Why Do We Still Play Games With Definitions Of Gambling?

June 28, 2016
Why Do We Still Play Games With Definitions Of Gambling?

I’ve written twice recently about daily fantasy sports bills and the mental gymnastics employed to define DFS as something other than gambling under state law.

It’s an argument that can also be applied to some efforts to legalize online poker; in New York, a poker bill that passed the Senate similarly defined it as a game of skill so as not to run afoul of the state constitution.

Why can’t we just call things gambling that are gambling? And why do we even care if something is gambling or not, at this point?

Almost every state has some form of gambling

The boat has largely sailed for the morality police on state-authorized gambling, whether it be a lottery, casinos, horse racing or some other gaming variant.

If a state has one of those things, it becomes increasingly difficult to make a straight-faced argument that gambling is “bad” from the standpoint of state government.

That’s especially true for states with a lottery, in which your chances of being a long-term winner are virtually nil. At least you can win sometimes — or lose your money more slowly — in other forms of gambling.

Then add in the rapid state-authorized expansion of casino-style gambling, both commercial and tribal, as well as video gaming terminals, in recent decades. What that backdrop, a limit on what types of gambling are allowed looks increasingly silly.

Just call it what it is

Given all those expansions, the need to call something “not gambling” based on fear of blowback from anti-gambling corners is becoming a non-concern.

In fact, lawmakers and government should be more interested in calling something exactly what it is, from both a problem gambling and “truth in advertising” standpoint. In the case of both DFS and poker, most people can identify them as forms of gambling where skill plays a big role.

Instead, we’re treated to debates in statehouses, courtrooms, social media and regular media about whether ‘x’ (usually DFS or poker) has enough skill to be considered “not gambling.”

But there’s a reason for that.

Gambling laws are often dumb

Why do we have to have these debates on gambling?

State laws are antiquated. In some cases, they make it difficult to change the law regarding gambling. Like in New York, if you want to expand gambling, you are supposed to amend the constitution. (That’s a step lawmakers are trying to skip by defining both poker and DFS as “not gambling.”)

States often have vague definitions of what is or is not gambling, which is the legal gray area under which the DFS industry sprung up over the past decade.

The amount of chance involved in something like DFS or poker — where millions or billions of dollars are changing hands — should really be immaterial to whether a state allows it or regulates it.

And, in fact, skill-based peer-to-peer games are, at their core, generally more fair to the user than casino-style games and lotteries, where the house will always win.

On top of that, ineffective federal laws like the UIGEA and PASPA have stunted the growth of regulated gambling in the US. They have also helped offshore gambling operations to continue to thrive. The idea that these laws actually “ban” anything is laughable.

Maybe someday things will be different

The number of legal gambling options Americans now have access to would have been nearly unthinkable a few decades ago. Once upon a time, the options were generally limited to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, lotteries and horse racing wagering.

Now, casinos are in a majority of states. You can even play legal, online poker and casino games in a few states.

The US is well behind in the liberalization of gambling laws when compared to much of Europe. But the hope is that the federal and/or state governments will eventually see the path charted there, and agree with the wisdom in regulating — and profiting from — gambling in all its forms.

That would be a much better outcome than the endless and often pointless debates around the country about whether something is or isn’t gambling.

Photo by David Goehring used under license CC BY 2.0

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