Many of us have done it in one way or another. We placed a bet on whether our sports team is going to win, we’ve experimented with casinos, or we challenged our friends to some obscene task just for the laughs. Gambling has always remained within the corner of historical cultures and will continue to be a part of our society in the future. From ancient Hindu texts, to mixed religious perspectives, to the way gamblers are perceived today – the role of the gambler, one who is willing to take a risk of their own goods for a chance to win additional money or material goods, is often considered as scum, as it is seen as a weakness of character. But today, state-sponsored gambling is a national pastime. Sure, people are often initially against those who are seeking get rich quick schemes and hoping to strike it rich, especially when they are wagering their own money that they probably can’t afford to lose in the first place, but times have changed, and so too has the gaming industry. Even so, has the perception of gamblers based on the increase of media portrayals change the way the public view those who gamble, or does it simply fuel the negativities associated with gamblers?
We see it at every store, we notice them at the corner of restaurants, and you can expect them at bars. The lottery has become so widespread and popularized that commercials have been airing on television and you often hear about the mega winners of these lotteries in the news. It may come to a surprise then that the first recorded sign of a lottery was the keno slips from the Chinese Han Dynasty between 205-187 BCE. It was theorized that this form of lottery was used to help fund major governmental projects like the Great Wall. Indeed, you may have heard that the lottery is a tax on foolish, so it is understandable that the view of those who play are often not held to very high esteem. They are also believed to be a tax on the poor, as state lotteries can consume about 9 percent of homes income for the less fortunate. State lotteries were once illegal, but today they exist in nearly every state.
But, there are many different forms of legal gambling, that I am especially more accustomed to. For me, it all began in high school, playing cards were a way to pass time during lunch and everyone else was into it as well. People would wait their turn for a chance to win some extra money from their friends. When I turned 18, I would also frequent one of the local casinos, where I tested my luck with blackjack and poker. It eventually became a bit of a hobby for me, albeit an unhealthy one (at times) and movies like 21 only fueled my habit further. The film 21 (2008) is a story about six MIT students who train to become experts in card counting for blackjack. The main character is an intelligent student with hopes of getting in Harvard medical, however he doesn’t have the funds necessary to pay for his tuition. Card counting is a legal method of using math to increase your odds at gambling that is frowned upon casinos. Often times they will ban you if they believe to be counting cards – but nowadays it becomes more difficult as they increase the number of decks and often take note of your habits and so on. But the film showed it was possible to beat the “house” (although it was a poor method), there are ways to increase your chances of winning greatly if played over a long period of time. Honestly, I took it upon myself and my group of friends to learn card counting quickly, but discipline is a character trait that new gamblers often lack. What is shown in “21” is exactly this. A promising student sets out first with the goal that he would only win enough money to win for school, but once he realizes how easy it is for him to win, he takes things further because he gets sucked into the lifestyle and quick cash. Along with a lack of discipline, the characters who gamble in this show are often portrayed as mischievous, compulsive, and often times it is showed that gambling leads to excess drinking and even illegal activities. That is basically what Las Vegas was founded upon. It began with organized crime, which eventually developed into much of the original casinos that still operate today. Las Vegas is now known as “sin city” and is the American mecca for gambling – which only contributes to the notion that gamblers are seen as degenerate and corrupt. However, this film offers a different explanation for the role of gamblers, those who do it well are considered intelligent, great with numbers, and able to play many different roles of character.
In the end, it is my opinion that blackjack still continues to be a game of luck and chance, even with enhanced methods of knowing what moves to make. It is a game that pits players against the dealer or the “house”. I learned this the only way gamblers know somehow – we eventually lose. But gambling was still a fascination; it was only my method of doing so. I turned my focus towards Texas Hold’em, a poker game that allows players to play against other players – long gone is the time where the casinos will take my money, but other people. The game is simple yet it has an immense learning curve.
The film Rounders (1998) starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton is one of my favorite movies. It revolves around a reformed gambler who returns to playing poker to help a friend pay off loan sharks. Of course this story would not be as enticing if the Matt Damon wasn’t a Harvard law student. His friend however, Edward Norton just got out of prison and needs money, so of course he plays poker. Edward Norton is perhaps the poster child for those against all forms of gambling. He was an inmate, he cheats, and he borrows money, is associated with gangsters, and is a terrible friend for all those that look out for him. He puts himself first and is only concerned with getting quick cash, even when he has money to pay the people he owes back, he doesn’t do so because having a larger bankroll allows for his chance to win even more money. Such is the cycle and allure of gambling. You can start with nothing, win a bit, enlarge your bankroll, bet your bankroll in hopes of winning more money quicker – and if you fail you just start over or dig yourself in a hole even further. Like I said, discipline is a trait many gamblers have, but if poker has taught me anything it is the opposite. Poker players are a different breed of gamblers, those who play well rely on their ability to read (or able to spot a tell if another player is bluffing), and have a large strategic method of playing in their arsenal. They are intelligent enough to calculate percentages at a level much greater than blackjack. As mentioned, Matt Damon’s character is a Harvard law student who has the skill of learning people’s habits, tendencies, and can excel in social scenarios. He portrays the discipline of many poker players, where patience is a key factor. He was able to quit poker when needed (for a time) and does not rely on cheating to beat his opponents. Along with Matt Damon’s ideal character and Edward Norton’s morally weak and lacking of self-control, there is another character, Joey Knish who plays poker as a job. He plays poker enough to pay his bills, is good enough to have constant income, and does not succumb to greed for hopes of getting rich. He strictly plays enough, and well enough, to pay the bills like a regular job. I have a close friend similar to this. He plays poker frequently like a job and is also using his winnings to pay for his tuition while in college. Now, usually this is frowned upon because people think that gambling is gambling, but poker is different.
Most films like “21” or more recently, “Runner Runner”, focus on the dangers of gambling (while somehow promoting it at the same time), often times emphasizing the underground world of gangster types and illegal activity, but if anything, the film “Rounders” acts as an advertisement that encourages gambling. Since the films release, it has become a cult classic among poker players and reveals many truths about the game.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001 Remake) is another film that puts a different twist on the meaning of “bringing down the house”. The star-studded cast revolves around a group of mischievous, slick, and intelligent individuals who plan to rob 3 casinos in Las Vegas simultaneously. The film begins with Danny Ocean (George Clooney) who gets released from prison. After his release, he begins the task of hiring 11 other individuals who can help him with his heist. His first stop is to a backroom where he begins to play poker. Working with Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) on the fly, they are able to clean up the table simply by coercing the other players decisions with small talk.
This is reminiscent of the film Rounders and easily sets the precedent for the rest of the film’s ability to portray these characters as smooth operators with elaborate plans. The fact that this film showcases real casinos acts as an advertisement for Las Vegas, specifically, the Mirage, the MGM Grand, and the Bellagio. The whole film allows for the audience to root for these band of misfits, even though they are knowingly committing very serious crimes. Such is the power of the media on an originally frowned upon activity.
According to the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre (OPGRC), a study was conducted to pursue the attitudes of gambling based on the advertisements on television. The results were less than surprising, showing that an audience who was exposed to gambling had more positive attitude towards gambling and even showed intentions to gamble at casinos within the year. This is especially true for adolescents.
The media continues to portray gambling as harmless entertainment, and the old perception that gambling is destructful, dangerous, and easily addictive is quickly becoming replaced with the notion that gamblers are intelligent, slick, outcasts who are really individuals who should be looked up to rather than down upon. According to the Southern Cross University, the problem lies in the exaggerated and inaccurate portrayal of gambling, where our nations youth are perceiving gambling as normal, and the depiction of these characters, especially those of young adults, depict an idol that people attempt to imitate, much like your regular sports athlete.
In conclusion, it is easy for the older generations to realize the harm of gambling, even to notice the exaggerations and inaccuracies that the media portrays, but to much of the youth, the media is only supporting negative habits to our youth who cannot discern the difference. In the end, the majority of all those who participate in gambling come out at a loss, especially once you realize that Casinos, and all gambling in general, total for one of the largest profit industries in the world.