By Timothy L. O'Brien
339 pp., $25
Although hardly household names, Bill Bennett and Bill Pennington are two businessmen with a dubious honor in the history of American gambling. In 1974, after buying the blitheringly gaudy casino in Las Vegas known as Circus Circus, the two men decided to shun high rollers, all those big spenders who were then the backbone of gambling in the city that never sleeps. Catering only to high rollers can be highly volatile for casino owners.
Out went the James Bondian baccarat tables and the atmosphere of muted, lush exclusivity. Bennett and Pennington turned the casino lights up, added cheap hotel rooms, a 51 acre RV parking lot, more slot machines, blackjack games, and became ostensibly family friendly. The appeal was to the hordes of low rollers who came, bet small, and lost, but thought they had a good time.
In "Bad Bet," Timothy O'Brien's carefully researched and alarming book on the multifaceted rise of gambling in the United States, Circus Circus was a turning point, "a peek at the future of American gambling."
O'Brien, a New York Times reporter, says what started at Circus Circus, and went on to be politically aided by state legislatures desperately seeking new sources of revenue, has turned the US into a nation of millions of low rollers. He suggests no paths for reversal of this phenomenon, but offers an instructive, clear warning.
Gambling today, says O'Brien, is seen as a form of recreation by many communities, not the immoral vice it used to be. In addition, most Americans want their gambling the way they want their food. Just as the fastfood concept is inherently American, says O'Brien, gamblers avoid the older, slower forms of gambling such as thoroughbred racing or numbers. The appetite today is for instant gratification found in scratch-off lottery tickets, slot machines, and video poker.
With this in mind, Americans gambled a staggering $586.5 billion in 1996, compared with $17.3 billion in l976.
With the Internet now in the incipient stages of offering gambling, O'Brien predicts gambling will become even more invasive and pervasive.
All of this raises serious, and as yet unanswered, questions about the unhealthy intersection where the gambling industry meets, or creates, compulsive gamblers. Casinos have yet to effectively counter charges that to a large degree the compulsive gambler provides a major part of their livelihood. "Compulsive bettors confront the gambling business with the same threats and challenges that nicotine addiction posed for the tobacco industry," writes O'Brien. He says as much as 80 percent of casino revenue comes from about 20 percent of gamblers.
To make the case that gambling is a "bad bet," O'Brien's format features brief but fascinating chapters focusing on nine American cities where some form of gambling - lotteries, casinos, river boats, sports betting - has had a big impact. The historical context of each chapter traces the reasons behind the city's accommodation to gambling. Altogether, the chapters form an excellent, incisive analysis of the politics, mob involvement, and marketing that turned America into a gambling nation.
Poignantly, each chapter is followed by first- person monologues, the voices of troubled gambling addicts grappling with the singular loneliness of their lives. They tell the reader, "Don't do what I do," as they fail to realize the depth of their selfishness.
What is missing in this book, and other recent critical books about gambling, is a fresh rationale that explores the specific individual and community benefits for not gambling. Behind the well-known negatives remain spiritual and deeply human reasons for not rolling the dice.
No gambling enterprise honestly cares about people as individuals, or would dare suggest that one effect of prolonged gambling is diverting people from knowing themselves as full human beings. Gambling, despite all the media attention on big payoffs and its unexamined popularity, is a losing proposition in light of time-honored values and human needs.
"A visit to a casino holds out the faintest hope that we can win enough money to, oddly enough, forget about money," writes O'Brien. "Gambling gives us the chance to bow down before money at the very same moment that we pretend to rebel against it."
* David Holmstrom is a Monitor staff writer.