The Gambler

By Daniel Cheng

Perched unnoticed atop the summit of the haphazard pile of red, green, blue and yellow macaroons, the gnat nibbled furiously without success at its prize. Grey acrid smoke billowing above threatens to slowly dull its senses into a cathartic lethargy. Thanks to its dipterid compound vision, it took to the air split milliseconds before a strong reverberation brought down the colorful ensemble, tumbling onto the rolling green expanse below. The house has won. The insect came to rest at a safe vantage point on the ceiling above, surveying the carnage below under ommatidia mosaic lenses.

The gambler tosses his crumpled cards in disgust on the scattered mound of chips covering the viridian-shaded speed cloth, a nervous laugh warbling from his throat, with only a slight wince betraying his false bravado. The despair will turn to exhilaration moments later when he strikes a winning hand, and he will continue to experience the rollercoaster swing of emotional ups and downs before the evening winds down.

For many, the evening is endless because in the windowless soft, warm lit confines of the casino, the space-time continuum is warped with time a vacuum, and the casino table is center of gravity pulling all its participants into it. More likely than not, he will finally walk out with his tail between his legs; and it’s fine for the casino if he does happen to come out tops this time, because it is an inevitable eventuality that he will give it all back the next time or the following time he returns. As certain as the Theory of Relativity, the house always wins. It is the scientific certainty in the math, and math don’t lie.

The behavior of the gambler is homologous to addictive traits found in users who abuse alcohol, drugs, and nicotine. All these activities trigger proteins in the brain mixing into a potent biochemical cocktail which fires an intense fusillade of dopamine through the synapses to stimulate the pleasure center of the brain into overdrive. It is so good, it is bad; it is also so bad, it is good.

There is growing evidence in the field of psychological and neuroscience research suggesting that the heightened production of the brain’s pleasure neurotransmitter, dopamine, is activated by pleasurable experiences, and also by stressful events. So the experience of both losing and winning contribute to a gambler wanting more, just as substance abusers undergo bouts of withdrawals and highs. It crosswires the brain’s circuitry diverting its rewards pathway into a maladaptive cycle that gradually desensitizes other normal rewards such as food, water, sex, and socialization.

Of course, humans are not all built the same, and some will have dispositions which are more malleable and amenable to impulsive reward-seeking behaviors that leads to addictions. There might not be something as literal as a ‘gambling gene,’ but had there been one, it would seem most Asians have it because they’re such voracious gamblers. What is more certain is the familial factors to addictive behavior which many studies have demonstrated. So, someone who has a history of addiction problems in the family will be more predisposed to fall into addiction.

There’s the nature discourse, but let’s not forget the aspect of nurture. We have long lived in a society that often glamorizes extreme behavior, pain, and violence even if it is encapsulated in some warped good versus evil narration. Anti-heroes are celebrated and we immortalize them both in prose and the celluloid world; ‘The girl who likes the bad boy, albeit deep down with a heart of gold.’ ‘The damaged character who nonetheless wins hearts.’ Han Solo, Mad Max, Citizen Kane, Michael Corleone, Rambo… the list is unending.

What about the gambler? There’s one for every culture too. Who doesn’t love the witty and irreverent James Garner in Maverick, an insufferable gambler and cheat. In Asia, every gambler thinks they are Chow Yun Fatt in the God of Gamblers movie trilogy, with that mischievous grin and a winning card when it counts the most.

It helps us rationalize that it is cool and alright to gamble, and nudge that guilt away to oblivion; and on occasions when the gambler wins, vindication. These combined forces of nature and nurture offer more than sufficient excuses for the addicted to justify their state of moral dyslexia.

Even governments operate parimutuels and other games of chance in resigned acceptance that people will find every which way to gamble. Hence, they provide citizens with a legal outlet to feed their impulses where the funds can then be channeled for community and charitable causes, in deterrence of illegal private operators.

The same defeatist argument is has been used in many countries to legalize use of recreational drugs such as marijuana. The same apologia in legalizing pornography and prostitution. If you can’t beat them, join them.

But for the vulnerable, their world just became a more dangerous place. The snares become more easily accessible. The governments’ remedy is to institute preventive countermeasures within the legislations with safeguard measures to insulate the at-risk segments. There are, though, widely held views in academia and industry experts that prevention is not the cure, but rather education produces more enduring results and behavioral change.

Both school of thoughts have statistics and studies supporting their hypotheses, but most are jurisdictional and culture/ethnic specific and have no universal basis. Gambling operators naturally prefer the latter as restrictions amount to diluting their customer base, and they’d rather adhere to a framework of shared responsibility between the customer and the operator.

One product arising out of all these in the past decade is the Integrated Resort.

Adumbrated as the mother of all panacea for the tourism industry, its appeal is soaring far and wide since the Singapore integrated resorts success story. Extolled as the Tiger Balm to salve all economic ailments, it creates thousands of jobs, revives tourism, generates handsome taxes, catalyses urban gentrification, and more.

However, like the ugly truths of anorexia and bulimia buried underneath the glamour of the world of Paris catwalks, the engine room of an Integrated Resort can only be found deep in the hull of it’s beautiful glossy facade. The casino provides the main propulsion for the economic worthiness of an Integrated Resort. The Integrated Resort does indeed deliver all its bright and beautiful promises; but with all things that are almost too good to be true, there is always a catch. Can’t say it’s surprising because we all have been conditioned on the catch since young; ‘You can watch TV, after you finish your homework.’ ‘You get a free gift, with a minimum purchase.’ ‘You are eligible for a deferred interest plan, at a higher effective interest rate.’ We will build a billion dollar integrated resort, but there will be a casino.

More and more, the gambler resembles a tiny plankton swimming in an overfished ocean where shiny hooks and come-hither nets decorate all the space beneath the water’s surface, beckoning irresistibly with tasty morsels just hanging there waiting to be consumed. If they say life itself is one big gamble, the gambler has been dealt one big bad hand as if all the gods have conspired together to against him. In the most tragic cases, some do fold and quite life, in suicide, altogether.

The Integrated Resort advocate argues that it is not a casino but an entertainment hub whereby the casino is but one facet out of a multitude of amenities. And with all the safeguards and rules, addiction cases are minute exceptions. One must look at the greater good which the Integrated Resort bestows. But one more victim falling into the scourge of addiction, is one too many.

For most gamblers out there, they are happy to revel in the growing plethora of new and shiny playpens available to them. The growing liberalization of all forms of gambling will inevitably serve to groom and see more coming out of the (gambler) closet. More worryingly, it may be leading towards a new societal norm. It will be easier for the chronically afflicted to justify their actions and continue to seek fleeting solace of the familiar soft texture of the felt on their elbows, in an environment where they feel comfortable in their own skin; they are not chronic gamblers, they are just regular casino patrons.

This kind of delusional rationalization was played out in an episode of the hit American TV dramedy series, Shameless. In the scene, the insufferable patriarch of a poor working class family remonstrates his daughter who has sought solace in alcohol after being besotted by crisis and crisis, “You’re a bad drunk; I’m a good drunk, makes me happy. When you drink, you get mean. A good drunk is fun. A bad drunk wants to have a fight. A good drunk lives in the present. A bad drunk is thinking about yesterday. It’s all about gas and the brakes. Bottoms up. How you feel? Great? You feel good, right? So take a break, Driver Eight. Take your foot off the gas for a couple of seconds (and) coast. Alcohol was created to distract us from existential dread. Human beings are the only species that knows of its own mortality, and I gotta say, we do a pretty good job dealing with that fact. Can you imagine having to live with impending death sober? Me, I’ve always been the most fun member of my family. You know why? Because I get it. Sobriety is a fool’s game.”

The scene had stuck both funny and touching chords at the same time. In reality, only half the moral lesson was taught. An alcoholic is an alcoholic; there’s nothing in between, no good or bad drunk. So too, a regular gambler is a chronic gambler.

The virtues and economic benefits of Integrated Resorts are all true, but so are its vices, and it is important to weigh the consequences of the latter on the fabric of society. Is it a case so dire and noble as requiring to ‘sacrifice a few to save many,’ because at least a few will indeed be sacrificed in the fire of gambling addiction.

The western world have adapted better to casinos because they have come to become accepted as part of their popular culture. Stepping into a Las Vegas casino, you will often be greeted by peals of laughter and a light atmosphere among its patrons. For most Americans, a visit to a casino is a night out, no different from dining in a restaurant or going to a movie.

In contrast, tension fills the air within a casino in Macau or Singapore. It’s all serious business and no light-heartedness. The customers are grim-faced gamblers with only one mission… to make a quick fortune, and some with bet their life savings on it.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that the tiny Macau enclave can generate over 5 times more gross gaming revenue than all the casinos in the Las Vegas Strip combined. Everyone wants to be the winner-takes-all Ko Chun character in God of Gamblers, or fall off the precipice trying. So comparing western culture with Asia, the latter is more maladapted towards gambling and hence more vulnerable. Integrated Resorts ought to considered only as a last resort.

While well-intentioned, Integrated Resorts risk becoming a wolf in sheep’s clothing and its proliferation in Asia might make it the Jezebel of gambling addiction. Its potency is only exceeded by the even more rapid spread of the epidemic of internet gambling. It is intentional in the title of this commentary that the noun is not capitalized because there is no need to dignify the gambler any more than who he or she really is. Like the gnat on the ceiling, they are both spelled in lowercase.

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Daniel Cheng is a founding partner of Global IR Consulting Japan (GICJ) and previously held senior executive positions with Hard Rock International, Genting Group and Bally International (now Scientific Games).