The computer as casino

Culture | "With a click of the mouse, you could lose your house"

Issue: "Keep the faith," June 23, 2001

The Nevada state legislature recently passed a law that will make it possible for Las Vegas casinos to offer gambling over the Internet. The bill does not quite legalize online betting, as such, but it sets up a procedure to allow for the licensing of casinos that want in on the increasingly lucrative action that turns every computer into a one-armed bandit. Soon, a person will be able to go on a Las Vegas gambling spree without the distractions of glitzy hotels, buffet lines, and Elvis impersonators, becoming a high roller from the comfort of home.

Already, Internet gambling has become a $1.6 billion industry, with projections that online casino earnings will rise to $6.3 billion by 2003. To avoid U.S. gambling laws, the online casinos are currently offshore operations, legally incorporated in Caribbean islands or other live-and-let-live countries. There are an estimated 1,400 Internet casino sites, based overseas, luring in some 4.5 million American players.

Since an Internet site is not a "place" at all, and it is just as easy to click onto a foreign website as an American one, it doesn't really matter where the business has its papers filed. Online betting is already freely available, no matter what Vegas does. But the way the Internet makes state and national borders irrelevant threatens not only to undermine the anti-gambling laws of other states, but to undermine American federalism-by which sovereign states with their own laws join a union-in ways the low-tech framers of the Constitution never envisioned.

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In most states, casino gambling is illegal, or at least restricted, sometimes in ludicrous ways (as in states along the Mississippi that allow "riverboat gambling" on immovable structures surrounded by a moat of river water). Indian tribes, finding an opening in treaties that name them "sovereign states," have been able to open mammoth casinos across the country, exacting a sort of revenge by taking the White Man's money, just as the White Man took their land. And even state governments that outlaw gambling are sponsoring lotteries, practicing the very behavior they are outlawing. Americans reportedly gamble away some $500 billion, legally or illegally, every year.

In this cultural climate, the possibility of free money, without having to work for it in productive activity, is a driving fantasy for gamblers, and it is a reality for those who run the games. Attempts to reign in gambling have been futile, as high-stakes gambling has become increasingly available, first with the Indian casinos and now with the ultimate total accessibility of the Internet.

Still, state governments are worried about the consequences of Nevada's taking the step of legalizing online gambling. Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle is pointing out that even if Nevada allows online gambling, Wisconsin law does not. The state could still prosecute a Wisconsin resident for betting on an online Vegas, as it could the Vegas casino for running a criminal operation in the state. At some point, he said, federal law would have to reconcile such conflicting state laws: "Nevada would have big trouble trying to do this without having Congress approve it as well."

In the meantime, others want a piece of the action. If Vegas can do it, New Jersey wants Atlantic City casinos to have the same privilege. And the Indian casinos-which currently are speaking out against the possible competition-promise to insist that they too have the right to set up gambling websites, if the others can.

Others are worried about the metastasizing of gambling through the Internet. The National Collegiate Athletics Association, which has been striving to keep gambling (and its attendant temptation to "throw games") out of student athletics, knows that the battle will be almost lost once gamblers can place bets with the click of a mouse.

Those who work with problem gamblers are especially concerned. "This is very significant," said the Rev. Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion. "We have long fought to keep gambling off Main Street," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "So we don't want to let them move into someone's house. With a click of the mouse, you could lose your house. And the more accessible you make gambling, the more you increase its addictive rate."

In the current economic climate, as companies fail and Internet businesses have a hard time making money, it is surely ironic that among the biggest success stories of the Internet revolution are online porn and online gambling. The staggeringly sophisticated technology is reduced to simply giving more occasion for age-old human vices-more of the rapidly accumulating evidence for the Christian doctrine of original sin.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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