F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.06 - October 1995

Wanna Bet?

By Evan I.Schwartz

Legend has it George Washington tried to ban gambling before America even became a country. During the first winter of the Revolutionary War, when Washington and his troops were holed up in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, he banned all games of chance from a cold army camp starved of distractions. Needless to say, the ban failed. As soon as the general turned his back, the troops would play a game called toss-up. Pairs of players would throw fistfuls of halfpennies into the air. The soldiers who called heads would gather all the coins that landed that way, while their opponents got the ones that landed tails.

The fact that he couldn't stop such activity drove Washington nuts. But at night in his bunker, the future US president organised clandestine card games with some tight-lipped officers for more serious cash. Overall, he broke even - at least that's what he claimed in his ledgers.

The father of America typified the duplicitous American attitude towards gambling. Most people in the States - and, let's be honest, most people everywhere - enjoy indulging what has been called a universal urge. But, the trouble with Americans is they don't want other people doing it, especially not in public. This professed disdain is the reason most legal gambling in the United States has been relegated to remote areas such as riverboats, Indian reservations, and hotels stuck in the middle of the desert.

But even exile has not prevented American gambling from becoming a huge business. More than US$500 billion will be wagered legally in the United States this year, according to International Gaming & Wagering Business, a New York-based industry journal. Roughly 8 per cent of that is kept as net winnings by Nevada state and Atlantic City casinos, racetracks, bingo parlours, state lotteries, Las Vegas sports bookmakers, and the like. That makes legal gambling in America a $40 billion industry - easily bigger than the domestic motion-picture business and the recorded-music industry combined.

With more than a hint of irony, America's desire to keep gambling out of the public gaze could soon make it an even bigger industry - and a more global one. For entrepreneurs with an eye to the huge American gambling market are setting up shop on the Internet. And once there, their services will be available to anyone and everyone with access to a computer. Wherever you may be, you could belly up to the roulette wheel in secret, whenever you want, without having to put up with other fools doing the same. Since many of the online gambling establishments are shadow companies headquartered offshore, your own private cybercasino might also offer the perfect shelter from sniffing tax officials. And since your gambling could be done anonymously, you could avoid the inevitable shame your friends and family impose on you when you come out losing.

"It's a vice that will drive masses of people to interact in virtual worlds," says David Herschman, co-founder of Virtual Vegas Inc., a Santa Monica, California, company that runs a gaming den on the World Wide Web. "In some ways, the ability to be hedonistic virtually is better than doing it in real life."

But will cybergambling offer an equal thrill? For now, Herschman's online casino tries to simulate the excitement of gambling - without real betting. Lurid graphics, adapted from the company's CD-ROM games, enable players to compete against the house for points in games such as blackjack and roulette. The entertainment options include viewing photographs of beautiful women (fully clothed) and making believe you are a judge in a Miss Metaverse contest. Once the bandwidth of the Web increases, Herschman aims to re-create the whole Las Vegas experience, with the hope of being well positioned for the day when online wagering is legalised.

Others aren't waiting for such changes in the law. Several entrepreneurs are mixing the global reach and low cost of the Internet with the lax legal climate of certain Caribbean locales, where hiding money from tax collectors is a major industry. The potential result: any desktop or laptop could be a gambling terminal - US (or any other) law be damned.

Most of the attention in this quest has been focused on one Warren Eugene. Since declaring himself "the Bugsy Siegel of the Internet" (after the founder of America's first real-life gambling paradise, Las Vegas), Eugene has been attracting press attention for his planned Internet casino that accepts real cash, wired from the bank accounts of thousands of members worldwide. A ninth-grade dropout from Toronto, Eugene claims to have made a fortune selling Nintendo games and running 900-number services such as Dial-a-Psychic. He wants to parlay this bundle into a gambling empire. In the months before his August start date for betting, he claimed that 7,300 people had registered on his Web site (http://www.casino.org), which operates in the Caribbean from the Turks and Caicos Islands, Nassau, and St. Martin. "It may be breaking a few laws here and there," concedes Eugene. "But who is it going to bother if people sit in their homes gambling?"

Well, the FBI, the IRS, Scotland Yard, and the Inland Revenue - to name just a few possibilities. US laws, including the Interstate Wire Act, prohibit anyone in the gambling business from taking bets over a network - including the Internet - that crosses state or international borders. But if you are situated offshore, the chances of being prosecuted under these laws are remote, especially if you are a foreign citizen, according to Nelson Rose, a gambling expert and professor at Whittier Law School in Los Angeles. The government's extradition of Manuel Noriega was the rare case of a foreign national being brought to justice in the United States, Rose notes.

Still, while it may be hard to police, gambling on the Net has its dangers. If such operators set foot on US soil, Rose adds, "their assets can be seized." Eugene downplays such risks. He says he wrote a letter asking for clarification on the issue and sent copies to the attorneys general of the several states he perceives as liberal on gambling: New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Nevada. Those who responded "weren't favourable," Eugene admits. He says he will go ahead with his plans anyway. "Judging by their tone," he explains, "they are not going to prosecute me or extradite me." Herschman, however, believes otherwise, warning that Eugene is "stepping into the fire, and I think he's going to get burned."

For people like Eugene, the potential revenue is worth that risk. If at-home gambling on the Internet and interstate phone lines is legalised, it would add $10 billion to the net winnings of the industry overnight, estimates Jason Ader, a gaming analyst at Smith Barney, a New York brokerage house.

One company based on the island of Antigua, Sports International Ltd., believes that figure would quickly grow to $30 billion. Formed in the late 1980s, Sports International operates an offshore service for betting on sporting events using the telephone.

Unlike the UK, where betting shops line the high streets, it is illegal to bet on sporting events in the US. It is also illegal to accept sports bets over phone lines that originate in the US. But the laws regarding telephone betting, at least, are seldom enforced. In practice, sports bookies are more likely to go broke than go to jail. Besides, Sports International can claim an air of respectability. Somehow, the company has managed to register itself in the US as a publicly traded, over-the-counter stock.

And the fastest-growing part of Sports International's business is its Web site (www.netaxs.com/people/sportbet), where the standard Las Vegas odds get posted for events such as the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Indy 500, the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, and big boxing bouts. Customers place their bets with a few clicks of the mouse and wire their money - $300 minimum - to debit accounts held in Caribbean banks. Winnings are supposedly written as cashier's cheques and express-mailed back to the bettors. So far, Sports International has opened well over 1,000 accounts, says marketing director Michael Browne. And sometime this autumn, the company plans to open its Global Casino on the same Web site, with Vegas-style, real-money games such as blackjack, roulette, craps, and video slots.

As a result, net winnings this year should more than double, from $2.4 million in 1994 to $6 million, he says. Browne claims that no US law enforcement officials have contacted the company. He says that he's not worried. "There's not a problem with us being a sports book here in Antigua," he says, adding that questions arising about other countries' laws are not one of his concerns.

Although cybergambling could well become political like pornography on the Internet, Browne expects the opposite will happen in this case. He believes certain regions of the US will loosen their gambling laws when they smell easy tax dollars. And why shouldn't the laws be changed? "You have an industry that was stigmatised as corrupt a long time ago," Browne says. "But it is really no different from the stock market. Just look at the sports teams as if they were companies."

Yet another Internet gambling company is opting for that approach - literally. Instead of acting as an online bookie, taking whatever bets come in and wagering against the customers, a company called Global Gaming Services Ltd. plans to match up sports gamblers against each other. Just as you can't buy a share of stock unless someone is selling one, you won't be able to bet $1,000 on the San Francisco 49ers football team unless someone else is willing to put the same amount on the rival Miami Dolphins. "Our software creates a stock market in sports wagers," says the company's chief technical director, Kerry Rogers, a marketing entrepreneur who grew up in Las Vegas. Global Gaming, Rogers adds, would simply act as the matchmaker and middleman, taking a flat 2.5 per cent cut of the transaction.

In searching for a place to locate his new business, Rogers chose Belize, a Central American country on the Caribbean. The reason: of all the other Caribbean governments he contacted about the venture, the Belizeans were the only ones who didn't require a bribe. Instead, Rogers claims, he convinced them to change their laws - modelling them on those of Nevada - with the expectation that making the country an online gambling mecca would be good for the local economy.

Technologically, Global Gaming's system seems the most advanced. The company's Web site (www.wagernet.com) simply advertises the company's service, which was slated to open last month under the name WagerNet. But to play, you must wire money - $1,000 minimum - to a bank in Belize. Then, for $100, you must purchase a start-up kit, including special software, a card reader that attaches to your PC, and a smart card that holds your security and account information. "It works as a private network attached to the Internet," Rogers says. So far, he claims that 4,000 people have registered - half from the US and half from elsewhere. Like his fellow online gamblers, he thumbs his nose at anti-gambling laws. "What are we going to do - build new prisons for sports bettors?" he says. "It doesn't make any sense."

Ah, but gambling laws have never made any sense - in America, or anywhere else, for that matter. Throughout history, gaming regulations have had nothing to do with logic and even less to do with the principles behind whether gambling is good or bad for society. If such laws made any sense, why would lotteries be promoted in Britain but roulette heavily restricted and casinos few and far between? Or why would lotteries be illegal in Nevada? The truth is that the regulation of gambling has always had everything to do with money, self-interest, and political expediency. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony enacted the New World's first laws against gambling. But the very same people had not a qualm about funding the sailing of the Mayflower by holding a series of lotteries back in England.

Since then, gambling has ebbed and flowed across America in waves. By George Washington's time, most of the 13 colonies held some form of lottery. The funds helped pay for the building of new settlements as well as for construction at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth university campuses. But by the mid-1800s, most of these lotteries were banned after scandals turned public opinion against them. Harvard, for instance, couldn't come up with the money to pay a grand-prize winner, who incited a minor riot.

A second wave of gambling arose during America's move westward, in the frontier saloons of rough-and-tumble Dodge City and gold-crazed San Francisco, where slot machines were invented.

But scandals, corruption, fixed sporting events, and a general public outcry eventually turned the tide against gambling once more. And by 1909, when gaming was outlawed in Nevada (it was legalised again in 1931), almost all gambling was banned everywhere in the country.

We're now in the midst of gambling's "third wave," says Whittier Law School's Nelson Rose, twisting Alvin Toffler's socioeconomic framework to fit one of humankind's oldest pursuits. According to Rose, this wave started rolling in the 1940s when Bugsy Siegel and bands of gangsters began building a strip of garish casinos in Las Vegas. Cash-strapped governments got into the action by legalising racetracks in 21 states, with more to follow in the coming decades. Since then, the culture of gambling has been gradually transformed into a quasi-respectable business.

Thanks for that goes in large part to Nevada's Corporate Gaming Act of 1967, which enabled publicly traded companies to own and operate gambling facilities; public companies can't afford to be perceived as corrupt. At the same time, states had legalised lotteries. Add to that the opening of Atlantic City to casinos in 1976, the watershed Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, and the current spate of federal exemptions allowing riverboat gambling in certain locations, and what you're left with is what amounts to a desperate rush to turn wagering into one of America's premier industries.

"Gaming is now part of the entertainment industry," says Smith Barney's Jason Ader. Every major brokerage house now has analysts covering the sector. Just five years ago, there were only 12 public companies in the gambling business. Now, says Ader, there are more than 100. At that rate, there should be close to 1,000 companies five years from now. But even gambling can't grow forever - Ader sees a reversal of sorts. He predicts that the field will shrink down to 20 or 30 major players within a few years, due to consolidation within the industry and the strange dynamics of gambling.

Gaming is governed by a strong law of diminishing returns. Atlantic City is a case in point. When Resorts International opened the first casino there in 1978, it instantly became the world's most profitable. Twelve more casinos followed fast on its heels. The lucky 13th was Donald Trump's gargantuan Taj Mahal, which was forced into bankruptcy a little more than a year after it opened in 1990. Not one has been built since. The same kind of fall off could easily happen in cyberspace.

Corruption could turn market saturation to full-scale rout. A wily hacker could quite plausibly discover a flaw in the software and compound winnings to his or her account, in effect stealing the payout from the real winners. Herschman, of Virtual Vegas, says he needs to see improved security on the Internet before he will consider dealing in real money. "Hackers will simply bust open the system and keep hitting the win button," he predicts. "This may well give the industry a bad name."

Then there is the matter of trust. In a real casino, for instance, you can see the blackjack dealer insert a finite number of brand-new decks into the card tray. But what's to stop a virtual casino from fixing the order of a bottomless sequence of cards? "They could easily put a secret algorithm in the program to pull more 21s when the house gets behind," notes Ader.

But the real sleight of hand will most likely be in fooling the government, not the customers. Even if it remains illegal, emerging technologies will make gambling on the Internet all but undetectable by law enforcement. Encryption, for instance, will make it possible to hide the contents of illegal transactions from federal wiretappers. And the advent of digital cash will enable the wagering of small amounts - from 50 cents to $5.

"Electronic cash allows you to hide the money," says Eugene. "I won't even know who it's from." Concludes Herschman: "The technology has outgrown the regulations."

And the technology is growing in many directions. Besides bringing gambling to homes through telephone and computer networks, some entrepreneurs are pushing for gambling via interactive television.

One such company is Carlsbad, California-based < HREF="http://www.iwnonline.com/">IWN ("I win") Inc., a subsidiary of NTN Communications Inc., the maker of many interactive TV games, such as QB1 football. IWN has developed software that allows television viewers to use their remote controls to place bets on live horse races. The game, called Triples, is now being tested in Cerritos, California, over the GTE mainStreet interactive cable system. Right now, people play only for points. But IWN President Colleen Anderson says the company will test a real-money version of the game for Windows-based PCs, called HomeStretch, in Connecticut this fall.

Connecticut is one of seven states that permit what's known as "account wagering" on horse and dog races. (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, and Nevada are the others.) Seasoned players typically set up debit accounts with a licensed racetrack or off-track betting facility and place their bets over the phone by voice or, in some cases, automatically using their touch-tone keypad.

Anderson, however, believes the computer and the television provide much more efficient ways of placing bets. The TV and the computer can display the gobs of information, such as the racing form, that bettors need. Plus, the television allows you to enjoy watching the race after you place your wager. The company's network of computers will not only credit and debit accounts when the race results are posted, but will also charge transaction fees for both the wager and the information.

Currently, fewer than 100,000 people in the seven legal states participate in account wagering. But with this new technology, Anderson sees "millions of people doing interactive gambling." She notes that horse racing is currently a declining business with an aging clientele. New technology could freshen the business for younger players.

That's precisely what some industry observers are worried about. Associate Professor Howard Shaffer, director of the Division on Addictions at Harvard Medical School, believes that gambling is "a serious public health issue," especially among the young who find ways to play lotteries, bet on horse races, and wager on all sort of sporting events. He fears that new technologies, such as the Internet, will lead to widespread gambling among minors, despite the fact that all the operators of cybercasinos insist they will not open any accounts to bettors who are underage. Home computers and gambling, he warns, add up to a frightening combination for young people.

"Computers make us feel in control and organised," Shaffer explains. "Those feelings appeal to the sense of control and mastery that pathological gamblers exhibit. They begin to really believe that they have control over the outcome of a chance event."

In this respect, Shaffer says, "gambling can make smart people dumb." Shaffer points to a recent analysis, which examined data from studies of 8,000 gamblers in the 10- to 17-year-old age group, and found that roughly 6 per cent of those kids met the criteria for pathological addiction to gambling. Symptoms include lethargic, depressed, and unsatisfied attitudes that can be alleviated only by betting higher and higher amounts. The study also revealed that an additional 12 per cent of those children showed signs of a smaller set of adverse symptoms, such as distraction from family, work, and school - and an ever-increasing pile of debt.

It's this kind of criticism and analysis that drives gaming entrepreneurs bonkers. "The immorality of gaming is a myth," says Anderson. "The government is in it. The church is in it. Charities are in it." Warren Eugene and David Herschman are similarly indignant over such issues. "A lot of people think sex and alcohol are immoral too," Herschman says. Adds Eugene: "What America needs is a good enema."

This maybe so, but you can't argue with the mathematics. Anyone who knows something about probability knows that gamblers are irrevocably doomed to failure. You can play the lottery every single week for 10 lifetimes and the chances are you still won't hit the jackpot.

The greatest misconception about gambling is that the house makes money off you only when you lose. But in all forms of gambling, the primary way the house reaps its profits is by paying the winners slightly less than the true odds. In roulette, for example, you obtain a chance to double your money by betting either black or red. But the odds are actually a bit higher than this 2-to-1 payout. Occasionally, the ball lands in a green nook - and all chips are called. As author Harold Vogel points out in his book Entertainment Industry Economics, this often-hidden margin is what provides the casino with its "edge," the track with its "take," and the lottery with its "cut." Even when you win, you lose a little.

Despite this picture of dismal odds, it could be inevitable that cyberspace becomes the next frontier that's paved with gambling dollars, promising pots of gold. If this is the case, it seems likely that gambling on the Net won't simply be contained to traditional games, like blackjack, horse races, and football.

Perhaps the day will soon come when people can sit down at their personal computers, open their digital wallets, and obtain odds on just about everything: they could compete for cash in live-action videogame tournaments or wager on real-world events such as who will become the next president and whether certain government legislation will pass or fail. And the bets will affect the outcomes of those events.

Smith Barney's Ader projects that gaming in the US could be a $100 billion-a-year industry if it were available on demand to anyone at any time. That works out to $400 per American man, woman, and child.

But, as in previous waves, America's current fascination with wagering may last only so long before it does itself in. An unregulated company in the Caribbean could pull the plug on its computer, and cause an industry-wide crash. Or the law of diminishing returns could set in. Nelson Rose has an exact, if totally unscientific, prediction for when this current wave will crash: 2029. But he's not willing to bet on it. Even if he's right, is anybody willing to wager that the rest of the world will lose interest once America does? How about if we give odds? n

Evan I. Schwartz (evan@cis.compuserve.com) is a Boston-based contributing writer for Wired. He wrote "People Are Supposed to Pay for This Stuff?" in Wired 1.04.