Columns » Max Brantley

A jackpot for the house

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Nov. 8, voters in Hot Springs and West Memphis will decide whether to allow race tracks in those cities to add “electronic games of skill.” It’s certain they’ll support the tracks.

This vote is a result of a bill rushed through the opening days of the legislature. Before schools and everything else, increased profits had to be insured for race track owners.

How, you ask, can race tracks offer video poker in a state where gambling is prohibited by Constitution and law? Answer: it’s erroneously deemed a “game of skill.”

Real poker requires skill. But these machines will be set to pay back a fixed percentage of amounts wagered. State law says the payoff must be at least 83 percent. That’s incredibly stingy, against Vegas and Mississippi casinos, where the unskilled slots return 95 percent and more of the amount you put in. But those casinos have competition.

Will Arkansas tracks milk bettors for the maximum allowable? Probably. The tracks already have “Instant Racing,” another bogus game of skill in which you bet on previously run horse races. The machines pay back only 83 percent of bets, but fans have stormed them. The rest of the take goes to taxes and the house, with the tracks getting about 58 percent of the net.

Here’s why the new form of gambling will be a bonanza for the tracks.

Video poker is alluring — addictive even — to gamblers. (I know, the tracks say they haven’t decided what form of gambling the new machines will offer. Don’t believe them.) The suckers still BELIEVE skill can make a difference. It doesn’t. The house wins 17 cents of every dollar.

There are many reasons for voters to be unhappy. 1) The special handling at the legislature. 2) The hurry-up elections, after statements from the tracks that no elections would be held until spring. 3) The ability of Hot Springs and West Memphis voters to approve casino gambling in Arkansas, but only for two monopoly operators. If we must have gambling, why not shoot for the Mississippi miracle, with lots of competition?

Finally, 4) the biggest loser is the gambler. It begins with the abysmally low 83 percent payback. It continues with the profits written into law for the tracks.

Oaklawn and Southland will get to keep 65 percent of the net on the new machines, even more than they get on Instant Racing. That cut for the house, according to statistics compiled by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is more than the house receives in seven of the eight states where race tracks have added machine gambling. Only Louisiana — famous for corruption in state regulation of casinos — is clearly higher, and then only marginally. Iowa’s rate is similar to Arkansas’s law on house take, but the payouts there average a generous 93 percent, a figure we’re unlikely to see here.

If the Southland dog track gets machines, it might have “loose” machines, given the proximity of gambling competitors in Mississippi. At Oaklawn, where the suckers poured $74 million into Instant Racing in 2004 in return for an 83 percent payout, why would the operators want to mess with a good thing?

Somebody’s got to win, right?




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