Games of Chance

Peter Wood

Atlantic City probably belongs on the list of America’s most desolate places.  It huddles on the coast, an expanse of run-down two-story houses, tattoo parlors, cash-for-gold shops, vacant lots, and discount stores, below the towering palace-like casino-hotels desperately trying to convey an image of glamour in the midst of shabbiness.
 
The “gaming industry,” as it now likes to be called, doesn’t worry too much about exteriors. The outside of the casinos are meant to be seen from a distance, as mirages of sophisticated splendor. At street level, they are utilitarian and ugly, except for the entrances which are shiny glass and brass studies in visual vulgarity. Inside, the buildings are designed to whirl the visitor though pathless mazes of slot machines and to dazzle with flashing lights and fruity electronic noise.
 
There is perhaps a metaphor here for contemporary higher education, but I’ll let that go.
 
I have found myself at casinos several times in recent years, either because convention organizers thought the venue would be a lure or because a well-meaning host insisted I see how this or that tribe of Native Americans had found a way to cash in on their legal privileges. The experience always leaves me feeling a little unclean; sad at the display of deadening folly; and angry at the politicians who promote this sort of thing.
 
And promote them they do.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, for example, has just proposed a joint venture with the Genting Group, a Malaysian company that builds and operates casinos, to build a giant casino-cum-convention center at the Aquaduct Racetrack in Queens. The artistic renderings are, of course, beautiful, but what you see inside a real casino is something else.
 
Sure enough, in Atlantic City there was the woman attached to an oxygen tank feeding a slot machine. Here was an elderly husband spoon feeding his stroke-felled wife, as though he could think of no better place to tend to her last weeks or months than the vicinity of the blackjack tables. Here were families with five- and six-year-old children along, apparently, to learn how to squander money that might be put towards their educations. At night the casinos filled up with separate knots of boys in skinny jeans and girls in tight mini-dresses and stilettos, doing their best to live up to the Jersey Shore stereotypes.
 
The group I was with kept to the seminars and stayed away from the gambling except for one fellow of modest means who ended up spending twelve hours losing money at the casino. I know the rationale: He is making his own choices. And the piped in soundtrack in the elevators offers a frequent reminder of the 1-800 number to call if you have “gambling problem.” But gambling is all by itself a problem, and not one the casinos are eager to cure.
 
My hotel room in the Hilton looked out at a slant at the cold gray Atlantic. It snowed that day in New York, but just drizzled on the Jersey coast. Several stories below my window were the roofs of annexes, missing tiles from the storms that blow in hard against the boardwalked beach. And lying on their backs, scattered over one of those roofs were the fallen giant red letters, H, I, L on one side, T, O, N on the other—the debris of a bygone age when Atlantic City was an actual family resort.
 
What does any of this have to do with higher education?
 
I take it as a specific instance of a general rule. Contemporary American higher education always finds ways to exploit and generally worsen cultural blight. In this case, it does that in two ways: by preparing students to work in the gambling industry, and by fostering the fantasy-logic on which the industry feeds.
 
As for the first, colleges and universities have created programs to credentialize the casino operators. “Gain the knowledge and skills to advance to a high-level management position in the casino industry,” says Drexel University in its ads for its one-year onlineGraduate Certificate in Gaming and Casino Operations. The curriculum includes HRM 670 “Casino Financial Analysis” and HRM 676 “Casino Marketing.”
 
The University of Las Vegas is home to the International Gaming Institute, “a non-profit academic and research facility which offers educational programs for professionals in the gaming and hospitality industries.” The curriculum includes such salubrious coursesas IGIGAM0948 “Slot Performance-Potential Modeling,” and IGIGAM1005 “What Casino Management Should Know about Video Poker.”
 
Eastern Maine Community College announced last month that it is getting into the act as well, partnering with a local casino:
 
As part of the initiative, Hollywood Slots is partnering with the college on a program that would provide training for jobs such as black jack and poker dealers, pit bosses and other positions related to the addition of table games to Hollywood Slots.
 
Of course universities and colleges that move into this business face competition from some more plainly vocational outfits such as the Casino Gaming Institute (“Start Your Career with a Proven Winner”) which offers certificates in Slot Technician Training, All Casino Games, and Casino Management, with four convenient locations, including onsite at the Harrington (New Jersey) Raceway & Casino.
 
Hondros College in Westerville, Ohio advises students to “Quit gambling with uncertainty and find your new career in the casino gaming industry!” Its Casino Gaming program trains students to be dealers in baccarat, blackjack, craps, pai gow poker, pai gow tiles, poker, and roulette.
 
I am sure there are many more such programs but that’s enough to cover the principle that if something is legal, there is sure to be a college or university program that will offer a path to a career in it.
 
Of course, higher education is fraught with gambling problems of its own: both sports betting and the large number of students who get lured into gambling and become “problem” gamblers. I don’t know whether to credit these statistics, but various Internet sites claim that “between 5 and 9 percent of male college students and 1 to 2 percent of college women” have gambling addictions. The rate of compulsive gambling among college students is roughly double that of the general population. CollegeGambling.org, a project of the National Center for Responsible Gaming offers some statistics, but this is clearly a gambling industry undertaking that serves the larger project of keeping the roulette wheels spinning.
 
Gambling is so entrenched among college students that there is even a Web site, Ultrinsic, where students can bet on their grades. The idea is to create some convergence between the impulse to bet and the motivation to study, though it might just as well provide additional reasons to cheat.
 
Is it a surprise that college students are especially prone to gambling addictions? Gambling is heavily marketed to college students, and students often have the time and the willingness to be diverted, especially to the online versions of poker and sports betting. But college students may also be predisposed to gambling by the very fact of their college enrollment. For many, the pursuit of a college degree is itself a large bet against uncertain odds. Given the out-of-pocket costs, the typical student-loan burdens, and the poor job prospects, a college student isn’t all that different from the player, who is induced to “play to extinction.” The idea is “to create machines and environments that entrance players to follow loss with more loss,” until they have nothing left with which to play. Those cash-for-gold shops down the block from the casinos are there for a reason.
 
When I encounter a deeply indebted recent college graduate about to enroll in law school or a graduate program in the liberal arts, that’s exactly what comes to mind: the university has trained the student to play the game all the way to extinction. Of course casinos are faster.
 
From my hotel room looking out on the slate gray January Atlantic, I saw an empty beach and a boardwalk with a handful of people doubled against the wind. The “action” as the casinos style it, is all on the inside. The trouble is that there is a lot inside that is just weak, troubled, short-sighted, probability blind, and self-destructive. We would be better off without industries that exploited these frailties.
 
This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on January 24, 2012.  
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