Jackpot Nation: Rambling and Gambling Across Our Landscape of Luck by Richard Hoffer

045bdce940ea293-261x361.jpg Author Richard Hoffer
Isbn 9780060761455
File size 1.0mb
Year 2008
Pages 241
Language English
File format PDF
Category gambling


Jackpot Nation Rambling and Gambling Across Our Landscape of Luck Richard Hoffer To Carol Contents Introduction It takes no great social historian to explain the American… 1 Las Vegas, Nevada I had never noticed the potential for treachery in an… 11 Salt Lake City, Utah Religious doctrine has always been fairly consistent in its opposition… 47 Cape Vincent, New York The wind blows pretty cold and pretty strong off Lake… 77 Charles Town, West Virginia The countryside is pretty enough, somewhat rolling, the Blue Ridge… 113 Santa Ynez, California Topping San Marcos Pass, coming from the California coastline near… 147 Twin Cities, Minneapolis I knew at some point, and at some place, I’d… 181 Anywhere, USA His voice originated somewhere in Costa Rica, hooked into a… 217 Acknowledgments About the Author Credits Cover Copyright About the Publisher It takes no great social historian to explain the American tendency toward risk-reward schemes, both dubious and legitimate. This country, as far as that goes, was founded on a flier. And every possible advancement in knowledge and wealth has been occasioned by some fantastic bet. We were always, just by virtue of our pioneer origins, in the game of speculation. Gold Rush, anybody? Or just a hundred shares of Pet.com? By now, through a couple hundred years of just this kind of political and economic evolution, we have been so thoroughly self-selected for risk-taking that only a righteous few of us can avoid scanning life’s tote board first thing in the morning. Good thing, when it comes to settling a nation or jetting off to the moon. Or even starting up Yahoo! Or asking that girl, too smart and too pretty for the likes of us, to marry us. Hard to imagine where this country would be if our ambition were restricted to sure shots, if we weren’t careless enough in our greed to ignore long odds. I guess we’d still be in England and nobody would have iPods. Also, there would be a lot of bachelors. But what happens when this native predisposition toward risk-taking—now encouraged by civic institutions, a travel industry, a technology boom, a yawning void of recreation, a collapse in that old-time religion—becomes so pervasive that nearly every aspect of our culture is now a function of chance? Well, I was curious. So, with little more than my own personal treasure map (I can see where more judgmental minds 2 R I C H A R D H O F F E R might call it Satan’s TripTik—but not me) and cash advance access on four credit cards, I embarked on my own little road to ruin, exploring our landscape of luck. I didn’t set out to participate—although there I was, spinning for sausages in St. Paul and waiting for the river in Salt Lake City (and yes, I did max out those cards, but that’s another story) and standing in the Caesars Palace sports book holding a paper sack filled with $100,000 (and that’s really another story)—but to investigate, to discover where and how we flex that muscle, which you might have thought vestigial by now, certainly flabby. Turns out there’s a humming and thrumming economy out there, never mind our government, totally invested in its exercise. You think this is Fast Food Nation? We Americans bet each other about $80 billion last year, more than we spent on movie tickets, CDs, theme parks, spectator sports, and video games—combined! It’s more than we spent on higher education (and only a little bit less than we spent on fast food, which has the advantage of a drive-thru; the day you can take Phoenix and give six at a curbside clown, that advantage will certainly be eliminated). And, due to a confluence of trends that make it easier and ever more acceptable to gamble, we will increase that action year by year until the daily double really is more important to our economy than a double-double already is. It is impossible to know what limits there might be to such growth when our lottery libido is unleashed by civic and moral approval, not to mention Internet access. Whatever taboos there might have once been (our riverboat mentality was, for most of our history, held somewhat in check by the reigning values of hard work and self-sacrifice and Protestant morality) have fallen at such a pace that a backroom activity has become a parlor game. But why wouldn’t this country be devoted to the pursuit of luck? Like I say, the timid were left behind when the May- Jackpot Nation 3 flower sailed, the resulting start-up population already inclined toward overconfidence, a belief in destiny. But, really, what did we ever find here to discourage our sense of entitlement? Ever since we arrived, and once we relieved the Indians of their management (again, another story), it’s been one windfall after another. No wonder good luck has come to seem our rightful condition. The abundance, however accidental (kind of a definition of luck), has been simply stupefying. It’s been Jackpot Nation from day one, as we’ve stumbled from gold strike to gusher. American history is a timeline of providence, an epoch of flabbergasting discovery. Mother lodes, wide-open prairies, vast buffalo herds, timberland: Who among our adventuring forebears ever set out to chart this wilderness and was disappointed? Who took a chance and crapped out? This is surely our rightful condition. The idea of a payoff, whereby some small amount of industry gets applied to any crazy notion and returns investments in wild multiples, has come to seem a constitutional right. The original groundwork for such national confidence was purely a product of our natural resources. But as these were explored and exhausted, our native wit became an equally valuable source of capital. We were as good at developing things as at stumbling upon them. Maybe it was the miracle of (mostly) economic democracy, but smarts became highly incentivized. In this country anyway, it was ridiculously easy to parlay ideas into wealth and power. Maybe nobody’s come up with a better mousetrap, but there’s been no end to the refinement of gadgetry to enrich our lives—or at least its inventor. It’s been a get-rich-quick country from day one, everybody’s life animated by the certainty of opportunity. We very well could discover gold, but failing that (say we prefer indoor work), we might improve our lot marketing vitamins or dabbling in foreclosures. Basically, it’s there for the taking. 4 R I C H A R D H O F F E R It’s been the work of religion (and, once upon a time, our government) to deny, or at least counter the element of luck, which, after all, would dampen the instinct toward holy striving. Something for nothing never squared with our Puritan origins, even though the team logo back then was a cornucopia. But to deny this continued good fortune, to ignore American serendipity, is another kind of arrogance, too. Do we really deserve what we get? Have we really earned all that we have? Surely there is another part of us that understands, as smart as we are and as hard as we work, we’ve cashed a ticket just by being American. And if you don’t appreciate that fact, take your Subway franchise to Darfur. Let me know how your expansion plans work out. To be an American is to be emboldened by our long run of luck, to be ready for every opportunity, to ante up as soon as the cards are shuffled. This has made for a pretty exciting nation, with a lot of entertaining foolishness, of course. We’ve also enjoyed a lot more progress than less adventuresome countries. Hands up, who else has the right to vote and has video-on-demand? But to be an American these days, now that all the really good adventures have been achieved, has meant a gradual retreat into the safety of choice. It’s no longer necessary to load the kids into a covered wagon and head West, fighting Indians along the way, to get ahead. Far easier just to take on a little overtime, or buy rental properties. Still, that appetite for risk remains and it’s up to us to satisfy it within the confines of our twenty-first-century comfort. Granted, we no longer face the somewhat daunting prospect of being scalped, but we still need the make-believe of mastery, which is why we have paintball, infomercial get-rich schemes, and all these other arenas of simulated survival. Jackpot Nation 5 We’ve always (seems like always) had Las Vegas, too. It’s been our testing grounds for the detonation of statistical TNT (and family values, and architectural insanity) for a hundred years now. It’s been the frontier where we work out our inclination toward risk-taking, but with clean sheets and magic shows. And it’s also been part of that double standard by which our gambling roots can both be embraced and denied. It’s securely quarantined in the Nevada desert; its very remoteness has guaranteed its success. Sin City, maybe, but at least it’s required the effort of travel. Put it this way: Anybody smart enough to book a holiday package to Las Vegas will not be shocked by the concept of recreational overhead. The $199 barrier of entry that the Stratosphere might require may be slight, but at least it weeds out the merrymakers who might otherwise put the college fund on black. Neither church groups nor band camps ever wander into Las Vegas by accident. Thing is, that’s all changed. There is now—quite suddenly, it seems—the kind of encouragement from our government and legitimate industry that requires us to gamble, and to be able to do it wherever is most convenient for us. Casinos are no longer in legal isolation, but everywhere. With the redress of the American Indians, which gave them casino rights in every state but Hawaii and the reliably uptight Utah, there is hardly anybody more than twenty minutes from a slot machine (I live in Santa Barbara, California, a remote seaside resort; I am twenty minutes from a slot machine). What was once a contained contamination has now spread coast-tocoast, and it no longer has any viral connotations. And that’s not even the half of it. Gambling is now thoroughly layered within every community. As the recreation has been recognized for producing profit margins previously unheard of, it’s been co-opted by local government and mainstream companies, all queasiness forgotten. The numbers 6 R I C H A R D H O F F E R racket, just for an example, used to be a serious crime, left to the purview of mafia types. It is now an important tax boon, overseen by elected officials, its dollars often earmarked for education. A crime? It’s a civic duty! Neither American business nor American government can afford to ignore so much easy money, its cut from the recreational pursuit of better luck. In fact, given its balance sheet and the difficulty in making everybody pay their fair share, our government must do everything possible to exploit our penchant for betting. You might even say it will do everything possible to pervert that residue of recklessness, the trait that settled the country but which now gets burned off under the fluorescence of casino lighting or with the purchase of a few scratch-offs. Go on, do it for the children! It is just that cynical. Whatever moral or even sensible covenants (not to mention centuries of legislation) there might have been against such a saturation of speculation have been easily overcome in the face of such a bonanza. Gambling has had only a grudging legality, growing over the years but still vulnerable to prosecution even as money floods the Internet in search of a payout. But legal it is, more and more, as government newly defines what’s good for us (and it). Sometimes the winking hypocrisy can be fatiguing, as when I discovered a Mississippi “riverboat” (the only condition that allows its operation supposedly being seaworthiness) was moored quite permanently on a concrete foundation (or was until Hurricane Katrina). That “riverboat,” which “paddled” up the river to provide a much-needed tourist destination, happened to kick in a good portion of that state’s budget in taxes. Sometimes that hypocrisy can simply be infuriating, as when something that used to be prosecuted as numbers running becomes a pseudo-tax. Would we even have public education, if not for states’ lotteries? Jackpot Nation 7 Look, most of us understand that gambling is not a zerosum enterprise. The difference between what we take to the table and what we leave with is a function of excitement, the burned calorie, that unit of work that disappears in the pursuit of fun. Most of us agree that it’s a fair trade-off. Las Vegas should organize the odds in its favor. If it didn’t, it would look a lot more like Akron does right now, and what would be the point of our four-day getaway at the Stratosphere? We usually know what we’re getting into. Maybe some Amish kids are getting their lunch handed to them in $5/$10 ring games but the rest of us are less innocent. We’re flexing that old muscle, firing up some ancient neurons, trying to remember when the sense of jeopardy wasn’t quite so artificial. And we’ll pay to do it. Of course there are some who are mortally aggrieved by the 16 percent hold casinos insist on, or the 50 percent take the states enjoy, or even the 11 percent the neighborhood bookies insist upon. And probably there are instances where the barrier of entry is too low. Now that anybody, of any age, can nudge the line with little more than a mouse click, the opportunity for calamity has presented itself to the very children gambling would help, or so the hysteria of prohibitionists would tell us. Not to discount the ravages of problem gambling, which are genuine. Who hasn’t read about the church secretary who embezzled the Sunday collection for her video poker habit? But, for all the splash such anecdotes make, the risks to individuals are fairly minimal. All the church secretaries with gambling problems have been accounted for by our overworked press. The communities they live in, though, might be another story. When youth hockey is only possible because a gaggle of widows have bingo fever, maybe the problem lies elsewhere. Gambling has become our twenty-first-century bake sale. 8 R I C H A R D H O F F E R The only way to find out for sure was to take my own tour, stopping here and there to pull a slot, play a hand, or pick a number. Anyone who would presume to explain this country is doomed by differences in geography, religion, even weather. I could lose a good chunk of my 401(k) in Las Vegas yet couldn’t get a double scotch on the rocks in nearby Salt Lake City. And, yes, they really are both in America. Still, I couldn’t help but think there had to be something in our DNA that lured us to the tables, because, obvious differences aside, we all like to gamble and we’re all finding ways to do it. Even in Salt Lake City. Stopping here and there—giving regions representation, giving religions their say, trying to decide how local governments keep their uneasy peace with human nature—also allowed me to experience the astonishing variety of gambling. One day I’m at a meat raffle in the Midwest, the next I’m rattling chips at an Indian reservation in California. Or I’m deciding who wins an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, or someone else is deciding whether I’ll ever draw a pension. Or maybe I’ll just push this little button here and predict Whitney Houston will be in rehab by the end of the month. I did not return from my travels determined to abolish gambling, needless to say. We know what we’re doing, if we don’t always know why or for whom. We’re having fun, mostly. But if we are going to give ourselves over to the thrill of gambling—and that’s the way it looks—we ought to know who might be exploiting our ingrown sense of adventure. Who’s really sitting across the table from us (Ohio? Phil Hellmuth? Central America?), and are there any cards up his sleeve (the ace of spades, in all cases). Other than that, it’s just a matter of recognizing who we really are and where we really live. This is America, after all, where every day is another Jackpot Nation 9 chance to ante up, double down, or pick six. We’re a dreamy bunch, always predicting bigger things and better times. We can’t help ourselves. Border-to-border and coast-to-coast, we’re demonstrating a stubborn optimism, betting on ourselves when we can, on almost anything else when we can’t. But always betting. March Madness, the Mayfield Road Gang, and Statistical Shit Storms I had never noticed the potential for treachery in an inbounds pass, the inherent calamity in each free throw, the emetic properties of a weakly drafted pick-and-roll. Frankly, I had never paid college basketball the slightest attention at all. They were kids, children really, playing an obviously inferior game, in a vague and poorly predictive incubator for NBA achievement, if anything. As far as I was concerned—not caring that much about the NBA, either—its only attraction was as an agent of nostalgia. An alum might muster interest in his alma mater come March Madness, but it would only be relevant to the extent that there was nothing else on television or his chores on the home front had been completed. In my own professional travails, first with the Los Angeles Times and later with Sports Illustrated, I had on occasion been dispatched to cover college basketball, but I found it neither as quaint nor as exciting as my colleagues did. The roost was almost always ruled by a longtime coach whose tenure had come to be confused with color or, worse, character. The game was often boring, the natural effervescence of youth capped by curmudgeonly adults, the whole thing constrained—strangled, I thought—by a geographical and cultural close-mindedness. 12 R I C H A R D H O F F E R Give me boxing, where the human spirit was allowed a freer reign. Then, for the price of a $110 ticket on North Carolina, I made a remarkable discovery. It was entirely possible that college basketball was the single most exciting and noble game in all of sports, its sluggish back-and-forth really the tactical expression of discipline, the endless passing a symbol for altruism, the five-man weave that was once so tedious now a metaphor for nothing less than democracy. The warm glow I suddenly felt, sitting in a studentlike desk in the Mandalay Bay sports book, may not have been entirely a function of spectacle on the dozen screens hung before me. Probably it helped that North Carolina, favored by two and a half points in the 2005 NCAA Championship against Illinois, had a thirteen-point lead at the half. So, here we begin, as most people have, in Las Vegas. This is gambling’s ground zero, its fertile crescent, where the riotous search for destiny first sprang to life. This has to be the starting line for our race across the country, chasing luck all the way. Where else? Las Vegas is the birthplace of modern gambling, the not-so-little town that was a mythological place long before it was a cheap tourist destination. Now, as institutionalized as it ever was romanticized, it remains the original arbiter of outlaw justice, its ability to sort through losers and winners as unquestioned as ever. This is where most people come to find out which they are. I was no exception, first arriving here from Ohio in the mid-1970s, passing through on a cross-country trip with my new wife. At that time, the slots and tables were so intimidating the thought of kissing off even a single quarter, even for the fun of it, was simply out of the question. Even though we saw plenty of rubes just like ourselves, we felt dramatically out Jackpot Nation 13 of place. Our splurge was a milk shake at Caesars Palace’s Café Roma, and we expected to get tossed the whole time. Not too many years after that, I became a frequent visitor, covering boxing for the Los Angeles Times, as many as a dozen trips a year, the growing exposure quickly rubbing away at whatever insulation protected my common sense. The frightened hayseed from the 1970s had become Mr. Blackjack himself, discovering an appetite for long odds, tumbling chips of increasingly dangerous denominations across the felt. Looking back, of course, the frequency of my visits had hardly anything to do with my plunge into this netherworld; not a single one of my peers, the guys from newspapers, who made as many trips as I did, or more, ever joined me at the table. It was just me, something about Vegas lighting me up with excitement. There would come a time, after one (or maybe even two) too many trips, when I’d have to come to grips with whatever it was that kept putting me across from the dealer. And yet, even as my threshold for tomfoolery was increasing, I had never bet on sports. The fact that I hadn’t does not call attention to a rigidly defined system of ethics. I truly believe in the right, perhaps even the fundamental drive, to gamble. More than that: I am quite certain that, in the course of performing my duties, I often know more than the betting public. I have seldom been wrong in the prediction of any fight outcome, for example, and can definitely recognize a bad line. Evander Holyfield was not, could never have been, a 42–1 underdog in his first fight with Mike Tyson. That’s just absurd. But I didn’t bet on that fight or any other. It wouldn’t be professional, or at least not sensible. To cover an event, then return to the keyboard in the wee hours of the morning and face a blank screen, its liquid gases pulsing the demands of a 14 R I C H A R D H O F F E R deadline, is an overly choreographed form of torture as it is. If there were other factors at play—the abuse of mortgage money in the absolute certainty that Buster Douglas would retain his title (he gained—holy shit!—how many pounds during training?)—they might compromise the quality, or at least the attitude, of the coverage. In any case, I did not want to be in the position of either lamenting or celebrating an outcome when it was already so hard just to deliver its news. For the Carolina-Illinois championship game, though, I was a civilian, with no more outside consideration or inside knowledge than the yahoos, nimrods, and rubes beside me. And there were a lot of them, too. It wasn’t as crowded—or fractious, I would come to learn—as the first week of March Madness, when the ritual winnowing of a sixty-four-team NCAA field begins in a fevered multiplex environment. That is, by tradition and actual experience, the wildest weekend in Las Vegas. There are four games going at once—a sixteen-game betting buffet the first twelve hours of the tournament alone—and the staggered starts and off-the-wall props provide a nonstop opportunity to find one’s destiny in a game between Gonzaga and Texas Tech, two teams you couldn’t otherwise locate on a map. Those are the high holy days for the recreational gambler/ sports fan, hand in hand with the Super Bowl. During that first week of March Madness, it is difficult to find a room in Las Vegas; all 130,000 are booked. And except for the early birds, staking their claims overnight, it’s impossible to find a seat in a sports book underneath the winking tote boards and plasma panels. It is definitely pointless to seek any calm, not that you would. It’s bedlam. The cheering is specific to each screen and so, as you are watching your own overhead monitor, it can seem spontaneous and bewildering, as if you’ve been institutionalized in a strange ward that treats unexplained seizures.

Author Richard Hoffer Isbn 9780060761455 File size 1.0mb Year 2008 Pages 241 Language English File format PDF Category Gambling Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare Is this a great country or what? You can bet on the turn of the card or a roll of the dice, but also on the NFL, the NCAA, and which Olsen twin marries first. We bet $80 billion a year, the amount growing wildly as more and more people gain access to this huge American wheel of fortune. No longer quarantined in Las Vegas, gambling has become as local and convenient as our neighborhood cineplex. If there’s not a casino around the corner, there’s one on your laptop computer. In Jackpot Nation, Richard Hoffer takes us on a headlong tour, alternately horrifying and hilarious, across our landscape of luck. Whether he’s trying to win a side of bacon in a Minnesota bar, hustling a paper sack filled with $100,000 in cash across Las Vegas parking lots, poring over expansion plans with a tribal chief in California, or visiting the New York prison cell of a retired bus salesman with a poor understanding of three-game parlays, Hoffer explores with wit and heart our national inclination—a cultural predisposition, even—to take a chance.     Download (1.0mb) Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas Blackjack Blueprint: How To Play Like A Pro… Part-time, Revised And Expanded Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kid Who Brought the Casinos to Their Knees The Perfect Bet: How Science and Math Are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling 1000 Best Casino Gambling Secrets Load more posts

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