“As far as I’m concerned, gambling’s proof that humans aren’t evolving,” Tim commented on the way home from Cripple Creek. “We know for a fact that the odds are stacked against us, but we still feed the machines.”
I’d always had a sort of superior attitude toward the multitudes who head up Ute Pass to spend money at the casinos. In fact, the very word “casino” bothered me — to a kid raised on Western movies exported to East Central Europe, the word meant elegant ladies and gentlemen indolently watching the spinning baccarat wheel, not a middle-aged woman in a wind breaker and comfy capris, pressing a button over and over.
But a few weekends ago, a friend’s son celebrated his marriage in the local gambling mecca, so Tim and I reserved lodging, acquired cash, and drove the winding road through the dazzling fall aspen groves. We wandered past the penny and quarter machines, looking for the hotel front desk, Tim muttering, “I hate casinos.”
And I chirped, “Hey, think of it as exploring a new world! Other people go to Nepal — we go to Cripple Creek!”
The wedding was sweet, the newly blended family was darling, and we ate, drank and took pictures and danced, but when it was over, I was ready to see what the $20 in my purse could get me.
There are all sorts of theories about how people get hooked on gambling, but for me, the tested theories of B.F. Skinner explain its draw: If you present a pigeon, human or anything in between with a reasonably pleasant activity, and it is unpredictable when its reward will occur, but it does happen within a fairly short period, you will get a high rate of enthusiastic participation. The pigeon will peck at a button 10 times per minute; the human will feed the gambling machine and press the button.
Gambling is pleasant — the chairs are comfortable, the lights and sounds are hypnotic, the employees are shockingly convivial at all hours of the day and night, and there are almost no demands placed on the player. Sold!
So it didn’t take long for me to acquire the habit, at least temporarily, and to find myself in front of a penny machine, pressing buttons, at 6 a.m. on the morning after the wedding.
I played one line at a time at first, but discovered fairly quickly that if I played 5 or 10 or 15 “lines” instead of just one, I almost always won a few “credits.”
Statistically it makes sense; the more lines you bet on, the better the odds, just as if you use twice dice, you’ve doubled your probability of rolling a three.
So, by 8 a.m., I won $30; not so bad for a $5 bet.
I walked away, thinking of the poor kids I know and teach. They’re forced to make their bets small. A couple of weeks ago, for example, the tough kids talked on the stairs about the benefits of their parole officers. Other students have proudly shown me the key card to the motel room in which they lived with their whole family. Been denied the opportunity to join a school sports team, because a physical was required. Been treated for an apparently chronic stomach infection with an herbal tea. Spent their weekend visiting parents in separate penitentiaries, each a hundred miles away. Talk about one-line gambling!
Some years ago, a professor friend performed research on how game-playing behavior changed with available resources. Unsurprisingly, he found that the more people started out with, the more they were willing to bet, and, usually, the more they won by the end of his game scenario.
Gambling, at some level, is our economic system — capitalism — writ small. To maximize your return, you must maximize your input. It often seems to me that the Tea Party reactionaries would have us do is return to the early days of the Depression, when under Herbert Hoover kids had to make do with just the line they got at birth. And all they could do was play that one line to zero.
“On the contrary,” I answered Tim, “Gambling shows how much we as humans have evolved. We have adequate resources to risk some of them for excitement and pleasure!”
What I forgot, making that comment, is that although we have indeed evolved the ability to risk for pleasure, and profit, we haven’t evolved sufficiently to make that risk available to enough of our society’s children.
Eva Syrovy is a teacher in Colorado Springs’ District 11. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.