If Mike Orkin had his way, state lotteries would be banned and honest private gambling enterprises would be legal.
That, says the head of the statistics department at California State University in Hayward, would raise chances for winning and lower levels of hypocrisy."In California," he notes, "you can legally bet your life's savings in the state lottery but be tossed in jail for betting $5 in the office football pool."
Orkin has just published a book with a title that asks the question, "Can You Win?" The author's answer basically is "no." A few professionals make a modest living at blackjack, but that's hard and time-consuming work, he says.
He quotes a professional poker player saying that a good one can make $20 an hour. A really good poker player makes $30 an hour.
Not so, he says, with blackjack: "Suppose you master a winning blackjack strategy. If you bet $5 on each hand and play one hand per minute, you'll bet $300 per hour. With a 2 percent edge, your hourly winnings will average 2 percent of $300, or $6. After travel expenses, your earnings will be below minimum wage. Even though you're a winner, you'd make more money working at Burger King."
Gambling is a national pastime. Americans spend an estimated $253 billion a year on gambling, $13 million more than all the states raise in taxes. Orkin agrees that it can be fun if viewed as recreation and not a way to crawl out of debt.
"Think of all the games in your daily life, the gambles you take, the strategies you use. There are many misconceptions about gambling and strategies. Contrary to popular belief, you can't beat most gambling games in the long run.
"But gambling can be exciting, even with unfavorable odds," he says. "Wagering a few dollars in a lottery gives you a chance, however small, to dramatically change your lifestyle. As my mother used to say, `As long as you're happy.' "
But Orkin doesn't like the chances for state lottery ticket buyers and doesn't think government should be in the gambling business anyway. It requires huge administrative costs and won't bring in revenues unless it's a system involving "sucker bets."
Most players come from lowest income levels, he contends, because it's the only game they can afford. In fact, he says his research has found that many are financially desperate.
Joanne McNabb, spokeswoman for the California Lottery, says updated surveys show 40 percent to 50 percent of adult Californians - reflecting the general population and not just the poor - spend $6.25 or less once a week on lottery tickets. "That's the price of a movie," she says.
An analysis in the Wall Street Journal last year estimated that sports betting outside Nevada, 90 percent of it illegal, totals $30 billion a year - mostly involving offices, bookies and the odds quoted in newspapers' sports sections.
If all that were legal, the potential tax revenues are substantial, Orkin says. "Police energies shouldn't be spent cracking down on poker games," he says.
In his book, Orkin tries to make readers aware of the odds they confront. The "house edge" at casinos looks like this: roulette, 5.3 percent; craps, from 9.1 percent to 1.4 percent; keno, 25 percent. Still, those odds look more hopeful, Orkin notes, than state lotteries where the house edge is 50 percent.
"House edge" means the guaranteed profit or winnings coming in to the party that manages the bets. For instance, for every $10 wagered on the lottery, the state removes $5. Any winnings will be calculated against the money remaining, in this case $5.
The best bets, not counting blackjack, where players use skills, are in craps in a play called the "pass line," where the house has only a 1.4 percent edge.
Here's how it works: You roll two dice and if you make a seven or 11, you win. If you roll a two, three or 12, you lose. If you roll a four, five, six, eight, nine, or 10, you keep playing until either you match that first number and win or roll a seven and lose.
But a good gambler's most critical skill may be that of self-deception. As a Vegas gambler once told Orkin, "My losses are due to bad luck and my wins are due to skill."
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service