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Gambling: You bet it’s fun

By Michael Webster

I’m in favour of gambling. Of course, I’m lucky. In the same way that I can enjoy a glass of wine without any urge to finish the whole bottle, I can make a bet and, win or lose, feel no need to make another. As for video lottery terminals (VLTs), those most addictive of gambling machines, I tried one once to see what it was like and can sum up my experience in three words: boring, boring, boring.

I’m also fortunate to have learned how to gamble in the state of Nevada, the home of North American gambling. I waited tables in a Reno casino where residents know the three rules of gambling:  one, bet only what you can afford to lose; two, the odds favour the house, so in the long run, the casino always wins; three, get your money’s worth from the enjoyment of playing, not the hope of winning. If you can’t live with those rules, walk away from the table or the machine or the racetrack and never go back.

Gambling is not risk-free, but it does have a positive side. At a previous pastoral charge, I spent Wednesday afternoons from April to September on the golf course with some buddies. We placed a series of 25-cent bets on every hole. The betting system was complicated, and the complexity of it was part of the fun. Oh yes, fun — that’s why I’m in favour of gambling. Our games were full of guy humour, which involves relentless teasing and minor practical jokes, such as parking your golf cart over the other fellow’s ball while pretending to help him look for it. As well as giving substance to the winner’s bragging rights (“Don’t forget to bring lots of quarters on Wednesday”), the bets gave us something else to kid each other about on the course. To put that in church language, they provided another avenue for the building of relationship.

And that is — or ought to be — the value of gambling. Whether it’s a poker game with friends, a bet with your kids with the week’s ironing at stake or one between a couple for sexual favours (a bet nobody loses), a friendly wager can enhance relationships without destroying souls.

But that’s not what our church says. The United Church’s policy on gambling, written in 1977 and updated periodically, lists two dozen motivations for people to gamble. Almost all are negative, ranging from the simple (boredom, frustration, greed) to the complex (pathological desire to lose, sublimation of aggression against society). No mention of fun and not a word about relationship building.

Gambling, in my view, is morally reprehensible only when it loses its ability to build relationship. Staring across a felt table at a blackjack dealer is only marginally less impersonal than loading $100 into a VLT. Like alcohol, gambling has its benefits but can also be destructive, and governments that cut taxes while increasing gambling revenues are doing their communities no favours. Indeed, it may be governments that are most addicted to the false promise of easy money. Having said that, a prohibition on gambling wouldn’t work any better than one on alcohol, and I would rather see casinos run by governments than by gangsters.
In the meantime, does anyone want to bet a basketful of ironing that Tiger Woods won’t win the Masters this month?

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