By Sheldon Pearce
Gambling is its own religion in a way. It has its own belief system, one constructed on the hollow ground of uncertainty. The relentless pursuit of riches at any expense serves as its pilgrimage to Mecca; the MGM Grand is its Vatican. The euphoria inducing thought of attaining gratuitous wealth is Nirvana to a gambler, and the thought alone is enough to strong-arm them into complete obsession. There’s a weird sort of spirituality in that. Taking on such unwarranted risk is only for the pious. It requires great faith – an inordinate amount, perhaps – and only the devout dare to embrace it wholeheartedly as a holy savior despite its dubious track record, one that has destroyed homes and divided communities. In essence, a gambler’s spirit, his life force, is a martyr destroyed in the name of a system that provides nothing but emptiness. You can kneel before the altar or you can crank the lever on a slot machine, but only the latter requires an immediate price; only the latter requires you to put your faith in something that could cost you everything.
That is a pretty sinister thought when dissected: there are truly some things far more valuable than money that are far more expensive to replace, but you can lose it all in pursuit of legal currency that would be utterly useless if an asteroid hit earth tomorrow. A promise of endless gains that proves to be fool’s gold very often serves as the downfall of many committed gamblers, and for what, a mirage of greener pastures? All pastures seem greener when you let the grass that covers the solid ground you’re standing on brown, wither, and die. To gamble is to take a shot in the dark; it is a leap of faith out of a security blanket into perpetual fragility and dependence. The term “safe bet” implies stability, but even with a safe bet the player is still taking on a risk no matter how small. Risk is an enemy of sensibility, so the more you incur the more nonsensical you must be. Those that worship at the foot of the Pai Gow tables and ask not for loaves or fishes but for chips are far from pragmatists – they might even be anti-pragmatists in some senses – and any functioning adult will tell you that the concept of sensibility as the foundation of responsibility cannot be lost on a sane person. Therefore, it could be argued a compulsive gambler isn’t a sane person at all, but in fact a demented one. A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” If that is indeed a concrete definition of the word then consider the entire state of Maryland enablers of madness.
About a year ago, the fully equipped Maryland Live! Casino was reborn in the aftermath of a vicious political cockfight, and it is the colossus wherein you can now play even when your chips are down, literally – the controversial Question 7, which was passed last November, now allows table games in Maryland casinos. Located just across the street from the Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover, Maryland Live! stands erect as a symbol of victory over practicality and a monument to the mantra “money talks.” Maryland constituents must have been listening very carefully as self-proclaimed defenders of morality were inevitably muffled by the sound of dollar signs. The payout for the state is an undeniably lucrative one; according to The Washington Post, the Maryland Department of Legislative Services expects to generate $580 million for its trust fund in four years after anticipated gains of $260 million this fiscal year, which was sold as added money for Maryland schools. But what they get in addition to all that green is an added vice that permeates communities: corruption.
Gambling breeds corruption. In its own unique way it is a form of extortion. Gambling itself is a sickness, a compulsion. It has plagued mankind since ancient times. It cannot be policed or controlled. It can be recreational, but not for long – it is an addiction waiting to form, a potential habit festering just on the outside of your better judgment. The pursuit of riches is intoxicating; it is a high of immeasurable bliss, and anyone who tries to convince you otherwise has never truly tapped into the visceral response produced by winning and winning big. Once you win, all you want to do is win again…until you lose, then you have to win again. Gambling breeds corruption because gambling is a sickness, and just like a drug addict will endlessly pursue a fix a gambler will continuously pursue a win, not just for the monetary gains, but also to feel that burning ecstasy once more.
Money isn’t the root of all evil. If you are even mildly religious you know this. Evil existed long before the concept of money. No, evil’s roots dig far deeper. The root of all evil is greed, and casinos tap into such innate human desire. Greed is less about actuality and more about aspiration. It is like having an insatiable appetite – no matter how much sustenance you attain, you will always crave more. Such a principle is the reason the casino business is so profitable; a repeat customer is the best type of customer especially when you can sell them on faith alone. In a certain sense, a casino is a lot like a church, a church of covetousness; it is a place of worship for those who deify the dollar as a physical representation of their greed, their insatiability. Greed is one of the Seven Deadly Sins in Christian Ethics, so it seems ironic that the destructive force of one religion is the linchpin around which the church of covetousness was founded.
I am not particularly religious, but I am intrigued by the quality of a duality in man: a concept that suggests we are all humans made up of the same things and thus can be equal parts good and bad. We are often led to believe greed, being primarily bad, is useless, but is it? Would it be a contradiction to say otherwise given that greed is the root of all evil or is it possible for it to be the root of something good, too? Such a thought captivated me, but to get a better grasp on the subject I would have to travel into the belly of the beast. I had never been to a casino before. I had never sat with the devout masses functioning on blind faith and empty pockets. I sought to further explore this cult formally, but the only way to do that would be to dive in headfirst and chase a win of my own: if I was to get any real understanding it would come within the walls of the Maryland Live! Casino.
The Introspective Inquisition: Self-Persecution of a Gambling Neophyte
On what proved to be a deceptively chilly November day, almost a year to the day when Question 7 passed, I traveled to Hanover as a guinea pig – a test subject for an ill-advised experiment. Gusts of wind swirled around me, and a shiver ran down my spine, a byproduct of my angst and not the weather. What stood before me was a massive structure no more majestic to the naked eye than the mall that stood adjacent to it, but it was clear something about it was off. “Live!” was scribbled in cursive across the side of the building as if jotted by a bored Nephilim. There was a certain atmosphere surrounding the building that is almost unexplainable with words. State police cars lined the structure as Brinks trucks made their rounds, people from all walks of life congregated in the main foyer, and a sign at the entrance read, “All who enter must be 21. Those who violate this policy will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” The whole thing reeked of cinematic flair, as if it were the set of a heist movie, and it was regal in a way, but the decadent caverns felt inadvertently lined with the poignant misery provided by insurmountable odds.
When I approached the security check-in, I encountered two very different responses. One woman – the woman that checked my I.D. – appeared deeply concerned. It was a concern that made me think maybe she had seen these walls crush far too many hopes and dreams and perhaps I looked like I might become the next casualty, if I wasn’t one already. Another, who checked my person, seemed completely disinterested, as if she’d already been hardened by the place. I like to think that the latter had been on the job far longer than the former, and, if that is the case, I hope the former gets out before all that she witnesses turns her cold and cynical, but there’s no way to know for sure.
Maryland Live! is absurdly ostentatious. It is everything that a place selling implausible overindulgence should be. It is flamboyant and extravagant and gaudy and every word that embodies flashiness – picture Liberace performing at the world’s largest carnival amid a firework display. There are multi-piece chandeliers overhead and neon lights every which way. Top-40 hits are played over the intercom and the corresponding music video is embedded into every column that holds the colossal structure in place. The slightest tilt of your head will allow you to view a different set of TVs, playing the patron’s programming of choice of course, and the faintest whiff of succulent lobster tail maneuvers just nimbly enough to tickle your nostrils. The building feels strategically set up like a maze so you can’t escape. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It’s almost like living in a dream state, a perpetual trance that is both stimulating and exhausting at the same time.
Just from exploring for a few moments you are able to learn a few things. For instance, take slots. For all intents and purposes, all slot machines are the same: you crank a lever, several dials spin, and you need a certain combination of characters on the dials to match up in order to win. It’s a universal concept, but that doesn’t stop casinos from giving you hundreds of different slot options to choose from, and of course, people play each one. The names become repetitive: 2x Wild & Crazy, Turbo Wild, 3x Wild Zone, Jaguar Zone, Reel Wild Jaguar, Wild Reef, Golden Reef, African Diamond, Double Diamond, Diamond Dublin, Timber Wolf, Great Eagle, Mammoth Thunder, Mustang, and so on and so forth. All of the machines compete for attention, and they use various buzzwords to seem enticing, like perhaps if you select this one over that one because it has jaguar in the title and feels like more of a winner it will be. Essentially, there is nothing more captivating than watching someone decide which slot machine to play. You learn a little about yourself deciding which slot machine to play.
I consider myself a pragmatist that comes from a long line of pragmatists – hell, my parents wouldn’t buy me a car until I officially needed one at age 21 – but as I watched people mosey to and from slot machines with affluence on their minds and fortunes just out of their grasps I almost felt compelled to throw caution to the wind. People would sit, lifelessly, stone-faced for hours on end, moving only to crank the lever on their machine. There was no exuberance, no joy, yet they continued on their quest, blind faith in tow. What could drive someone to do that? I had to know. I had to experience it for myself. I found some spare coins lying around at various machines and then found a machine that suited my taste: Cleopatra. The eyes drew me; they were commanding and imperial, as if to denote royal pedigree. I entered the coins one by one, cranked the lever, and as the lights whirred and the music played and the dials rapidly began to spin it happened…I wondered: What if I win?
I didn’t win obviously, but the thought begins to creep into the back of your mind during the moment of truth, and even after. What if you had won? You could win. The chances are so astronomically slim but you could. When those dials begin to spin the possibilities are endless, and as long as they are spinning you have a chance, a chance to be excessively rich: a chance to be a winner. That concept courses through your brain until it permeates your every thought. I’ve never gambled before, and I may never gamble again, but I’d be lying if I told you the thrill I experienced in those few brief moments wasn’t incredibly exhilarating. It was even a bit empowering, which seems backwards given the fact that I was actually giving up my power, but there is something to be said about the liberating power of leaving it all to chance and holding out hope.
I learned something about gambling that day: it’s as much about promise as it is about greed. Before, I had condemned gamblers as crazy people that had lost their way (and some of them are), blindly and ruthlessly chasing desire with remorseless vigor, but the process can be far deeper than that. Despite its impracticality, it is a source of hope for the hopeless masses, those that desperately need a win, and for a very brief, very fleeting moment in time anything is possible. The reality that follows is a sobering thought indeed, but it is easy to see why one might continue to chase that high in that atmosphere; such euphoria must be magnified tenfold when one actually does beat the odds. Lady Luck be praised! The Church of Covetousness claims its devout disciples by not just catering to their greed, but by catering to their optimism as well. People need hope. Gambling provides something to believe in, something more tangible than religion. The real reverence is sold on a little principle referred to as calculated risk, a principle that downplays the odds and exaggerates the rewards, but when analyzed those that push the idea are exposed as false prophets selling a Pseudoscience that capitalizes on unwavering faith by converting it into profit.
The Pseudoscience of Calculated Risk
If you meander through a casino long enough, you will inevitably encounter a handful of chipper, seasoned wagerers, silver-haired Rogaine-users that smell distinctly of mothballs if you linger too close. Such men will typically tell you – with a certain confidence – about calculated risk. “I never wager more than I’m willing to lose, and the possible payoff must be worth the gamble,” one such gentleman croaked to me on his way to a table. “You play the man across from you not the hand; you’re taking a calculated risk.” Calculated risk is a principle applied less to slots and more to table games like Texas Hold ‘Em, Pai Gow, and Baccarat. It suggests that you play both the odds of the hand in front of you and the behavior of the player across from you. Some professionals have made calculated risk look like a science, and they have seemingly raised their odds allowing for a higher rate of success and frequent trips to tables with enormous buy-ins. In some instances it almost feels somewhat certain.
No matter how high they raise their odds though, they still lose more than they win; they just win more than their contemporaries win, which makes for strange perspective. Calculated risk is sold as a thinking man’s way to gamble, but the risk incurred can be far greater given the added variable of human unpredictability. I watched one man, a dapper Korean gentleman with mousse slicked hair adorned in a mat black suit lined with such fine fibers they probably have an exotic unpronounceable name, bluff three different times and react three different ways. There was a different winner each time. Needless to say he wasn’t very pleased with the idea of calculated risk after that. There is no such thing as certainty in gambling no matter how hard they try to sell it on the silver screen. Calculated risk is a pseudoscience, an elaborate rouse designed to make people believe in something they know isn’t true. In the end, the house always wins.
Even those that consider the study of risk a science know the odds are undefeatable – if you play long enough, the results will always be the same. They are impossible to overcome. Some have just learned when it’s time to bow out gracefully – when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. But what about those that never learn how much is too much? How do they coexist with their vice? They don’t. They let it consume them. Whether due to greed or optimism or a combination of both, some people just don’t know when to quit. When someone is dependent it is hard for them to disconnect. They are symbiotic. That relationship with winning leads some people to do repulsive things – things they’d be ashamed to admit to a loved one or even a total stranger. When gambling gets a hold of you, when you become reliant upon it probabilities and possibilities, it is like a swirling vortex eviscerating everything that gets sucked into its vacuum – morals, self-control, family, friends, anything. It can destroy any person with dollar signs in their eyes no matter how pure.
Earlier, I posed a question: Can greed be the root of all evil and still be the root of something good too? In the classic 80s movie “Wall Street”, Gordon Gekko (as portrayed by Michael Douglass) coined the term “Greed is good” but his connotation was questionable at best. Greed can only be the root of something truly good if it is measured, contained, and used as a learning experience or an exploration of the human condition. I learned that standing at the mouth of the building’s massive entrance when a young, bright-eyed blonde man left a mere five minutes into his game, recognizing it wasn’t his day. There is a very fine line, though. Once you cross that threshold it is very hard to turn back. Hope is easily compromised and corrupted; optimism can give way the naivety. Too many decisions based entirely on greed within the walls of Maryland Live! (or even in general) will inevitably lead to complete moral decay.
A Destructive Art
As I sat at an empty baccarat table observing my surroundings, I caught a glimpse of a man. He appeared to be in his mid to late 40s and his shiny, bald head drew attention away from the fact the he was standing in the middle of a gambling hotbed dressed like a parent attending a pee-wee soccer tournament. Machines spit out what is referred to as cash-out vouchers at Maryland Live!, and the winnings produced by a machine are etched on them. Such vouchers can be turned in and redeemed for the given value. Highly intrigued, I watched as this man waited for someone to abandon their machine so he could steal a voucher worth 18 cents. Eighteen cents… greed brings out the worst in people. That place brings out the worst in people.
Utterly disgusted, I turned to the dealer who had just joined me at the empty table – I use the term “joined” loosely; casino tables are designed to keep the dealer and the player on separate planes – and asked her what she thought of all this: How could she stand to constantly be surrounded by such shameless displays of human imperfection? Her answer: “Throwing [one’s] life away is an art. I just get paid to facilitate the process.” What a fascinating concept. There were pragmatists within these walls after all; they simply sat on the opposite side of the tables. Ruining one’s life is indeed an art form, and there I was surrounded by hundreds – maybe even thousands – of people poised to do just that. Now, it’s preposterous to suggest that every single person at Maryland Live! that day (or any day for that matter) was a compulsive gambler, but it would be naïve to suggest that no one there was missing their son’s first baseball game or gambling away their rent money, too. Basically, as my eyes covered every nook and cranny of the glitzy establishment, I couldn’t help but wonder what might’ve been possible for these faithful patrons had they been willing to put their money into something with a higher return on investment. A life is a terrible thing to waste, especially in pursuit of a dollar, and specifically when that dollar is only being pursued to improve said life. Every bet is one step closer to all in, ever calculated risk is a Hail Mary, but that is what faith is all about: steadfast commitment no matter the odds. In the name of the cage manager, the casino host, and the pit boss. Amen.
Maryland Live! holds a transcendental importance to devoted patrons. It is divine for them, a gathering place to worship the unending possibilities. In many ways, they’re no different than the rest of us just looking to put our faith in something – looking to believe in something. They simply believe in a system that asks for an unreasonable sacrifice given how little it provides, a system far more finite in its capabilities and restricted in what it can offer than a supernatural being. But there are far more jackpot winners than supported claims of those that have been enraptured, so there’s that. Perhaps their faith isn’t so misplaced after all. Whether it’s about greed or hope there is always chance, even if it’s a god forsaken one. All hail the Church of Covetousness. I’ll take my chances with the big guy upstairs, though.