Casinos are for losers
Government is the only big winner in Quebec gaming houses

When promoters were touting the benefits of legalized gambling in Quebec, among the people they claimed would be attracted were high-rollers from Japan, Arab sheiks and the international jet-set. Though Casino-goers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, they have one thing in common: they are almost all losers.

"During a short time-period almost anything can happen in a Casino," said Frank Bozel, a math professor at John Abbott College. "But the games are set so that nobody can win consistently over the long term."

According to one Casino employee who refused to give his name, in the eight years that he has worked there, he has not met a single person who was a consistent winner.

These comments are born out in a quick look at the statistics. Last year visitors dropped $468.4 million during 5.6 million visits to the Casino de Montréal, which works out to $83.64 per person per trip. And that doesn't include the amounts spent on food and beverages.

Although he refuses to be called a gambling expert, Bozel makes for a pretty good amateur. He comes to our meeting armed with a thick file of news clippings on the gaming industry and about a dozen books.

"They are for the birds," he said pointing to the books, which have such promising titles as "Playing Roulette as a Business," and "Slot Smarts."

"People come up with all kinds of systems, to beat the Casino" said Bozel. "They watch three reds come up in a row in Roulette, so they bet big on black. But none of these systems work."

The reason says Bozel, is that Casino games are set up according to a series of gambling theorems that ensure the house always comes up on top. That means over the long-term, the amount of money the Casino pays out on each game is less than the amount bet.

According to Casino officials the payout ratios vary according to the game played and the amount bet. In slots, the machines pay out in the neighborhood of 92% of the amount bet. In roulette, the figure can reach as high as 97.3%.

Although these amounts make the house's edge seem small, Casino games operate fast, and the house advantage multiplies exponentially the more you play. One blackjack pit-boss told me that dealers can deal about 60 hands per player each hour on a full table and even more when there some empty seats.

A roulette croupier can spin the wheel 20 times an hour. And we watched one woman -- who appeared to be playing at the same rate as a dozen other senior citizens lined up at a row of slots --put 24 coins in a machine in one minute.

In fact, notwithstanding the early forecasts there seemed to be a lot more senior citizens the night we visited than there were high-rollers from out of town. Indeed according to Loto-Quebec documents only 6.5 per cent of 15,000 visitors that the Casino de Montréal averages each day, come from outside the province.

Casino officials are cagey about what percentage of clients walk out losers, claiming not to have conducted exit polls. "It's almost impossible to get gamblers to talk about their losses," said one.

But there is every indication that even in the short term, there are few people who come out ahead. During our visit we observed a small sample of ten people for five minutes each.

Of these, nine of them came out losers, including one depressed-looking gentleman who threw six crisp one hundred-dollar bills on a blackjack table, and lost his six chips in four hands.

The one exception was an elderly lady playing the slots. She may have come out a winner, but we can't be sure, she won a small prize, perhaps 100 coins. But by the time we got to her, she had already mixed her winnings with her remaining stake. We played roulette and the slots five times each, and came up with a big goose egg.

So why do people get involved in organized gambling, when they almost all come out losers? An Italian government official once famously likened lotteries to a "tax on idiots." But according to Casino officials the typical player has slightly above average income and education.

The answer probably lies in what educators call "innumeracy." Innumeracy is mathematical illiteracy, which often affects intelligent people and can lead to confused personal decisions in finances and political opinions.

"You have to wonder about the ethics of the government getting involved in that kind of enterprise," said Bozel. "Sure, if people want it, you can allow gambling, and then tax the hell out it. But for the government to get involved is a different story."


Photo caption: Frank Bozel, a math professor at John Abbott College says that it is almost impossible for someone to beat the odds in a Casino over the long run.

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