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Political Animal

The Mark On The Send

By Brian Morton | Posted 1/23/2008

One day after the last time slots was mentioned in this column (unfavorably, naturally), The Sun came out with a poll stating that the majority of Marylanders favor passing slot machines by a wide margin.

This is another reason why newspaper people should not make predictions (like I did when I said shots would go up as a referendum and fail). As we found out in the New Hampshire primary, newspeople are about as accurate as street-corner psychics (albeit we dress marginally better and lie to you only half as much).

I still could be right (although at this point, I doubt it), but let's just say the people of Maryland do vote in favor of slot machines via referendum this fall--then what? The horse-racing industry is going to cry anyway, because people who go to the tracks won't be going for racing any more than they did before slots. Plus, track owners wouldn't have a reason anymore to avoid sprucing up the dingy rest-home atmosphere that is the hallmark of any racetrack--spending money rather than raking it in for free isn't in their business plan.

That's really what gambling is: a license to make money for free. For every winner, there are buttloads of losers, and all slot machines do is expand the natural base of losers by an order of magnitude. In the meantime, the winners, having had a taste of the money, will wait a season and then begin crying poorhouse all over again in order to get casino gambling, which is where the real money is.

This is the high-stakes version of the old con called "putting the mark on the send." The mark gets a taste of victory, and he sees that he can get a whole lot more if he wagers more. So he has to run home and get more money to put up in order to beat the bank. Except in the end it's a con, and the mark ends up losing everything.

In this case, the gambler (or the mark) is the racetracks. Except it's not their money they're playing with in the end; it's ours. Supposing slots pass, mark my words: Just as in any other state, it won't be long before they turn around and start pushing for full casino gambling, using the same arguments they made for slot machines. Hell, the same arguments they made for Pick 3 and Lotto and Keno and then MegaMillions. The tracks need saving. The horse industry is dying. The revenues coming in aren't enough. We could get more money with casinos. Yadda yadda.

They go to the legislature and, after a few years of crying and whining, suddenly there are casinos in the Inner Harbor and in Prince George's County and somewhere on the Eastern Shore near Ocean City. And then, after the investment of a few years' worth of lobbying, the gambling industry has the proverbial license to print money, and that money comes from us.

There's an old saying among the con artists of the world: "You can't cheat an honest man." People who play slot machines aren't dishonest, but they're trying to get a less sleazy version of something for nothing--they're trying to wager a little to get a lot. Except you know, I know, and even they know that the odds are against them. Playing slots is not a skill. As Jamy Ian Swiss, the New York magician and gambling expert, says, "There is no such thing as a professional slots player." Yet politicians approve slot-machine gambling in state after state, and then gambling interests play states against one another. "If we don't approve slots, our money will go to Delaware or West Virginia!" the pols are prompted to shout.

Except those politicians are in a bind, like Gov. Martin O'Malley finds himself now. He just approved a sales-tax hike that hits everybody. He couldn't jack up the taxes on the wealthiest earners, because they live in Montgomery County, and that's a major part of his base. So the easiest way out is for people to surrender their money willingly, and that's where slots come in.

Back in 1999, a really stupid judge in New York wrote an opinion that opened a loophole in city law, saying that three-card monte was a game of skill, not chance. The Las Vegas magician Penn Jillette flew in to testify at a city council hearing, saying that, if they didn't close the loophole, he would move back to New York, solely for the opportunity to make money legally by fleecing the stupid. The city closed the loophole.

Right now the state of Maryland is in the unenviable position of allowing the legalized equivalent of a three-card monte operator to move in, just because we'd rather fleece the stupid than tax them. And come this fall, we'll all have the opportunity to cast a vote for it.

I'd love to continue to say that the slots referendum will fail. But as long as there are people out there who believe that they can beat the operator, the machine, or the cards, that's a prediction I'm no longer willing to make.

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