In the past 30 years, legal gambling has proliferated. In North America
150 to 200 years ago gambling was a popular activity, though generally
illegal. The essence of the activity was 'sharpers' or 'tricksters',
gambling operators and in some cases players who used artifice and guile
to supplement their natural skills, trying to fleece 'suckers'. The
trickery involved marked cards, loaded dice, dishonest dealing, and
unbalanced roulette wheels, and sometimes involved conspiracies among two
or more players.
An interesting archetype was the 'chivalrous bystander', a person of
supposedly high character who had expert knowledge of the gambling scene
from having played the games and hence the ability to spot cheaters. These
gentlemen ferretted out crooked gamblers, beating them at their own game,
and restoring suckers' losses. A chastened sucker had to swear a solemn
oath not to gamble any more.
Accounts of gambling in Australia suggest similarities to what I have
just outlined. The games may be somewhat different (horse racing was more
prominent here and two-up never took hold anywhere else that I know of),
but you see the same themes.
Gambling was characterised by exploitation and corruption, and aimed at
the financial ruination of innocents foolish enough to get trapped in the
games. How does that scene compare with what exists today?
Early games were mostly illegal; today ours are legal. Early gambling
grew organically out of the local community; today's gambling did not
appear because of citizen demand but was generally imposed on the populace
by governments. The beneficiaries of early games were the sharpers and
tricksters, whereas today it is governments, the gambling industry and, in
some instances, charities or worthy causes. The sharpers and tricksters
had no compunction about taking suckers for their last dime; today the
same mentality reigns but we mask our intentions by espousing
"responsible gambling" and providing treatment for the
unfortunates who become addicted to the activity. The sharpers and
tricksters blatantly cheated to win consistently, our games are generally
honest and fair. Cheating is not necessary because of the generous house
When gambling excesses became too much to take in earlier times,
citizen vigilante groups corrected the situation by banning the gamblers,
tarring and feathering them or, in some cases, hanging them. There is
nowhere near the same level of accountability for gambling operators
today. The worst that can happen is losing your licence or being voted out
and even these possibilities are unlikely. Fighting, chip stealing, pocket
picking, and thievery characterised the ambience of earlier games. So it
is today, albeit there are new criminal wrinkles such as money laundering,
counterfeiting, and credit card fraud.
Women were marginally involved in frontier gambling but are heavily
involved in some formats today (particularly, lotteries and pokies). Both
then and now the unwary and addicted were victimised.
Early gambling was part of the cultural heritage; today's commercial
gambling is driven by state and industry economic exigencies. Modern
commercial gambling has been sanitised and legitimated because of the
involvement of governments and publicly traded corporations. Cosmetic
changes can be made to improve the image of gambling but underneath it is
still what it always was.
Commercial gambling today is similar to yesteryear's frontier gambling:
they are both 'hustles'. A hustler is a type of con artist, and conning
involves manipulating others' impressions of reality, and especially of
one's self, creating in effect, false impressions. Hustles or 'con-games'
work because of the perennial willingness, if not eagerness, of people to
get something for nothing. The hustler's main aim is the 'short con' -
using a scheme to take the sucker for the cash he or she has on them at
the time, or as much of it that the victim will part with.
Sometimes hustlers go for a 'big con' where the essential feature is
'putting the mark on the send' - getting the person to come back with a
much larger sum - which may mean taking money from savings, selling
investments, borrowing, even stealing. The ideal 'mark' or sucker', is the
player who does not realise it is impossible to win in the long run and
makes him or herself available day after day for more action. At some
point the mark may realise that he or she is being taken and may retaliate
by 'blowing the whistle'. In a street hustle that means threatening to
call the police. The hustler attempts to 'cool out the mark', that is,
console and sympathise with the victims, telling them they were unlucky,
that a big win is just around the corner; in short, whatever it takes to
assuage the sucker's anger.
Governments attempt to 'cool out the marks' first by saying that the
money goes to good causes (even when the lion's share goes into general
revenue) and by saying that gambling is only entertainment, just a
Second, a common justification for promoting gambling is that
"everyone wins", gambling creates jobs, pumps money back into
the economy and revenues into health care, education, and cultural
programmes. The truth is that there are far more losers than winners - but
this is an admission that few governments are willing to make. They may
grudgingly concede that excessive gambling can cause problems but they
pass the buck. It is not them as monopolistic gambling promoters that are
responsible for creating addiction and inciting crime - disordered
individuals who cannot control their appetites are at fault.
This an edited version of a presentation to the
Governing the Gambling Industry: New Directions Seminar sponsored by the
Key Centre on Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance at Griffith University
on the 22nd January, 2003.