March was Problem Gambling Awareness Month, and addiction counselors across the country have been pulling out the stops to make people aware of the dangers of games of chance.
I've never been much of a gambler, not because I wouldn't like to bring home the winning Powerball ticket, quit my day job and drive away in a big yacht. My reasons are more pragmatic - I had my head handed to me at a young age.
I credit my disinterest in gambling to a blackjack dealer at a casino in Winnemucca. The year was in 1989, and I was headed west toward a new job with everything I owned in the back of a 1981 Chevy pickup. My life's savings of $2,300, which essentially was that year's tax return and some severance pay, was in my back pocket when I decided to stop for a breather in the little Nevada town of Winnemucca on I-80. Be careful if you ever find yourself in Winnemucca - it is a town without a heart or a soul.
Just three weeks earlier, Tom, my former employer's son, had flown out to Las Vegas and pocketed a cool $4,000 at the blackjack tables.
Tom wasn't what you would call a statistical analyst, but he did have the sense to figure out when he was ahead and when it was time to quit. He understood the value of a dollar.
At the time it seemed to me that if a guy with such unremarkable intelligence could win $4,000, that there was no limit to what a person of my superior intellect could do with a bank of $2,300. I would look good in a new car and the ladies would be so impressed by my condo overlooking the lake.
That's the way it starts. Just like drugs: the dopamine kicks in, and it feels good.
Plans change quickly at blackjack tables. Unfortunately, Lady Luck was not in Winnemucca that night. The question quickly changed from prospective sports cars to less glamorous subjects, like whether the $50 that remained would buy enough gas to push that broken-down old pickup from Winnemucca to Klamath Falls where a new job was waiting. The other question was would the publisher of the Herald and News be willing to part with the $500 in moving expense reimbursement he'd promised that day, instead of a month later, which was customary in that business at the time. In retrospect, he seemed a little puzzled by the urgency of the reimbursement request from his new editor.
It didn't seem so at the time, but the $2,250 drubbing in Winnemucca was a potent lesson about gambling. The lesson was there is no such thing as gambling in a casino, only the illusion of winnings followed by guaranteed losses. It's the same lesson Carol Chism, a gambling addiction counselor at Columbia County Mental Health, gives to her clients all the time. In short, the lesson is 'the house always wins.' It's true. The house always wins. That's why Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith refers to the lottery as 'a fool's tax.' He's right.
If you don't believe the house always wins or that the lottery is a fool's tax, get out your calculator do some simple math. Of the $21 million that Columbia County gamblers bet in lottery games last year, the house (Oregon Lottery) paid those folks about $700,000. That is a wonderful business - if you're the house. Of the thousands of players, there aren't many who are buying fancy cars or moving into mansions on their share of the winnings.
It's probably the height of arrogance, insanity or denial to think you're going to be the one person who beats those odds. The chances are better, as the saying goes, that you'll be struck by lightning before you hit it big in the Oregon Lottery.
Isn't it ironic that Oregon, through the state lottery, has decided to destroy the lives of its citizens through an industry historically controlled by the mob? In reality, there isn't a nickel's worth of difference between the Oregon Lottery and Las Vegas casinos, except that lottery officials won't break your kneecaps if you stiff them. Lottery officials do like to paint a pretty picture, though, about their business by focusing public attention on all they do to rehabilitate problem gamblers. They are quick to point out that 1 percent of lottery revenue goes to providing treatment to problem gamblers. They are not so eager to point out that problem gamblers account for 10 percent of lottery revenue. In other words, they're capitalizing on others' misfortune. By the way, Las Vegas casinos are now paying a paltry sum for problem gambling treatment, too, and thus have joined the Oregon Lottery in claiming moral high ground.
The irony of lottery sponsored gambling addiction treatment should probably come as no surprise from a society that has decided to rationalize unhealthy activities like smoking by using tobacco sales revenue to pay for anti-smoking programs and, similarly, using liquor taxes to pay for alcohol treatment centers.
The popularity of Texas hold 'em, which has become a televised 'sport' on TV, doesn't help. These programs glamorize the participants as savvy high rollers - big shots - on a par with some major league athletes. What they don't show is gambling as it occurs in dive video poker joints all across Oregon. If they did, the poster child for these games would be an old drunk smoking a cigarette and nursing a glass of vodka, mindlessly and soullessly pushing the buttons on a machine for hours on end until the money is gone. It is not a very glamorous picture, and not one that would likely inspire many takers.