms in questionable parts of town. Or they took mischievous trips to Nevada, where a city of neon lights rose up in the desert and beckoned them to do things there that they couldn't do at home. Gambling was mostly illegal, naughty, and somewhat dangerous. And that's what made it so much fun.
When I went to Las Vegas years ago, I liked playing blackjack with a surly pit boss looking on. It made it more exciting to see that guy whose pinky ring was slightly bigger than my watch, knowing that if I touched the wrong card he'd have my knees broken before I hit the pavement outside the casino. Now the dealers and pit bosses are smiley-faced college kids. They're chatty, and offer advice on everything from how to play a hand to where to see a show. I don't want to be friends with my dealer. I just want him or her to deal me as many hands as quickly as possible.
One of the reasons it used to be fun to go to the racetrack was because of the people there. It was great to listen to the wizened touts tell each other why their horse just couldn't lose. I liked watching shady characters try to talk other shady characters into ridiculous bets. I enjoyed seeing some schoolteacher who had taken the day off hit a long-shot and shriek uncontrollably with joy. Now if you want to bet on a horse race, you can do it at home, online. Where's the fun in that? The only shady character I'm likely to see at home is the one looking at me in the mirror.
It's interesting that gambling used to be thought of as morally questionable. Now, because states and big businesses want more and more money, they've tried to make that old image disappear. They tell us that gambling is no less wholesome than bowling or playing catch with your kids. Ironically, this shameless public relations campaign seems just as morally questionable as gambling used to be.
Maybe someday soon, states will get a conscience and realize how cruel it is to exploit poor peoples' dreams with snappy slogans and pretty lottery commercials. Maybe casino owners will conclude that things were better when they attracted gamblers who just wanted to gamble and left the kiddies at home. Maybe. But with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, I wouldn't bet on it.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.