The Washington Times-Herald

December 23, 2011

Christmas and people on the other side of the economic table

Don McNay

Richmond — "And the Christmas carols sound like blues

but the choir is not to blame"

-Jim Croce

My late father was a professional gambler. Toward the end of his life, he was an active volunteer at a soup kitchen in Cincinnati, which was run by the Sisters of Charity.

One day, as dad was dishing out food to homeless people, he was approached by the nun who ran the program.

"Joe," she said, "What do you do for a living?"

"I'm a gambler," replied my father.

"Joe," she said "This is the first time we ever had a gambler on THIS side of the table."

Problem gambling has pushed a lot of people into poverty.

The key to my father's success in gambling was that he was always on the house side of the table.

He started in bookmaking, in the glory days of Covington and Newport, Ky., and moved into organizing junkets for Las Vegas casinos, when wide-open gambling faded from the Northern Kentucky scene.

He understood that if the house has the odds in its favor long enough, the house will eventually and always win out.

As he often noted, "You never see them tearing down a casino because people beat them out of money."

First with lotteries, and now through slot machines and casinos, governments realized that a easy way to gain revenues is by allowing and sponsoring gambling.

The games that have been legalized bring in a great deal of income from those on "the wrong side of the table."

Some European countries limit access to the casinos to those who prove they have sufficient assets. We don't in America.

Various forms of stock and option trading, which is a more elite form of gambling, require that those who invest in those instruments have the net worth to survive a loss.

In my father's era, bookmakers cut off bettors on losing streaks. There have been few, if any, real moves by states to keep gamblers from harming themselves. Usually the effort involves a few public service announcements, urging problem gamblers to seek help.

Most of the time, the help doesn't come until a person is broke and bottomed out.

Legalized casinos, which have several games of skill and reasonable probability, gear most of their operations to the highly profitable slot machines and video games.

Lotteries have evolved from a form of gaming called "numbers," formerly very popular in poor, urban neighborhoods. If you go into a grocery or liquor store in any poor neighborhood today, you will see people who can't afford to lose even a few dollars, standing around playing scratch off lottery games until all of their money is gone.

I rarely if ever gamble. I don't have any moral or religious problems with gambling. (I'm Catholic, come visit my friends on bingo night.)

I just can't just stand to part with my money on something that I know is a bad bet.

Unlike Mitt Romney, I'm not up for dropping $10,000 on a wager.

My few trips to casinos have been bad experiences for the house. I bet very little and I am a terror at the low-price buffet. I play high probability games like sports betting and won't go near a slot machine. I have a certain profit margin in mind and leave the second that I hit it.

In short, I am a person casinos do not want to attract.

Gambling for rich people, such as options trading and sophisticated stock market games, have always been allowed.

When I passed the stockbroker's test many years ago, I called my father and asked, "Why is futures trading legal but betting on the Bengals illegal?" There is no logical answer.

States are under a lot of pressure to legalize casinos and slot machines, and just like the lottery, most of them eventually will.

When I was growing up, my father would go around to the sleeping room hotels and give out bottles of low cost champagne at Christmas.

I'm not sure about the logic of dad giving alcohol to men with drinking problems but his heart was in the right place.

Often the three-dollar bottle of champagne was the only Christmas gift they received.

Society had written them off. They were thrilled that dad remembered them.

I have an unusual perspective on gambling. Gambling dollars are what fed my family through my childhood. They allowed me to go to private schools and get an advanced education.

Being a successful gambler allowed my father to rise from extreme poverty to relative affluence.

Dad's trips to the soap kitchen and giving gifts to lonely men in sleeping room hotels reminded him about where he came from and a segment of society he couldn't ignore or write off.

As a nation, we can't afford to write those people off either.


Don McNay is a columnist for the Richmond (Ky.) Register. Contact him at