December 8, 2009

Three to One Odds He Doesn't Last in Gamblers Anonymous

Wall Street Journal Article - Guy Loses $127 Million

"Whales."  These high rollers are the gamblers that get the REAL comps.  The ones the casino personnel fall all over each other trying to keep happy.  The key question here is where does the responsibility for one's own personal behavior end, and where does potential liability begin.    Terrance Watanabe is claiming that he lost money, millions upon millions in fact, because of diminished faculties caused by pain pills and booze provided by the casino.  Like a bartender giving a guy drinks after he's clearly hammered, and then the dude goes out and drives drunk and kills somebody.

As the article intimates, Watanabe has a tough road to hoe to prove that point, and the precedent is pretty much not in his favor.   He's trying to fight off a criminal conviction, and if I'm his attorney, I throw everything out there and let the judge decide.  Clearly, some of the casino employee activities are a bit questionable, at best.   But they are standard operating procedure nonetheless.  Watanabe busted out, Vegas moves on to the next victim.

Gambling is, in my opinion, becoming as common and easy as writing a grocery list.  There used to be the time when there were only a few places you could bet, and most of the places were irredeemably sleazy and scummy.  I remember when I was a kid, my dad took my brother and I to the Milford, Connecticut, fronton for afternoon jai-alai.  We originally started our lifelong betting habits by picking colors for the winners, then later going with three-number combinations, then a couple of years later by reviewing the program, analyzing winning patterns and having our dad place bets for us, usually boxing the three best players.  Per usual for gambling, the player who was clearly hands-down more talented than the rest dropped the pelota at random times and screwed up our tickets.   It was like Michael Jordan missing a lay-up once or twice a quarter.   We yelled "fix," and were probably right, who knows if the management and/or the mob kept things interesting.  But when we did win, maybe $25 bucks on a rare occasion, there was euphoria, triumph, and validation for making the right picks, despite the fact that the place was more depressing most of the time than a shanty town.

Therein lies the trap.  And why impulse control is key.  I feel sorry for Watanabe. Sure he lived like a king while he was in Vegas, and probably ate strawberries off ridiculously hot stripper asses in suites that make my house look like an efficiency, but he fell so far down.  So far.  He kept chasing the thrill, savoring the attention, feeding the ego in huge bites, but ultimately he felt regret, recrimination, and soon, perhaps, judicial punishment.   It's a classic Faustian contract.  And the devil took his due.

But I'm not sure where the Watanabe life lesson works for other people.   Most casual gamers never end up as compulsive gamblers.   I couldn't imagine losing five grand in a week in Vegas, let alone $5 million in one night.  But I could certainly practice if I wanted to.   Like probably hundreds of thousands of Facebook users, I play Zynga's poker application.  Over a year, I've built up around 2 million chips.  My brother is over 2.5 million.  I've got friends over $15 and $20 million chips.  If I wanted to, I could spend money and buy more chips, and gamble for real.  Nominal amounts involved, maybe $10 - $20, which is the table minimum for a blackjack game in Atlantic City, but it's a start.  And I don't have to leave my couch to do it.  It's the sheer ubiquity of gambling that became a realization for me. 

As states find it harder and harder to fund budgets, the easiest way to find money is by introducing legalized gambling.   When I moved to Virginia in 1990, the only places to gamble were Atlantic City, Nevada, Foxwoods, jai alai, OTB, greyhound and horsetracks, and cruise ships.   There is now legalized gambling in most of the states surrounding me:  West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware.  There are 19 states (and one US Territory) that allow commercial casinos in some form: California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Washington, and West Virginia. The only states where gambling is completely illegal are Utah and Hawaii (Utah, I can understand, but Hawaii?).  There are multiple lotteries and scratch-offs in every state.  I can go on-line, open an account in the Cayman Islands with a credit card, and start gambling in about five minutes. 

Now, I'm of the school that says that individuals should do what's best for consenting adult individuals.  You want to gamble, fine.  You want to visit a whorehouse, do bong hits beforehand, and smoke in a restaurant afterward?  It's cool.  I just wonder whether we're all just kidding ourselves about gambling.   I'm not sure if it was always part of our American cultural make-up, and now we're just peeling back or ignoring the rationales for why we considered it wrong in the first place.  There are political factors at work, of course, but if you just look at supply and demand, the supply has exploded over the last twenty years, in an order of magnitude.  Gambling, with play money and real money, is truly available to anyone, at any time, anywhere.  Talk about playing craps with impulse control.

I'm betting the farm that more Watanabe stories get played out, with less media coverage, but similar results.       

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