Playwright Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
So it is with gambling.
Just 25 years ago, gambling was legal in only three states. Today, every state except Utah and Hawaii rely on gambling income to generate revenue to help avoid raising taxes. State-sanctioned gambling and particularly state-run lotteries are forms of “voluntary taxation” that put money in state coffers regularly. Yet, these “games of chance” are reviled by many conservatives and tagged with an undeserved stigma of association with crime, corruption and moral decay.
The problems associated with gambling aren’t with the games or, in most cases, the institutions offering games. The problems with gambling belong to the gamblers. They are no different than social issues associated with alcohol, drugs, sex, sports, television, video games, exercise and food. Anybody can become addicted. All “addictive” activities have one common thread: How much, or how little, is an individual decision.
Last year, my wife and I drove a group of teen-agers to Camp Yeshua, a Hebrew roots Bible camp in central Oklahoma. On the way back, driving through the Indian reservations, we decided to check out one of the casinos. We’d never been to a casino or anything even close. Finally we decided on the FireLake Casino, east of Oklahoma City, based entirely on ease of access from the freeway. Before entering, we set ourselves a limit of $50 maximum and we were only playing slots. The inside was right out of a TV movie: Cigarette-smoking gamblers lined blackjack tables and camped in front of multi-colored, flashing slot machines. Waitresses, seeing Casino ID cards clamped to our t-shirts, offered free drinks and pointed to the no-cost snack and ice cream bar for those not interested in alcoholic refreshment. We were rookies; we just wanted to play some slots. Teri was specifically looking for one of those “old timey” machines with a pull handle. Turned out, pull-the-handle machines were in short supply and quite popular. All those available were in use. We started with an all-electronic game and both quickly doubled the $10 we fed into the machine. Once we were up about $25, we got one of the pull-handle machines. Teri bet conservatively and won about $10. We were readying to leave and she wanted to place one more bet. She did. And she won about $50. It was great fun, exciting and an experience worth repeating.
Before we left, however, we discussed maybe hanging around, since we were ahead, playing a few more machines, just to see if we could do better. We chose not to risk our winnings. But the lure of free money is palpable. The excitement of winning, seeing the dollars ring up on the screen, the flashing lights, the extravagance and glamour: It’s easy to say, sure, just one more. But like the impulse to floor the accelerator and pour on the speed on long straight stretch of open freeway, the urge must be controlled. If it is controlled, then it’s no problem. Like having a couple of drinks and saying enough, it’s an individual decision.
From a religious standpoint, there are no Bible texts that directly address gambling. This fact is verified by the Bible research website www.bibleinfo.com. The writers on this site are quick to point out, however, “there are a number of scripture texts that address the principles involved.” This, in turn, quickly spirals down into a litany of religious doublespeak with nothing whatsoever to recommend it. (1) Another example of unfair, or unlearned, indictment of “games of chance” can be seen at the Web site www.noslots.com. Here the site creators display a laundry list of horrors under the headline: “Problems with Expanded Gambling.” (A headline which brings into question why these weren’t problems with the existing gambling but, in the end, is probably nothing more than poor headline writing.) In this laundry list are scare phrases such as “Destroyed Families” and “Damaged Quality of Life.” Yet, nowhere do the site creators and writers offer any documentation, statistical data or verifiable research to back up their claims. (2)
According to Bryan Huie, Bible researcher and Elder of the Derek Le’Chayim (Way to Life) Bible study congregation, “I don’t think that such a thing as ‘gambling’ truly exists. I believe that God is completely in charge and all things are predetermined by Him. Therefore, there is no such thing as ‘luck,’ either good or bad.” He acknowledges that this is not the majority view. “Most don’t accept that God is completely in charge and that He directs the actions of mankind. They are under the illusion that they can ‘beat the odds’ if they are lucky,” Huie says. He adds, “I make bets and play ‘games of chance’ for fun. As long as it’s viewed as entertainment, I don’t think it’s a scriptural problem.” However, he says, there can be times when it becomes a personal issue that takes precedence over matters of religion, family and work. “It becomes a problem when someone becomes addicted to the rush of placing a bet, or seeks to avoid actual work through gambling winnings.” He calls state-run lotteries, “The ultimate something-for-next-to-nothing bet,” which pays off for only a few. “I personally think purchasing lottery tickets is a waste of money. Obviously many people disagree. If they want to waste their money on such things, who am I to try to stop them?” He does note, however, state-run lotteries do provide a lot of funds to state governments. “Which may, or may not, be a good thing.” (3)
With the aid of technology and its continuous advancement and development, poker is not only available in physical casinos but also on the internet as well. Nowadays, there are several poker online games that players can play online and without leaving the comfort of their home.
Huie is correct in his assessment of funds provided for states. According to a Jan. 25, 2009, Associated Press news release, in the U.S., gambling is a $54 billion annual industry employing more than 350,000 people.(4) Most state gambling revenues come from lotteries, racetracks and betting devices such as slot and video poker machines. A recently legislated Arkansas lottery is expected to generate millions in higher educational scholarship funds for students with GPAs of 2.5 or better. These educational awards will come from “profits” after paying the operating costs of the game. Opponents would have us believe that all the money from the whole operation will be consumed by these “operating costs.” Regardless, in this case, of whether a scholarship is ever funded by a state lottery, the operating costs themselves will create jobs in the state resulting in increased tax revenue through services, manufacturing and distribution of lottery material. In addition, Arkansas gamblers will no longer drive to surrounding states to buy their lottery tickets. One unassailable argument for in-state gambling is that as long as nearby states permit gambling, money flows from Arkansas to these neighboring states.
In the end, it will be an individual decision whether or not to spend a few extra dollars on lottery tickets or drop some coins in a slot machine. The 3-4-percent of gamblers with serious addictions (NCPG estimate)(5) should not keep the rest of us from enjoying games of chance as recreational activity. Like any pastime, from sports to movie watching, all a body has to say is “no.” Regardless, gambling is neither the doorway to hell it’s often made out to be nor is it as inherently evil as the doomsayers and ultra-conservatives might have us believe. Buying lottery tickets or pulling a handle in a slots parlor doesn’t make one a “problem gambler” any more than hanging out in a garage makes someone a mechanic.