Why I'm not Gambling Much Anymore

In the old days when you placed a bet at a casino you really felt like you were taking on the house. And it felt that way because it was that way; when the house paid you it was coming right out of someone else's pocket. You were effectively taking on the casino owners "mano-a-mano" by proxy through their dealers. When the cards were flipped someone was going to win and someone was going to lose. At that moment nothing beyond the padded edge of the table seemed to matter, and if you cashed out a winner you could walk off into the night without even saying goodbye.

Gambling has changed.

For mostly good reasons, ownership of Las Vegas casinos has been taken out of the hands of shadowy crime syndicates and has been placed in the control of huge corporations. This was an inevitability as Las Vegas grew too popular for the government to continue turning a blind eye. However, the notion of gambling has changed as a result - and faster than ever in recent years.

I have been away from the tables for a very long time as I have been less willing to take financial risks over the past decade than when I was younger. When I do play, I usually win at roulette and lose at anything else so I have learned to play just that. I've also learned that the more time you spend gambling the more you risk a catastrophic loss, so I like to stay away from the tables until just before leaving town. In the final hours of my trip I'll come up with a gaming plan, I'll sit down at roulette and I'll get it all done in one short, controlled burst. Win or lose, I get on the plane and that's the end of it - I leave with a predicable win (or an acceptable loss) and no catastrophes.

One Night at The Mirage

One Monday evening I went to bed early in my suite at The Mirage because I had to leave for the airport at 4am. Sure enough, I woke up at 11pm and couldn't sleep. This is Vegas, after all, and I could see right from the bed that Venetian and Palazzo were staring at me. I decided to go downstairs for a few minutes to have a "parting shot" at the house one last time before Hard Rock rips it to shreds in the coming months.

Venetian and Palazzo laughing at me for going to bed so early
Venetian and Palazzo laughing at me for going to bed so early

As I often try to do, I set loss limits on the way down and committed to myself that I would risk a bankroll of no more than $2000. I also decided to stick very strictly to a very specific stepped-progression scheme I've been refining over most of my adult life. I was out to win no less than $400 but if I shanked it I would have to leave town with a maximum loss of two large. I thought to myself whether I would be able to go back to sleep if I took that kind of a hit!

Photo on the way into the casino to remind me I was cautiously optimistic
Photo on the way into the casino to remind me I was cautiously optimistic

I remembered to take a photo of the casino as I entered so I could look at it after the session. Whenever I get pounded by a casino I try to compare my attitude before and after the session. Reviewing photos retrospectively of how I felt just before and after a bad beat helps me reinforce how stupid and unnecessary gambling is.

As I walked onto the floor I saw a guy that had just hit a Blazing Sevens progressive jackpot... Nice! A good sign, perhaps?

A good sign?  Dude just hit a Blazing Sevens progressive
A good sign? Dude just hit a Blazing Sevens progressive

After tamping down the jitters the best I could, I walked up to the roulette table and laid out twenty $100 bills and asked to play house blacks inside. The dealer made the call and the pit boss predictably asked if I had a players card. I said I didn't' have one and pre-empted the follow-up question by saying I didn't want one. I don't like being tracked. Not that this will stop them, but I prefer to be mysterious and private while playing and to ignore any distractions. I don't need to be spending any cycles yakking about their benefits of their marketing programs while I'm trying to play.

The Session Begins

With a single stack of black chips I laid out my first arrangement which is a cover spread and a single corner. I hit the cover but I missed the corner. Up $200.

I got a little nervous that I was laying too wide a footprint so I took the corner off. I hit the cover again. Up $300 more.

Now I was feeling it. I went back to my slightly bolder original bet and BANG - I hit both the main cover and also the corner bet. Up another $1100.

I was committed to walking away so I locked up a $1000 profit and I went in for a kill shot. I bedazzled a specific number with $300 and missed it by one pocket. Frustrated, I went for one more kill shot just to get my name mentioned in the next Seminole Hard Rock board meeting but I missed that one too - and again only by a single fret. Twice I had been millimeters away from an $8,000 hit and totally dominating this table. I wanted to be so angry! But I couldn't be, as I was too preoccupied thinking about the $1000 of the table's fill chips that I was going to haul back to the cage. I colored up and headed for the cashier, stopping only long enough to snap a photo of the take.

Two of mine, one of theirs
Two of mine, one of theirs

Things turn Sour at the Cage

I clicked the three chips on the cashier's marble counter and she asked if I had a player's club card. I said I didn't and handed her my driver's license. Just then someone I'll refer to as "BOSS LADY" slinked out from behind an inconspicuous wooden panel in the wall and stuck a post-it note in front of the cashier's keyboard. It had all sorts of scratchings and codes on it that I couldn't make out. The only thing on it I could read clearly said "3 mins" and was underlined twice.

Upon reading the note the cashier exclaimed "wow, you won all this in only three minutes?" I honestly didn't know how to react to that. Firstly, not all the chips were won - two of them were simply purchased, and I thought she would have known that. Additionally I wasn't surprised that they knew I only played three minutes, but I was surprised that they had gotten to the cage as fast as I did and that they were obviously tracking me very actively. I didn't think my play would have stood out like that at midnight at a Strip casino.

The cashier asked me again if I wanted a player's club card. I said she could look me up to see if I had one, but that if I didn't already have one I did not want to sign up. I don't like being tracked, I don't care about comps and I don't need the emails. Additionally, The Mirage is going to close very soon anyway so I won't be back before then. And finally, there have been too many data breaches and I don't want another letter like MGM just sent out offering me a free credit monitoring tool because they gave hackers my personal information. For all these reasons I remained explicit that I did not want a loyalty account created.

The cashier struggled for a bit and kept mumbling while she tried to change three chips for paper bills. I couldn't figure out what was happening when suddenly I see a player's club card spit out of the stamping machine with my name on it. I asked why she just set me up in their rewards program despite my saying "no" countless times, and she said she couldn't get my payout processed without one.

I immediately interjected "NO... NO... NO..." and stressed that I did not authorize her to set me up in their opt-in marketing platform and I demanded that the account be deleted. I further stated that they cannot refuse to cash me out because I refuse their loyalty program. The cashier then went on to say that it is required or they cannot pay me. She then handed me a pre-printed card explaining the rules around Title 31 and the Bank Secrecy Act.

I fired back that there is absolutely no way she could tie those requirements to my need to join an opt-in marketing program, and if she's telling me that she's refusing to cash my chips because I won't be a member of Unity, Hard Rock's rewards system, that we're going to have to escalate this to a manager. The cashier pointed at the other cashier next to her who had been helping all this time and said that she was her manager. Cashier #2 just repeated what cashier #1 said, that they couldn't pay me without the members program card being issued.

I could feel the steam rising.

Demanding to speak to another level higher, a third employee joined the conversation and after fiddling with the terminal a bit she came to the same conclusion as the first two staff members - I had to join the rewards program or I wasn't getting paid.

At this point I was trying to think which lawyer I was going to call to take this case. Just then, BOSS LADY came back out from the hole in the wall and asked what the commotion was all about. I explained that I didn't want to be in the rewards program due to the possibility of a data breach and that I simply don't want to be tracked or solicited through the program. I also explained that I already tendered my legal ID to comply with Title 31 and that they had no right to deny the cashout on the grounds I wouldn't join a rewards program. Finally I explained how it is against regulation to enter my personal data into an opt-in program without my consent.

Strangely, BOSS LADY agreed and told the employees standing beside her that I was absolutely correct! I was kinda like "what the heck..." and just stood there watching in a combination of relief and disbelief as they counted and handed me thirty $100 bills.

The whole thing left me wondering what just happened, but I walked away half happy, but also half wondering what future issue I'm going to deal with now? I imagined some report floating off to the IRS that will trigger an automated review of my tax filing. I can just picture it now, opening a letter in two years that says the IRS is under the impression I had a $3000 cash windfall I failed to report on my taxes. If the cashier had no idea that only $1000 of it was profit, how can the report say anything differently? How do they report that I've lost more than that elsewhere and that I'm at a negative cash flow overall, which should not have any tax implications? They can't!

Would I Really Quit Gambling Over This?


So now I'm wondering if people have to join the tracking programs simply to show that their losses offset their wins. And do you have to sign up for each program, walking up and down the Strip with a brick of player's cards? And then will I need to spend hours building spreadsheets at year end to provide an audit trail of every $20 bill I dropped at a table game or in a slot machine? This all sounds more like torture than fun. It sounds like the days of taking on the house in the Old West are over, and we're really all just submitting to the impossible-to-read, impossible-to-follow terms and conditions of mega-conglomerates. It sounds like we're being allowed on their property just long enough to dump our non-disposable income into their coffers, at which point we can go pound sand until we're ready to do it again. It sounds like we're the suckers.

The whole thing kinda left me in a daze. I needed to take a moment so I walked over to the waterfall and just stared and listened to the white noise of rushing water for a bit.

Needed to do a little self-reflection at the waterfall
Needed to do a little self-reflection at the waterfall

I really felt like the casino employees were trained in protocol that is designed to seek out and maximize profit any way they can by leveraging power over their guests even at the peak of their positive experiences. I felt like even the mighty MGM or Hard Rock management companies approach a legitimate win as a mere suggestion, as if they need to decide whether you're going to be paid or if they are going to sting you on a technicality. And I have to wonder whether their back office has the discipline, ability and desire to report fairly or if gambling is just the accumulation of potential future issues with the IRS. What are the chances that the pit, the surveillance, the cashiers and the financial reporting systems are all choreographed perfectly that they are sending an accurate picture of someone's real winnings over time? If my experience trying to cash out three chips on a slow Monday night was any indication, I suspect the odds of being represented fairly in aggregate to the US Department of the Treasury are probably very slim.

Anyway, I then went back up to the room. And on the way, I remembered that I had forgotten to take the "after" picture so I could compare my dispositions. I can only characterize my look at that moment as "happy, dazed and/or confused".

How you feel after a win, while not knowing if you're losing
How you feel after a win, while not knowing if you're losing