Is Gambling In America's National DNA?

Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy appears on a television screen at Caesars Palace hotel-casino in Las Vegas on Friday, Feb. 2, 2007. The Colts are seven-point favorites over the Chicago Bears, but odds are many gamblers won't settle for merely choosing the winner.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Maybe it's in our national DNA. After all, what were the odds the colonies — the ultimate underdogs — could have beaten the British?

Perhaps it's only natural that America is finally getting in touch with its inner gambler.

Thirty-five years ago in this country if you wanted to place a legal bet, you either had to be at a track or in Las Vegas. That has all changed.

You can gamble or play the lottery now in every state except Utah and Hawaii. To be sure, religious and moral objections still exist. But they've been drowned out by the din of your local casino. And this week, that noise will be deafening.

Super Bowl Sunday is an especially big betting day. Americans will throw down more than a half a billion dollars on the game (legally and otherwise), but half a billion is chump change.

A recent federal study on gaming in the U.S. indicated that "there was up to $380 billion a year bet in this country on sports, of which only one percent is legally bet," said Frank Fahrenkopf, who used to run the Republican Party and is now gambling's top lobbyist.

The other 99 percent of that $380 billion is illegal gambling that's going on in this country each year.

Americans like to bet.

The most recent manifestation is poker on TV. Every channel has a game. And big money tournaments have exploded in popularity and number. Sites to play poker on the Internet seem to grow exponentially.

"I really think in America we were born to gamble," Richard Hoffer, author of the book on gambling, "Jack Pot Nation," said. "I think we descended from risk-takers: Hey, let's settle the country! I think we're just trained to recognize risk and to take it. I do I think it's almost a form of ambition, to take chances. It's how we get ahead. Whether it's inventing a new operating system for a computer or flying to the moon, whatever, I think it's the better part of us to take risks."

And Las Vegas is the city that risky business built. Billy Vassiladis, who runs the ad agency that created the city's most famous slogan: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," said that the city is all about playing by your own rules.

"There's no schedules here," he said. "There's no time here. There's no gotta do or gotta be — you can eat when you want. You don't have to eat if you don't want to. You sit by the pool all day, you can gamble all day. You can end your night as it were at six o'clock in the morning if you want to and then sleep the day away. It's your call. No one requires you to do anything here, except obey the law."

Randy Snow, the agency's creative director, said almost everything goes in the ads they do, but they do try to use some discretion.

"We try to avoid religion," she said. "The other thing we will try to avoid, quite honestly, is if we set up a mystery where the only possible answer is, he or she had sex with somebody — we'll try to stay away from that. If that's one of the hundred possible answers though — that's good. But we try not to just go specifically there. We try to leave it as open as we can. Beyond that, we've pretty much taken on just about everything else."

Vassiladis said that the amazing thing about Vegas is that it has something for absolutely everyone.

"We say, 'Here is an end of a day, of a trip, of a vacation to Las Vegas. You fill it in as you want to. And if in your mind — it's about sex, then great. Fill it in with sex. If your mind is about gambling, fill it in about gambling. If your mind's about shopping Armani and Prada and Hermes, ect., then that's what it was. Whatever you want it to. So Harry, if there's sin in your heart, then it's about sin."

In "Ocean's Eleven," Andy Garcia plays a big Vegas casino boss, but his real-life counterpart is even bigger. Terri Lanni, the CEO of MGM Mirage, a publicly traded company with almost half the hotel rooms in Las Vegas and casinos all over the country, works in an office that is almost indescribably luxurious. He hopes that there are no limits to how much money the gambling business can make.

"As I say, in the 31 years I've been in the business I've been told, 'Well, you built one room too many.' And every time we build more rooms and our company alone has 44 percent of the rooms here on the Strip — we just seem to be able to build more and more — more people come," he said. "We have a market cap of about $20 billion. It's pretty amazing."

One acre of land on the Las Vegas Strip is worth between $25 and $30 million. Gambling, it turns out, is a sure thing. The only thing growing as fast as the spread of gambling is the number of problem gamblers.

"We're unfortunately in a growth industry," Keith Whyte, who used to head up research for the gambling industry, said. "Last year alone we had 240,000 calls to our nationwide help line. And that's a ten percent increase on top of a 20 percent increase on top of a 20 percent increase. So calls over the past 3 years have grown 100 percent."

Now, from a humble three-person office in Washington, Whyte runs the National Council on Problem Gambling. He said roughly 85 percent of Americans have gambled at least once in their life and 65 percent have gambled at least once in the past year.

"An overwhelming majority of Americans are gamblers and even regular gamblers. It's a big sea change in our culture," he said.

In little more than a generation, America has gone from something like abstinence to practically total indulgence in gambling. Problem gambling is treatable, but the temptation now is ever present. You can't go on TV and not see a poker game. Prime time's "CSI" takes place in Las Vegas. Gambling has become celebrated — making it even harder for a problem gambler.

"It's devastating; we think it contributes a lot to relapse," Whyte said. "Because if you're an alcoholic you can stay away from the bar, if you're a problem gambler you have to stay away from basically everything — not just money, but the media that surrounds the Super Bowl, [or] March Madness. So it's very difficult in America to be a problem gambler and not be tempted. And especially with problem gambling — you're always one bet away from winning everything back," Whyte said.

With risk comes reward. But it's rare to hear of a gambler cashing in and walking away.

"Time passes very quickly when you're winning and you're in that kind of a zone and you're able, it seems like, to demonstrate your own little mastery of the universe," Hoffer said. "It's a thrill, it's a thrill."