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Gambling: political expediency and the harsh reality of problem gamblers

By Garry Smith - posted Wednesday, 19 February 2003

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 edge.

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 harmless amusement.

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.

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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.

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About the Author

Professor Garry Smith is the University of Alberta's gambling expert and principal investigator with the Alberta Gaming Research Institute.

Related Links
Alberta Gaming Research Institute
Key Centre on Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance
University of Alberta
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