News & Politics

A Better Bet

Thousands of Slot Machines at Maryland's Racetracks? A Really Dumb Idea. Here's How to Take Real Money From the High Rollers.

The new governor of maryland, Robert Ehrlich, has pounced on slot machines as a way to raise money to run the state. The slots are also seen as a way to save the state's failing horseracing tracks.

Slots are to be located at four racetracks: Pimlico, Laurel Park, Rosecroft, and a proposed new one in the western end of the state. The racetracks have been big supporters of slots, as long as they get to run them.

Having hung around casinos and racetracks for 30 years, I can't imagine what Ehrlich could be thinking. Of all the possible ways to use gambling to increase state revenues, putting slots at racetracks is the dumbest. One lame argument for doing it is that Maryland legislators will allow slot machines but not casinos. Don't they know a casino is a big building that houses slot machines? A recent report from one of the nation's gambling companies shows that 46 percent of a casino's revenue comes from slots and only 25 percent from table games. The rest comes from hotel rooms, food, and show tickets.

Of all the games of chance in a casino, the slot machine is the most addictive, the hardest to win, and the most pointless. In blackjack, craps, roulette, even baccarat, there is some strategy. Anyone who tells you that there is a strategy to winning on slots has been pulling handles too long.

But let's go to the real problem: Slots are a tax on the poor and the middle class.

The fact is that rich people do not get on buses, go to Atlantic City, and play slot machines. Slot players are overwhelmingly female; many are seniors on fixed incomes; and almost all are in the lower to middle income-tax brackets. True, you might find Barbra Streisand playing the $100 slots in Vegas, but she's the exception. Even if Laurel Park and Pimlico have $100 machines, you're not like to see any local millionaires pulling the slot handles there.

Talk about balancing the budget on the backs of the poor: The slots-at-the-track proposal makes everything that has come before, such as a regressive sales tax, look generous. Making the concept even more antiegalitarian is where the money that doesn't go to the state will wind up–increasing the purses for the people who own racehorses, many of whom are already wealthy.

And what has racing done to earn this reward? Racing-commission reports show that horses are routinely drugged. Beyond that, jockeys deliberately stiff horses or ride them so they can't win. Recently it was revealed that employees of the totalisator systems were able to create winning tickets–after the races had been run. Yet these are the first people the new governor should help?

Backers of racetrack slots will try to wrap the proposal in glitz and glamour. But what Maryland gamblers get will be quite different. In Las Vegas and Atlantic City, casino customers find the newest machines. The modern slot is a far cry from the mechanical cherry-cherry-cherry three-reeler of a decade ago. Today's machines often have five "virtual" electronic reels and nine different ways of winning.

The latest slots are based on board games and TV game shows. "Monopoly" has spawned at least five slot-machine versions, and all are cool–like playing a video game. Other popular machines are based on Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.

These are not the slots you'll find in Maryland's gambling parlors. To see what you'll get in Maryland, travel to Charles Town Races in West Virginia or Dover Downs in Delaware, which have slots. There you'll find machines that were trucked out of Vegas a decade ago.

The life of a Vegas-strip slot machine is about 18 months. After that, it is considered old and may be moved to a rural casino, say in Biloxi, Mississippi, where it might drain quarters from the unfortunate for three or four more years. After Mississippi, a slot machine will likely head to a riverboat. Only at the end of their useful lives are machines packed up and trucked to "racinos." It's these retreads that will end up in Maryland.

Why won't the new operators of the Maryland Jockey Club buy the latest machines? The answer is money–and lack of competition. A new high-tech machine costs about $5,000. Used machines can be had for $1,200. With no competition, the old machines can generate faster profits. The Maryland player is going to drop her money into a three-reel dinosaur.

If the slot machines are not likely to attract wealthy customers, neither are their locations. Baltimore is a wonderful place to visit. It has Camden Yards, the Babe Ruth Museum, the Inner Harbor. What tourist is going to hop a cab to leave the Inner Harbor to play slots at Pimlico in a rundown part of town?

The Washington players most excited about this proposal are the thousands of people who make the almost-daily trek to Charles Town or Dover Downs on slot buses. Now to get their daily fix they will not have to travel so far. Yes, this will make life easier for the gambling addict, and it will keep slot dollars at home that now go to neighboring states. Maryland will now be as shortsighted as they are.

I am not opposed to gambling. I enjoy it. But it is contrary to the spirit of good government to balance the state budget on the backs of the people who can least afford it. If the state wants gamblers to balance the budget, the high rollers should kick in their fair share. That means baccarat, roulette, craps, and high-stakes blackjack.

It also means putting gambling where it will raise the most money. If Maryland wants to use gambling to raise money, the models are there. The state of Mississippi has raised more than $2 billion for the state since legalizing casinos 12 years ago, softening its state budget crunch.

In eastern Connecticut, a couple of tiny Indian tribes now earn a billion dollars a year operating casinos. They have revitalized a region–Groton, Mystic, and New London–that had been given up for dead.

A casino on Baltimore's Inner Harbor could raise billions and turn the city into one of the nation's top tourist attractions. An Inner Harbor casino would invigorate Baltimore businesses, hotels, and restaurants, especially if the state does what New Orleans did: limit the number of restaurants inside a casino.

The customers attracted to an Inner Harbor casino would have money, and Maryland need not regret taking it.

There has been talk for years of putting a casino at Ocean City, but Governor Ehrlich has made clear that he wants Ocean City to keep its reputation as a family place; the racetrack near there, Ocean Downs, would not get slot machines. But another possibility is the new resort in Cambridge that might include a casino. It would be close enough to attract summer tourists to the shore without tainting the family beach-outing atmosphere that Ehrlich wants to preserve and could do for sleepy southern Maryland what the Indian casinos have done for a once-sleepy part of Connecticut.

Whatever happens elsewhere, it's hard to think of a more perfect casino location than downtown Baltimore. A classy Inner Harbor casino would compete with the Atlantic City gambling houses and offer the hottest games, the brightest lights, and the highest limits. Instead of a tax-the-poor scheme, it also would take from the rich–a much better bet all the way around. *