History tells us the slot machine is a loser

David Blankenhorn, Tallahassee Democrat, 1/31/2014

Does this sound like ancient history? Think again. The heart and soul of casino gambling today is the slot machine. Once derided by the mobsters who invented the American casino as "babe sitters" – something for wives and girlfriends to do while the men played at the tables – slot machines now account for more than 70 percent of all gambling revenue from casinos. In Mississippi, the figure is 85 percent. In Iowa, it's 89 percent. Casino promoters still like to produce ads showing happy, upscale people playing blackjack or roulette, but the fundamental question facing Florida, as you consider the question of casino expansion, is whether you want thousands of new slot machines in your state. Casino owners love slot machines. Since they require no skill, anyone can play. Slot machines are cheap to maintain and operate, since there are no dealers or pit bosses to train and pay, just you putting your money into a machine that has been programmed to cause you to lose. Also, slot machines are designed to encourage the very kind of addictive behavior – press the button, get a jolt, press the button again – that will cause a significant minority of players to "play to extinction," which is what the casinos owners call playing until all your money is gone. What more could a casino ask for?

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Subjects: Gambling, Casinos, Slot Machines

More by: David Blankenhorn

Dramatically expanding the number of slot machines in Florida is not a new idea.

In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, Florida became only the second U.S. state (Nevada in 1931 was the first) to legalize slot machines in order to raise public revenue. It turned out to be a terrible experience for the state.

Almost overnight, as one Miami writer put it, slot machines were "in drug stores, hardware stores, ladies ready-to-wear and filling stations; in hotels, lunch wagons, and hay and grain stores. In fact, everywhere."

He adds: "And Southern hospitality and courtesy were never more clearly shown than in the willingness of the slot machine operators to give a stranger change. They'd sit there and give you nickels and dimes until your last dollar was gone, without a murmur of complaint."

A lot of tourists lost a lot of money, but so did a lot of Floridians. The slot machine owners called them "amusements," but what happened across the state was not very amusing. Delinquency increased. Petty crime increased. Public morale declined. Daily life became a bit more tawdry. Angry citizens soon formed a statewide anti-slot machine campaign.

The promise that legalized slot machines would help Florida's economy turned out to be a bad joke. A St. Petersburg newspaper editorial said: "Circulating money through slot machines has precisely the same effect on business as throwing coins into the air so that people may scramble for them. There is no purchase of goods involved; it is simply and purely redistribution of money." State Rep. LeRoy Collins, who opposed the legalization and who later become governor, concluded that gambling in Florida, whether legal or illegal, "kills more business than it generates."

The president of the anti-slot machine campaign also stressed the issue of unfairness: "Slot machines are not a gambling device, they are a stealing device. There is no chance of the public winning or the slot machine losing."

It didn't take people long to figure out that this was a bad idea. In the 1936 elections, 50 of Florida's 67 counties banned the slot machines by local option. In 1937, the state Legislature voted overwhelmingly to repeal the slot machine law.

Does this sound like ancient history? Think again. The heart and soul of casino gambling today is the slot machine. Once derided by the mobsters who invented the American casino as "babe sitters" – something for wives and girlfriends to do while the men played at the tables – slot machines now account for more than 70 percent of all gambling revenue from casinos. In Mississippi, the figure is 85 percent. In Iowa, it's 89 percent. Casino promoters still like to produce ads showing happy, upscale people playing blackjack or roulette, but the fundamental question facing Florida, as you consider the question of casino expansion, is whether you want thousands of new slot machines in your state.

Casino owners love slot machines. Since they require no skill, anyone can play. Slot machines are cheap to maintain and operate, since there are no dealers or pit bosses to train and pay, just you putting your money into a machine that has been programmed to cause you to lose. Also, slot machines are designed to encourage the very kind of addictive behavior – press the button, get a jolt, press the button again – that will cause a significant minority of players to "play to extinction," which is what the casinos owners call playing until all your money is gone. What more could a casino ask for?

As Floridians learned the hard way during the Great Depression, there are many reasons to say "no" to more and more slot machines. They don't help the economy and probably harm it. They don't produce anything – they are a classic example of what the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson, speaking of gambling, called a "sterile" economic activity.

Finally, slot machines are ripoffs. No steady player has ever beaten, or will ever beat, a slot machine – all they do is take your money. In most of America, for most of our history, slot machines have not only been wrong because they're illegal, they've also been illegal because they're wrong.

This article originally appeared here.

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