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Editorial Advisory Board: End a sucker’s bet on slot machines

Forgive us if we were not celebrating when MGM National Harbor resort had its glittering opening in December. Traffic was backed up and the casino and resort was filled within an hour of its opening. Gov. Larry Hogan was fulsome in his praise: “We’re going to bring a lot of money in from Virginia and D.C., and it’s really a project the state can be proud of.” Comptroller Peter Franchot, took a different view, however: “It’s a pretty sleazy way to fund state government. We have set ourselves up in partnership with a predatory industry. …The profits mainly come from a group of addicts that are recruited and nurtured by casinos until they’re out of money.”

And what about all that money? The Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency told a House of Delegates committee in February 2015 revenue to the State from casino gaming (distributed among various programs) in fiscal year 2014 amounted to approximately $427 million. But that is equivalent to single-entry bookkeeping. Revenue has to be offset by costs arising from the gambling.

And, here, we part company from Franchot: when these costs are taken into account, there are no profits.

Earl Grinols, an economics professor at Baylor University, has estimated that for every dollar of benefit a casino brings, $3 in costs are incurred: increased crime; declining productivity; more spending on social services. In a way, this should be unsurprising, because the net loss is a perfect analogue to gambling: the house always wins, and the customer, in this case the State of Maryland, always loses. Gambling is a sucker’s bet.

Especially when it comes to the slot machines, which are called “video lottery terminals” in Maryland. John Rosengren, in a December article in The Atlantic titled “How Casinos Enable Gambling Addicts,” writes slot machines utilize fraudulent and deceptive means to cheat players and blead addicts dry. One device, for example, is the “near miss,” when a jackpot symbol is just over or under the pay line. Although the impression is that the player almost won one, in fact it is nothing of the sort – the result is as much of a loss as any other losing combination.

Then there is the con known as the starving reels, where there is an uneven distribution of winning symbols among virtual reels while the player, seeing the physical reels, would naturally expect equal odds, just as with a traditional slot machine. This is entirely legal in Maryland, so long as the average payout is between 87 percent and 95 percent and the slot machine is “designed to ensure that all possible combinations in the game cycle are independent of each other.”

But if all but one of the virtual reels has a lot of 7s on it, and another has only a few, the random selection process dictated by state regulations will deceive the player into thinking that she or he almost won. Maryland allows this, as well, at least under the definition of what constitutes random selection: “A video lottery terminal shall determine the occurrence of a specific card, number, symbol, or stop by utilizing: . . . (2) Two or more random number generators working collectively.”

Protect the people

These and other techniques to create and manipulate gambling addicts should be immediately banned by the Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Commission, which is made up of seven members appointed by the governor and which regulates slots. But just the techniques listed above appear to fall within a state regulation requiring the “[a]pplicable rules of play” be displayed to the player on each slot machine. The commission is further empowered to prohibit the rules of play on any machine if it determines that they are “(1) Incomplete; (2) Confusing; [or] Misleading.”

If the commission won’t act to protect the people of Maryland by enforcing its own regulations, then, perhaps, our attorney general or even comptroller can find a way, perhaps through mandamus, to compel them to do so.

The gaming industry will undoubtedly scream bloody murder at even the possibility that they will not be able to take as much money from as many slots addicts as possible. The casinos will argue that every dollar that the gamblers don’t throw away will be 52 cents lost to our schools and horseracing industry.

But we know that every dollar that doesn’t come from slots is three dollars gained by Maryland. Double-entry bookkeeping is the only way to go. It is the death knell of gaming, and hope for our people.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

John Bainbridge Jr.

Wesley D. Blakeslee

Arthur F. Fergenson

Caroline Griffin

Ericka King

Stephen Meehan

C. William Michaels

Norman Smith

Tracy L. Steedman

H. Mark Stichel

Ferrier R. Stillman

Anwar L. Young

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the Board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the Bench, Bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, majority views and signed rebuttals will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.

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