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Learning from Las Vegas

The Luck Business: The Devastating Consequences and Broken Promises of America’s Gambling Explosion

by Robert Goodman
Martin Kessler Books/Free Press, 273 pp., $23.00

The Black Book and the Mob: The Untold Story of the Control of Nevada’s Casinos

by Ronald A. Farrell, by Carole Case
University of Wisconsin Press, 286 pp., $44.00; $17.95 (paper)

Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas

by Nicholas Pileggi
Simon and Schuster, 363 pp., $24.00

Casino

a film directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi, by Martin Scorsese

Running Scared: The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn

by John L. Smith
Barricade Books, 352 pp., $24.00

Fifteen years ago, when I first began going regularly to Las Vegas, the town was strictly for adults. Sometimes you would see stunned waifs wandering around Glitter Gulch downtown or asleep on the carpeted sidewalk outside the Golden Nugget while their parents blew their week’s wages, but there was only one casino that made any pretense of catering to children. That was Circus Circus, which offered them a mezzanine crammed with carnival sideshows and video games, and a view of the casino and trapeze artists swinging around over the heads of the gamblers below. The place seemed to have been designed as a gambling-aversion cure by an unusually sadistic behaviorist. It was bewildering, batteringly noisy, and circular, a new level of Dante’s hell. My small daughter was taken there once by the mother of another girl she had met at the swimming pool of a neighboring casino. The mother gave the kids ten dollars each and went off to play blackjack. When the money ran out they went down to find her. Since it was an offense for a minor to enter the gambling area, the girls—both nine years old, and with long blond hair like Tenniel’s Alice—were promptly arrested by a security guard.

It was outrageous, of course, but it seemed oddly appropriate. In 1980, when the mob was still all over town, Las Vegas was a Wonderland in which even Alice could be arrested for a misdemeanor. That was one of its attractions. Back then, Nevada was the only state in the union where gambling was legal, and its gaming tables were the only places where people from the straight world could rub shoulders with gangsters and not get into trouble. The wiseguys were as much a part of the town’s non-stop pageant as the cascades of neon.

Not any more. Modern Vegas has been redesigned for the benefit of children, with pirate battles, jousting knights, and exploding volcanoes. It has become just another Disneyland, a family theme park with gambling on the side to keep the adults happy. Even the gambling is childish. Back in the 1980s, the center of the casinos was the “table games”—blackjack, roulette, baccarat, craps, poker—games that involve some social exchange with other people—players, dealers, croupiers—and varying degrees of skill. (Poker, at its highest level, is as sophisticated as chess, and even roulette players have to make choices.) There were acres of slot machines, of course, and armies of little old ladies, with Dixie cups full of quarters, grinding away at them. But the real action was at the tables and, for non-professionals at least, action was what the gamblers were there for. Sometimes the players won, sometimes they lost, but the pleasure was in the game itself: the stir of excitement at each new deal or roll of the dice or spin of the wheel, the competitive urge to beat the other players or the dealer or the house.

Gradually, however, casinos have cut back the space allotted to table games and filled it with slot machines. Although I go to Vegas often, I don’t consider myself a gambler; I never bet on anything I can’t shuffle and the only game I play is poker. So for me, the gloomiest moment of the Vegas year occurs just after the end of the World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe. The World Series is to poker what Wimbledon is to tennis—the oldest and most prestigious of all the tournaments—and players come from all over the globe to compete. For the three weeks the tournament lasts, the large space in front of the Horseshoe’s reception desk is filled with poker tables—dozens of them, all packed night and day, and with people lining up to play. The high-stakes side action before, during, and after the events of the Series itself is unceasing right up until the start of the main and final event, the $10,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em tournament, which begins on a Monday and ends on Thursday. Two hours after it is finished and the new World Champion has been crowned, the poker tables have vanished, as though they had never been, and in their place are ranks of slot machines. It is business as usual again, even at family-owned Binion’s Horseshoe, the Mecca of high-rollers.

For the casino operators, slot machines have distinct advantages over table games: they cost a mere $5,000 each and, in the words of a gambling official, they “show up every Monday and they don’t go out on strike.” But compared to traditional forms of gambling, playing the slots is an autistic activity—mindless, solitary, and addictive—and its popularity is growing at a terrible speed. “Between 1990 and 1992, table game betting at Nevada and Atlantic City casinos fell by about 15 percent, while slot machine revenues rose by nearly 40 percent,” writes Robert Goodman in The Luck Business, a sharp and informative survey of American gambling. “Today’s casinos are little more than theme-decorated warehouses…designed for mass consumption—the new ‘McGambling.’ ”

Goodman is only passingly interested in Las Vegas; his subject is the Las Vegasing of America, the spread of what he calls “fast-food,” “convenience” gambling, available everywhere on demand. These days it is no longer even necessary to go to a casino to gamble. There are slot machines and lottery terminals in bars, restaurants, and stores, and because “McGambling” is electronic, it will soon be available to anyone who has access to a computer:

As recently as 1988, casino gambling was legal in only two states: Nevada and New Jersey. By 1994, six years later, casinos were either authorized or operating in twenty three states and were proposed in many others…. Total yearly casino revenues nationally nearly doubled—from $8 billion to about $15 billion…. In the early 1990s revenues in the gambling industry were climbing about two and a half times faster than those in the nation’s manufacturing industries….

By the beginning of 1995, legal gambling in the United States [including lotteries] was generating over $37 billion in yearly revenues—more than the total amount Bill Clinton promised to use during each of his first four years in office to help rebuild America’s transportation system, create a national information network, develop the technology to clean up the environment, and convert the defense industry to a peacetime economy.

Goodman sees this explosion of legalized gambling as just the latest in a series of desperate attempts to find a magic bullet to cure ailing economies:

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was called “urban renewal”—cities were torn to shreds to eliminate slums and attract more business and more affluent residents. During the 1970s and 1980s, it became a game known as “industrial recruitment” or “smokestack chasing”—local and state governments pitted themselves against one another in an effort to woo companies with tax breaks, subsidies, and promises of low wages and lax environmental standards.

Legalized gambling has worked no better than its predecessors and, like them, it creates more problems than it solves. The casino operators have prospered, of course, but of all the communities that have tried to strike it rich through legalized gambling, only the Indian tribes who opened casinos on their reservations have truly benefited. Exercising their rights to open casinos under a 1988 act of Congress, the Indian tribes had a distinct advantage over other hopefuls: they had very little to lose. Most were destitute and dependent on government handouts. The casinos brought in visitors with money to spend, and, because the tribes owned the casinos, the tribal councils could decide how the profits should be spent.

The Connecticut Pequots, for example, whom the Puritan settlers once called “a stately warlike people” and then tried to exterminate, were virtually extinct by the end of World War II. Their two-thousand-acre reservation near Stonington had shrunk to 214 acres, and one family was living on it. Today the reservation is back to its original size and the Pequots are one of the most prosperous Indian tribes in America. They have their own police and fire service, a lavish community center, comfortable houses, and a number of thriving business enterprises. All of this has been financed by the Pequots’ casino, Foxwoods, despite the fact that the building itself goes against the basic principle of casino design: i.e., include nothing that might distract the players from the serious business of losing money. In practice this means no clocks and no windows. The Pequot tribal elders, however, are proud of their reservation’s pretty, wooded countryside and they insisted on windows. The Connecticut landscape is indeed charming, although whenever I’ve been there nobody has seemed to be paying much attention to it. Foxwoods is currently the most successful casino in the country (it grossed approximately $600 million in 1994) for the simple reason that it draws in customers from New York and all the major cities in New England. If you live in Boston or Providence or Hartford or New Haven and you want to gamble legally, there is simply nowhere else to go.

In other words, the tribal casinos have prospered for the same reason Las Vegas has become the fastest-growing city in the States. (In the early 1990s, Goodman says, nearly six thousand people were settling there every month and investors were pouring more than $2 billion a year into gambling-related projects alone.) You can gamble anywhere in Nevada, but Reno is also a cattle town and Carson City is the state capital. Las Vegas, in contrast, is strictly a one-product, purpose-built town. It sits there in the middle of the desert with its neon lights fizzing, and visitors flood in with the sole purpose of spending money. Looking after them and servicing the hotels—including thirteen of the twenty largest hotels in the world—gives work to a population of one million. Surprisingly few of the residents gamble much—they wouldn’t survive if they did—but all of them need houses and stores and restaurants and automobiles, doctors, lawyers, and accountants. Goodman calls Nevada’s gambling “an export product,” and this is something Vegas shares with some of the Western tribal casinos. It is surrounded by a cordon sanitaire of desert; if you want to go there to gamble, you have to hustle some money, pack a bag, and travel.

The new gambling towns lack this geographical advantage. Casinos and riverboats have sprung up across the US during the last decade in the hope of attracting tourist dollars to help failing economies, but none of them was sufficiently remote. The tourists came, lost their money at the casinos, then drove straight home, ignoring the local shops and restaurants. Meanwhile, there was a sharp rise in “impulse gambling” by local residents who dropped in to play the slots or the tables on their way home from work, thus wasting cash that might have been used for clothes or appliances or a meal out, and creating social problems—gambling addiction and crime—which had to be paid for by the community or the state.

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