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Losers' Poker

Cards? Football? Fantasy? Americans will bet on anything these days.

12:00 AM, Oct 28, 2005 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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ON AUGUST 30, with the flood waters rising in New Orleans, Harrah's CEO Gary Loveman appeared on CNN to reassure a battered nation. "We hope to work with Gov. Barbour in Mississippi in particular to get at least temporary casinos open as quickly as possible and get everybody back to work," he said. When the chips were down, our gaming industry stood fast, ready to do whatever it took to keep America betting. Is this a great country or what?

Over the past 50 years, gambling has gone from sin to vice to guilty pleasure and has come, finally, to be simply another point of interest on the entertainment map. Today America has 445 commercial casinos and 411 Indian casinos acting as beacons to the lucky. In 1993, 11.6 million Americans visited commercial casinos; in 2004, 54.1 million--26 percent of all gaming-aged adults--hit the tables and slots. In 1993, commercial casinos had $11.2 billion in gross gambling revenue; by 2004 that number had risen to $27 billion. But even this staggering figure--last year Hollywood grossed only $10.2 billion at the box office and $25.95 billion from home video--is just one piece of the gaming pie. Throw in the Indian casinos, state lotteries and horse tracks and you get a gross total of $72.87 billion--before you count Internet gaming.

As gambling has spread, whatever taboos were left about it have fallen away. In a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans said that gambling was an acceptable activity, with 21 percent saying that in the past 10 years gaming has become more acceptable to them.

The extent to which gambling infiltrates nearly every aspect of American culture is hard to fathom--we are so pious and easily scandalized on other culture-war fronts--but easy to measure: Gambling is everywhere. Its sheer ubiquity has made wagering seem banal, a normal part of middle-class life--something that only a prude would object to. But is it really? Isn't there more at stake in the loss of this taboo than the pleasure of risking a little money on chance? Taken in all its forms, the American betting habit looks like a mild form of social pathology. It is certainly one of those nodal points in culture where commerce has trumped settled custom--and maybe even conscience.

We've gotten to the point where a conservative Republican nominee to the Supreme Court has as the apex of her résumé a stint as the head of the Texas Lottery Commission--and this is seen as a plus. Back when America frowned on gaming, the Christian objection was that partaking in games of chance was essentially testing God: demanding that he show his favor. So outdated is this view that now you can even buy "faith poker chips," with slogans such as "Jesus went all in for you!" Maybe gambling has become more acceptable because people aren't expecting to win as much as they're hoping simply to be amused. A trip to the casino today is like a trip to the Cineplex: You pay your money just to see the show.

Of course, gaming isn't just a casino sport anymore: It has been domesticated by poker. If you follow reports from the American Gaming Association, you may have noticed that poker was a dying pastime until recently. But in 2003, the game had a turnaround. ESPN aired the World Series of Poker as a seven-part event. Ratings were huge. Other cable networks also got in on the action, with A&E broadcasting "Celebrity Poker Showdown" and the Travel Channel airing "World Poker Tour."

And people wanted to imitate what they saw on TV. After declining for almost a decade, consumer spending on poker in commercial casinos nearly doubled from 2002 to 2004. Online poker sites sprang up, using free poker games (which could be advertised on television) as gateways to pull players into cash games with progressively higher stakes. Suddenly people who were only occasional gamblers were buying chip sets--which became a common fixture at stores such as Target--and Ivy League alumni listservs were carrying messages like: "If anyone is interested in either cash game or small NL tourney game, I'm hosting a casual game tonight in my apartment on the Upper West Side."

Yet perhaps the most important development in the defanging of gambling is the rise of fantasy football. Legend has it that this odd pastime--a game in which "owners" draft real players, who amass points with their on-field statistics--was launched in a New York City hotel room in 1962 by three men with various connections to the Oakland Raiders.

For a long while after, fantasy football, like its lesser cousin, fantasy baseball, was the province of stat nerds and sports junkies. According to Greg Ambrosius, the editor of Fantasy Sports magazine, in 1989 there were only about one million players. But the Internet made the crunching and disseminating of data easier and allowed leagues to be formed with players across the country. By 2003, there were 15.2 million fantasy participants who had created their own $1.8 billion completely real economy, which included magazines, books and blogs. There's even a national Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

And at the nub of it all is betting: Many fantasy leagues are "free," but the average player spends $120 a year on fees and betting pools connected to the leagues. That's why NFL officials shunned fantasy football for years. But recently they changed their minds--now they release their own "Fantasy Previews"; their Web site has a section devoted to "NFL Fantasy."

The convergence of gambling and sports seems natural enough, since their emotional, if not philosophical, rewards are similar. In a 2002 Washington Post profile of Michael Jordan, reporter Michael Leahy recounted a long evening with the basketball star at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. The night began with blackjack at 11; by early morning, Jordan was down half a million; by 8 a.m. he was up some $600,000. He left the casino "with arms raised, as if he'd won Game 7 of a playoff series. Chattering. Woofing."

We can't all be Michael Jordan, but we can, from time to time, hit blackjack or draw to an inside straight. For a few bucks, you too can experience the thrill of risk and the joy of victory. Of course, gambling is to actual competition what pornography is to actual sex--which is to say, a debased simulation of a real and powerful thing. But never mind that. America has placed its wager with legalized gaming and, after careful study, decided to double down.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard and a contributor to the blog Galley Slaves. This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.