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An anti-gambling warrior digs in against NY casino expansion

Published: Monday, Oct. 28 2013 10:55 p.m. MDT

Nothing has really changed, Blankenhorn argues, except today the take goes to government for providing the same services. In most states, the state take is substantial, on par with the mob bosses: between 27 and 50 percent.

It's naïve to think of the state as simply taxing the casinos, as it would a car wash or a deli, Blankenhorn said. The state is actually a full partner in the project and simply hires out the logistics of its share of the gambling revenue.

All of this points to a conflict of interest, as Blankenhorn sees it, when a state that is supposed to be protecting the vulnerable and even redistributing income downward instead sees its self-interest in exploiting the vulnerable and redistributing upward.

Responsible gambling

The gambling industry sees itself as a responsible entertainment provider, offering good clean fun for most patrons and taking pains to help the few who cannot control their behavior.

The industry has spent millions funding the National Center for Responsible Gaming, which funds peer-reviewed studies on problem gambling.

However, as the gaming association's Patterson said, “It is very difficult to know what somebody’s income is, how much they are gambling in one facility or another facility, whether they are using a players club card or not. It’s purely someone’s imagination what theory they want to use to come up with a number.”

With all the millions of dollars invested in research, why are the demographics of casino revenue so opaque?

Patterson said survey research cannot get to the issue, because asking patrons detailed questions would be off-putting. The National Center for Responsible Gaming funds all kinds of research, she noted, but “has never received a proposal that has been able to pass peer review because there is no scientifically justifiable way to go about it.”

“Hello, David!”

The gambling industry knows its customers like no other, Blankenhorn said.

"They are anything but indifferent. The first thing you do is go to the welcome desk, and they will give you a card with your name on it, and every time you stick the card in the slot machine, it says, 'Hello, David!'"

On that loyalty card, the casino "tracks with great sophistication every interaction you have with the casino." The card tracks the machines you play, the times you come, how long you stay on a machine. The casino offers perks through the card, and while it is theoretically possible to use cash on the machines, Blankenhorn said he never has seen anyone doing so.

In short, he argues, the notion that the casino does not know the ages and ZIP codes of their heaviest users is ludicrous. “And if they know the ZIP code then they know the socioeconomic status. And if they pretend they don't know ... what does that tell you?

"You can ignore these things, but it is not a matter of dispute among scholars that between 35 and 55 percent of the casino revenue in America comes from problem gamblers," Blankenhorn said.

Twice a week

In his Dantean tour of gambling hell, Blankenhorn spent a lot of time in Mississippi, his native state and the queen of state-sponsored casinos. Once he was standing in line at a Mississippi casino and chatted up an older woman next to him. "Do you come here often?"

"I usually come here twice a week," she said.

"Why is that?"

"Because on Tuesday nights and Thursday nights I get emails from the casino telling me that if I come in during certain hours I'll get $10 of free slot play. So that's when I come in."

The woman in line also represents another beef Blankenhorn has with the industry. A frequent claim in siting casinos is that they will be "destination resorts," he said, evoking the casinos of yore in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where tourists would travel great distances once a year to play and then go home.

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