Those who defend gambling don't deny that it can be, in some cases, harmful to the wagerer and to society at large. But they argue that the ill effects aren't inevitable. They further contend that it is human nature to gamble and that rather than make the mistake of trying to legislate morality, government should carefully regulate gambling and make it pay benefits for all. Counting bingo and lotteries, all but four of the 50 states (the exceptions are Hawaii, Indiana, Mississippi and Utah) have acceded to this point of view by legalizing—and usually taxing—at least some form of gambling.
Some observers go farther and say that gambling is not merely something to be tolerated and taxed, but that it is a positive activity at the very root of the American dream. Lem Banker, a professional gambler in Las Vegas, says, "The most memorable gamble I can think of was my grandparents leaving their birthplace in Europe and taking a chance on coming to the United States in the 1800s. If you remember the play Fiddler on the Roof, you know the hardships and gambles immigrants took for a better life."
James Frey, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who has studied gambling, says, "Risk is a very significant part of our lives. Fathers don't mind if their sons play poker at a young age because poker is a way of learning to deal with money, risk, challenge and competition. People don't want to admit it, but a great part of gambling is consistent with the American way. We admire people who take risks, and we have even treated the very colorful historical gamblers, such as Doc Holliday, in a positive way."
The universal appeal of gambling is acknowledged by Dr. Robert Custer, a national leader in the treatment of pathological gambling. Custer knows well the personal havoc that compulsive betting can wreak, but he also says, "The Americans came in as the pioneers, the risk takers. They don't mind taking the risk, and they will take the consequences. Risk is part of our pioneer spirit."
Gambling is an expression of that spirit, its defenders say. In 1984 Jack Straus pocketed $520,000 by winning the World Series of Poker at the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. He went through his winnings in two months. "Hell, if they had meant man to hang on to money, they'd have put handles on it," he says philosophically. "For my money, there is no thrill in life more exhilarating than listening to a ball game with half your bankroll bet on it."
And what of the gambling antithesis to high rollers like Jack Straus—the blue-haired Mrs. Play-the-Slots on vacation in Vegas? Jack Binion, general manager of the Horseshoe, has seen thousands of people like Mrs. Play-the-Slots try their luck at his machines, and he has seen them come alive because of it. "There is nothing simpler than a reel going around and around with fruit symbols on it," says Binion. "How long would that hold someone's interest if there was no money involved? About two seconds. But if you put some money in the machine—as little as a nickel or a dime—you also put an emotional charge in yourself. That's what gambling is all about—the pizzazz it puts in people."
In Frey's view, winning or losing a few dollars in the office football pool or at the slot machines can be "a positive form of recreation. There is an excitement to it, a sense of action that people may or may not get in other ways." And, Custer says, "Social gambling is a tremendous amount of fun, and that is therapeutic. Sure, there's always a chance of winning some money, but mostly it offers relaxation, real pleasure and a fairly inexpensive form of escape."
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Doc Holliday: a risk taker and a folk hero.