Against the Odds
Gambling has become America's hot pastime. But today's casinos have more of an upper hand
Kristie Bazua used to drive to the dusty Cabazon Reservation 25 miles south of Palm Springs every few months to play bingo. But now that the tribe has transformed the old hall into the slick new Fantasy Springs Resort Casino with luxurious decor, flashy slot machines, and elegant card tables, the 33-year-old mother of three visits almost once a week. She likes to grab a stool in front of an American Bandstand slot machine because it rewards her every now and then with a few bars from "My Sharona." And it lets her bet as little as a penny, although she usually wagers 60 cents at a time. "The music's great," says Bazua. "It costs me maybe $20, and it gets me out of the house."
It's a story being repeated millions of times across the country. A record 73 million Americans, up nearly 20 million from just five years ago, will patronize one of the nation's more than 1,200 casinos, card rooms, or bingo parlors this year. The average gambler visits a casino nearly six times a year--almost twice as often as he did a decade ago. At least 6 million Americans will click a bet on one of 2,300 online gaming sites. Altogether, gamblers will lose more than $80 billion on everything from the Triple Crown to the flop of a card this year. There seems to be no stopping America's gambling mania. The opening last month of the lavish, $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas casino has already sparked a me-too construction boom. And gambling is becoming even more convenient. New cellphone programs put real-money poker games in your pocket, and soon you may be able to spin a roulette wheel on a Virgin Atlantic flight.
Casino executives say the growth is simply due to a host of innovations that make gambling more fun. And most gamblers would agree. But what Bazua and other gamblers may not realize is that behind all that glitz is an army of behavioral scientists, technowizards, and mathematicians with one goal: to finesse ever more money out of your wallet, whether in front of the slot machine, at the blackjack table, in the celebrity chef restaurant, or at the concert hall.
Their methods of improving the house odds are often covert, cleverly exploiting your naivete, foibles, and, let's be honest, lousy math skills. Brick-and-mortar casinos, which are highly regulated, use myriad subtle and legal means to manipulate bettors. They offer free drinks to reduce inhibitions, use artificial lighting to mask the passage of time, and even crowd slot machines to make it seem like there is a multitude of winners. And now, new Big Brother-like systems help many casinos keep tabs on players and figure out the most cost-effective way to cajole them into betting more money. New variations of traditional games and high-tech slot machines are designed to keep gamblers playing longer and, yes, losing more. On the Internet, it is bettor beware, as overseas casinos all too often take advantage of the lawlessness of cyberspace to hoodwink patrons.