Earlier this year I wrote about some of the more popular gambling games in the United States and compared them with horse racing to see how they stacked up. I’m revisiting that project this week with four more gambling games and making my case for why horse racing is the greatest gambling game in the world.
Ah, the “little wheel,” which is what roulette translates to in french. This game feels very sophisticated and European, right down to the fancy French name. But the game isn’t sophisticated at all. It’s simple. You bet on a number and a ball spins around in a wheel. Whatever number the ball lands on wins the money. In a way, it has a lot in common with carnival midway games.
One of the appeals of roulette to gamblers in casinos is that the game moves slowly relative to other popular table games. Roulette players sit around a long felt table and sip drinks and chat about Brexit or some other worldly topic while they wait for people to place their bets and the croupier (See, another fancy word! My, this is quite a cosmopolitan game!) spins the ball. The ball takes an eternity to land, and then it takes an even longer eternity for the next spin. Because of this, the casino wins all of your money much slower than they do at blackjack or craps. That’s the game’s greatest appeal.
Horse racing offers a similar pace for those who like to gamble leisurely. Each race is spaced out roughly 20-30 minutes apart. That gives you plenty of time to decide what to bet, to get something to eat or drink, to sit around with your friends and talk about Brexit, or to just argue over which horse you like. And if you’re too much of an action junky for all that waiting - usually the track will be simulcasting racing all over the world. For you, there is a bet to be made every few minutes.
The most popular form of gambling in a casino is the slot machine. Little by little, these one-armed bandits are pushing table games completely out. The casinos of yesterday had slot machines along the wall to entertain people while they waited for a spot at the dice table. Today, casino executives know they can fit about 10 machines in the floor space a dice table occupies, and squeeze that much more money out of their customers.
But the customers love it. Perhaps it is the video gameitization — I think I made that word up — of our culture that has made these machines so popular. But the bleeps and bloops and bells and whistles of the slot machines are the modern soundtrack of the gambling hall. These machines are designed to create endorphin rushes, to fire our synapses when we win something, even if what we won was less than what we bet, so we feel good and want to immediately press the button and take another spin. They show us getting just a few inches on the reel away from a big jackpot, to trick us into thinking we nearly hit it. But all that a slot machine is is a big, loud lottery ticket. They are going to pay off based on an algorithm, and they won’t deviate from it. You’re either standing in front of the machine for the lucky pull or you aren’t. Nothing you do can change the outcome: You aren’t playing a game; you aren’t making any choices. At least in roulette you have to decide what to bet on. With slots you put in your money and push the button to see if you won. That’s it. Sometimes there’s a little video of Elvis singing or the “Wheel of Fortune” song. But that’s it.
Horse racing is superior to this form of gambling in every way. But honestly, so is every other form of gambling. I say this as someone who has pumped plenty of money into a slot machine in my life. But every time I’ve done it, you better believe I’d have preferred taking my 20 bucks and putting it on any horse in any race sight unseen.
Curiously, the marriage of these two ideas exists. In Hot Springs, Ark. at Oaklawn Park, executives were able to get around gambling laws to introduce slots into their racetrack by inventing a new kind of slot machine that utilized horse racing results to determine if the player won or not. It’s called “Instant Racing” and the model has been used in tracks around the country. So, I’m guessing I’m not the only person who has put down $20 on a longshot without even knowing the horse’s name. I could have invented instant racing if I was a little bit smarter.
When I said that slot machines were big, loud lottery tickets, I may have been unfair. They are more like big and loud bingo games. Because in the actual lottery, you do get to make a choice if you want. You can pick your own numbers. Though the technology exists today to allow people to purchase tickets with computer-generated numbers, many still prefer the old school method of buying tickets with their own favorite pre-selected number combinations. Birthdays, anniversaries, numbers that appeared in dreams, whatever.
The lottery is the most common form of gambling in the United States, with about half of the entire country buying lottery tickets in any given month. This form of gambling is as old as America itself, and for the longest time was run as an underground operation. In those days, the lottery was tied to the sport of horse racing. Many cities' numbers bosses chose their winning numbers based on the total amount of money bet at a racetrack the day before, or on the attendance, or some other figure that came out of the racetrack and was published in the next day’s newspaper.
Today, the lottery is legal in 44 states (curiously, Nevada is one of the holdouts) and Americans spend more than $70 billion a year on lottery tickets. Jackpots routinely grow into the the hundreds of millions of dollars.
People will tell you not to play the lottery because the odds are stacked against you. They will derisively call it a “tax on people who can’t do math.” I am not one of these people. These people are joyless simps. These people are the ones who tell you that engagement rings were invented by the diamond industry or that Valentine’s Day was invented by the greeting-card business. They are not fun people, and they are not good people. There is nothing wrong with paying a little bit of extra taxes, knowing that money is going to help your state’s school system, and getting to walk around all day fantasizing about being a millionaire. That’s both fun and good. Be proud of yourselves, lotto players. You are making the world a better and more fun place.
However, I will tell you that horse racing also offers you a chance to play the lottery. It’s called the Pick 6. The payoffs aren’t as high, but your odds of hitting it are much better (though still very long). There’s probably not any money going toward education, either. But here’s what you do get: you get to watch six awesome horse races along the way. That beats watching numbered ping-pong balls pop up any day.
The Stock Market
OK, when I said that the lottery was the most popular form of gambling I wasn’t totally right. The most popular form form of gambling in the U.S. is the stock market. But, surprisingly, it isn’t by much. Roughly 54 percent of Americans own some form of stock, mostly through retirement plans. And if you’re wondering why I’d include the stock market in a list of gambling games, it’s because the stock market is gambling. It just has a more dignified reputation than the rest of the gambling games we play, and it also has an insane amount of money being wagered. The total value of all the shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange is around $15 trillion, which is more than double the amount of actual money that is in circulation right now. So … someone will need to work that out at some point. At least in Nevada, casinos are required to have enough cash in the cage to cover all the chips on the table.
Investing in a company’s stock is like making a bet on that company. You’re betting it will succeed, and that over time more people will want the shares you bought and will be willing to pay you even more for it than you paid. This is no different than how we bet on horses at the track. We do our research to decide which horse we think is the best, then we look for one that is priced below what we think it should be priced and we invest by betting on it.
The only advantage the stock market has over horse racing is that you can sell your shares whenever you want. You can make money even if later on the company does poorly and the shares go down. It’s more dynamic that way.
Similar to the stock market, Betfair launched the first exchange-wagering site in the U.S. in 2016, essentially allowing people to to swap or exchange bets, as has long been popular overseas, with the operator taking a commission. But, Betfair is only available to customers in Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey.
The advantage horse racing has over playing the stock market is that you only get taxed on your winnings at the track if your payoff was more than 600-1, whereas the IRS will get you on every penny you make in the market. Oh, and also the stock market is rigged and the people with the biggest bankrolls will gobble up all the money first and leave the rest of us fighting over the scraps. That is also probably true at the track to a lesser degree, but at least nobody’s factory will close or house will be foreclosed on. Gambling is supposed to be fun distraction, not a bedrock of an economy. At least at the racetrack, we know what the stakes are.