It has become almost impossible to walk into a local grocery store or pharmacy or liquor store without seeing people scraping coins against little silver cards. The D.C. Instant Lottery has become a citywide mania -- and something of a cultural phenomenon.
Until now, most forms of gambling have not been easily accessible. To bet on football you need to know a bookie. To play the numbers you have to know a numbers runner. To play the horses you need to be somewhat familiar with the arcana of that sport. But anyone can plunk down a dollar, buy a lottery ticket, scrape the latex that covers six boxes on the ticket and learn if he has won anywhere from $2 to $10,000. The lottery has brought gambling to the masses.
I have long espoused the belief that gambling is good for the soul; as the legendary plunger Nick the Greek once said, it "improves the flavor of living." So I suppose I should be delighted that so many people are learning to share my passion. Instead I am appalled. The lottery offers few of the positive, exhilarating aspects of gambling while incorporating most of its bad features.
Because so many of the people buying Instant Lottery tickets are gambling neophytes, I would like to acquaint them with the elemental mathematics of this and other games of chance.
Built into every game is what is variously known as the vig, the juice, the p.c., the house edge, the take -- the percentage working against the player. At a craps table it is 1.4 percent, an edge sufficient to make fortunes for casinos and let them serve players free drinks all night. Bookmakers drive Cadillacs because they have a 4.55 percent advantage over their customers who bet football. Race tracks take 15 to 25 percent out of every betting dollar. The illegal numbers game takes a 40 percent edge, paying 600 to 1 on a 1000-to-1 proposition.
This was always considered the biggest rip-off in the gambling business, until state and local governments got into it. The District of Columbia takes a 54 percent cut, returning only 46 cents of every dollar that people spend on Instant Lottery tickets.
What is sad, though, is that lottery customers are paying this exorbitant premium for such a joyless form of gambling. For 1.4 percent you can have the intense, glamorous exhilarating experience of betting in a casino; for 54 percent you get to scrape some latex onto the counter of your neighborhood drug store.
People who have been introduced to gambling by the lottery are being shortchanged. And they couldn't begin to imagine the greatest appeal of gambling -- the satisfaction and ego gratification that come from being right.
A football bettor who took the Redskins plus 6 1/2 points Sunday probably won't brag about the money he won, but he will delight in telling all his friends the reasoning that went into that astute selection.
A beginner can go to the track and bet a succession of losers, but when he correctly dopes out one winner he will momentarily think of himself as a genius. And when he goes to the cashier's window, he will view that money not as a lucky windfall, but the payoff for intelligence and good judgment. That is quite in keeping with the Protestant ethic. But I don't think Cotton Mather would have approved of the D.C. Instant Lottery.
A person who has an "itch to get rich," as the commercials put it, would be better advised to save his dollars for a trip to Atlantic City or Bowie or Charles Town, where the odds against him are less formidable. And if he does win, he will get to think that he won because of his own brilliance, rather than because he happened to get lucky playing a sucker's game.