Today’s post is something of a response to this latest column from Baltimore Sun business columnist Jay Hancock, a longtime critic of Maryland’s gaming project. In the column, he appears to refer to himself in the third person as an average gambler at the new Hollywood Perryville, though he’s also a befuddled player who doesn’t really understand how the games work or their appeal.
Generally, I like Jay Hancock’s columns. I think he’s insightful and interesting, and I often agree with him. But on casino gaming, he never has really understood its popular appeal and it’s legitimacy as a business enterprise. As this column indicates, Hancock doesn’t seem to like the idea that the casino actually keeps some of the money that slots players bet. He suggests that “it’s still a chump’s game” despite the 90% revenue payouts to players and he advocates signs with the payout percentages on the casino floor. He admits that this is a much better payout than the state lottery, but still, “the gaming guest [Hancock?] wants a better return on his investment.” He also derides the entertainment-themed slots as a simple way to distract players from the “brainless process of pushing a button and losing money.”
Actually, I think most non-gaming people would be surprised to learn that the payout percentage is so high. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that there’s still a fairly strong perception that slot machines are the “one-armed bandits” of lore, where a player has virtually no chance of winning. Just possibly, publicizing the payout percentage may actually lift business; just the opposite of what Hancock implies – that it would enlighten people so that they would stop playing. Also, the statistic he cites about national slots payouts is misleading: that also includes casinos in hyper-competitive gaming markets like Las Vegas where casinos compete over who has the “loosest slots,” constantly pressuring each other to drive up overall payout percentages. Actually (and by statute), Hollywood Perryville is in the same basic payout range as the casino’s mid-Atlantic competition.
What Hancock and other like-minded gaming critics don’t grasp is that casinos exist as entertainment vehicles. Winning is nice when it happens, but if not, so be it. I seriously doubt that many casino players really think they are going to win all the time. They are there for the experience: sometimes individual, sometimes social – but the experience itself is entertaining in the same way a good movie is entertaining or attending a ballgame live is a fun thing to do. There’s an inherent thrill every time the bet is placed and the screen whirls – is this a brainless process? No. In fact, the thrill is tied to a specific reaction in the brain which for the vast majority of gamblers is temporary and can be easily cut off voluntarily. 97-99% of the population is able to control this impulse and they do so willingly: most people are neither compulsive nor at-risk gamblers.
They gamble not so much for the expectation of winning money, but because it is fun. It is an escape from real life: just like watching a football game, or playing a sport, or some other recreational outlet. Hancock doesn’t seem to understand the fun in playing casino slots because it is apparently not fun for him. But not everyone sees fun in going to a football game, the symphony, or the theatre for a live play. But, should we therefore condemn the Ravens, BSO or various Baltimore theatres for wasting people’s money because some don’t find the experience worthwhile? Don’t they allow for people to similarly waste their money? And, as Hancock points out, 67% of the casino’s revenue will pay for public services via dedicated revenue streams. There’s no parallel that I’m aware of when it comes to professional teams, theatres or symphonies: they might generate some tax – but 67% of their revenues? (more if you include local property taxes)
Tens of millions of Americans do find the experience fun – regardless of payout percentages, etc. The entertainment-themed slots are very well-designed and often interactive in creative ways. Technology has made slot machines much better and diverse over the past two decades; hence their increased popularity. Obviously, they are designed to keep people playing and generate higher revenues: that’s called business. An example that Hancock cites — a “Survivor”-themed machine – strikes me as a great idea for a slot machine, and well-represents the relatively recent sophistication of the industry. Why not tie slots to popular television programs, singers, etc. What’s the downside? There is no problem here.
Maryland gaming is an obvious work-in-progress and no one could credibly claim the project successful at this point. However, the opening of Hollywood Perryville certainly is a positive step that now provides a state outlet for slots players who formerly had none.