Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Powerball, poker and bankruptcy

I'm not really one for gambling. As a kid with my siblings and parents, I used to go for a day trip to Buncrana in the Irish republic (just a little bit over the border from Northern Ireland) and gamble with pennies and sixpences I'd saved. The place where we gambled was called 'Berties' and, as well as slots and other kinds of coin games, they also had a helter-skelter and dogems and other kinds of defying rides. For kids like us who had to watch their pennies, it was nirvana, and I look upon those times spent with my siblings with great affection. It was our childhoods at their most pure, though of course we didn't realize it then. And our parents seemed also at their happiest on these trips: they often chatted animatedly and laughed a lot, something they seldom did at home because then the realities of life and its attendant pressures sent them in to their own quiet corners where they nursed their own concerns and agendas zealously.

Then, I was a tight or wise little bugger, the adjective to describe me depending on whether it was the proprietors of Berties or me who was doing the describing. If I started to lose at the machines, I possessed the good sense to just walk out of the arcade and cut my losses. It was not a characteristic shared by any of my siblings because they would stay and gamble until their money was spent and then depend on their big brother to cough up for the licorice and penny chews, etc. But those days spent at Berties also sowed a deep and healthy suspicion of gambling joints and the people who own them that has held me in good stead ever since. I have no interest in going to Las Vegas to gamble, nor do I ever feel the need (as some friends of mine have) to jump in the car and go off to places like Atlantic City in order to gamble myself stupid.

When the Powerball lottery (of which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) is a member, Larry and I often buy a bunch of tickets and sometimes win five or ten dollars. Last night was very interesting because some time ago we'd bought some of those scratch it "Poker" cards that the Commonwealth also flogs at $5.00 a pop and, as there was nothing interesting on the telly, we decided to go through them. On the first card (containing four deals), Larry revealed Four Kings and, if it 'bested' the hand held by the dealer, we'd won $100,000. Well, (and this is where the game hooks people), all we saw in our great excitement in the dealers hands was a bunch of odd cards and we genuinely thought we'd won. Hurriedly, we scratched through the other cards and discovered we'd 'won'an additional $580.00.

After we sat back in wonder for a while, I decided to methodically go through the tickets again. You've guessed it. Those 'odd' cards held by the dealer in the $100,000.00 game turned out to be a royal flush which trumped our 'four of a kind.' (The way the tickets display the various 'cards,' it makes it difficult to spot this immediately.) It was the same case (in different combinations of 'cards') that resulted in our winning 'ziltch, nada, nothing in the other deals. So we were out $15.00. That amount is not much, but it is a lot of money to the 'customers' who usually buy these tickets. The Commonwealth's current pitchman is 'Gus', the second most famous groundhog in Pennsylvania, the first being Punxsutawney Phil, the one brought out on Groundhog Day to predict whether we will have an early end to winter. While I recognize the Commonwealth's need to obtain revenue in an age of tight and decining revenue sources, I am not convinced it should be spending millions of dollars on advertisng campaigns aimed at persuading its 'poorer' citizens to gamble. It is at best unseemly.

Ever the cynic, I decided to go through the tickets and analyze what was going on with the 'dealer' every time we held a great hand, and I discovered something extremely interesting. If we held a flush, the dealer invariably held a Royal flush or something equally difficult to obtain had it been a regular game of cards. Quite frankly, the probability of this happening to the dealer when a customer holds a great hand should be very, very remote. But on the tickets, it happened all the time. My conclusion is that the machine churning out these cards seems to operating contrary to the laws of probability.

This set me to thinking about gambling in general. Pennsylvania is soon to introduce slot machines in Philadelphia and other places throughout the commonwealth. In preparation, casino owners like Donald Trump have created partnerships with prominent Pennsylvania citizens and gone to Harrisburg to lobby for the contract to build and/or manage these places. I find this ironic. My understanding is that Trump casinos have twice filed for bankruptcy in New Jersey. I cannot understand why Pennsylvania would even consider meeting with someone at the helm of such an organization.

That issue, of course, brings me careening into the question of the purpose of the federal bankruptcy laws. In the old days, when a corporation went bankrupt, it truly meant the corporation was in genuine trouble and needed protection in order restructure and become viable. Today, many corporations (such as a few unprofitable American airlines, some of whom have filed twice) are using the bankruptcy laws as a means of evading their debts or as a stick to beat the heads of employees from whom they are seeking concessions or, at best, as a means of attracting fresh finance. The federal laws are becoming nothing but a corporate tool, and this was not Congress's objective. It is appalling, and we should be very angry at this flagrant abuse...particularly so as parts of those same bankruptcy laws were amended late last year in order to make it more difficult for individuals to file and obtain protection. And who were the chief lobbyists for these amendments? That's right! The credit card companies.

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Carol Gee said...

Damian, good post about childhood and adult fun(?) Your capacity to cut your losses has served you well, huh? My system for Vegas is to set a $20 loss limit, start play early in the morning, lose my money, and then I am free for the rest of the day. That's why they call it gaming, I think. Dare I wish you good luck?

Damian McNicholl said...

Thanks for the comment, Carol.

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