PORTLAND, ORE. — If the water level in the artificial lake outside the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas seems higher than normal lately, it's probably from all the tears being shed by casino officials after William Bennett announced that his gambling days are officially over.
Like many Americans, I was surprised to hear that Mr. Bennett has been getting VIP treatment at gaming venues in Nevada and Atlantic City during the past 10 years. But I'm not going to join the debate about whether or not the Top Gun of virtuous behavior has shot down his own standards.
Like it or not, legalized gambling is part of American life. What I found sad and disappointing was that a man with a keen intellect and thorough understanding of logic decided that his best chance of beating the house was by playing slot machines and video poker.
I know this territory well. Back in 1978, I spent a year in Las Vegas driving an airline shuttle van up and down the Strip, overhearing numerous debates about the best ways to bet on a pair of dice, the roulette wheel, or cards in a multiple-deck game of blackjack. And about the only thing all serious gamblers agreed on was that slot machines must have been invented by P.T. Barnum.
William Bennett told Newsweek that he preferred mechanized gambling because of the privacy it gave him. He said, "When I go to the tables, people talk - and they want to talk about politics. I don't want that. I do this for three hours to relax."
I took the opposite view during my fortune-hunting excursions. I enjoyed being with other people at a blackjack table because it meant all of us could share the collective misery and frustration of seeing our chips slowly, inexorably disappear. The camaraderie of losing makes you sit back, take a look around, and realize how few people in the casino are winning, which is a useful lesson.
Machines, on the other hand, allow gamblers to lose quietly and anonymously, and what feels like relaxation may be the numbing effect brought on by watching row after row of cherries, 71s, and other beguiling symbols spinning in place, imaginary wheels digging themselves into a financial rut.
I once came upon a co-worker in a downscale casino playing three slot machines at once, and as I watched, one of them hit for $100. "Nice going," I said. He only grimaced. "Yeah," he replied, "now I'm only down $300."
There are too many people doing the same thing right now in casinos and taverns and bowling alleys all over the country. State lotteries love gambling machines because they bring in so much money. Promoters say it's just another form of entertainment. Maybe it is, to the people who own the machines. They get to run a Ponzi scheme that's completely legal. Would it be more accurate to call that scenario a dark comedy, psychological mystery, or just your basic horror movie?