July 31, 2011
"More slot machines than ATM's in USA. Yet online poker illegal! ..."
Variations on the Tweet above made the rounds of a number of poker players this evening. Although I share the general sentiment—gambling is widely legal, so poker should be as well—this type of argument is specious and ultimately proves nothing about the state of poker specifically or gambling in general.
The Tweet in question referenced a CBS News story about the spread of legalized gambling across the United States. The story cited one statistic relevant to the online poker legalization debate—38 states now have legal casino gambling. Given the prevalence of casino gambling, a strong argument could be made that online poker is a natural next step in the gambling market for those states. After all, those states already make money off of regulated casino gambling, online poker is being played anyway, why not cash in?
The CBS story, however, really goes off the track by throwing in the useless statistic comparing the number of slot machines (850,000) to the number of ATMs (425,000) in the United States. This type of statistical comparison is commonplace in news reporting, and is basically a variant on the time-honored method of demonstrating really big numbers in a superficial manner: "If you laid [objects, dollars, etc.] end-to-end they would stretch [from the earth to the moon and back, around the equator, etc.] X times." Considering most people don't have a clue how far away the moon is, or how many miles it is around the equator, or any other really big metric of choice, these types of comparisons are almost never useful in advancing the point of the story.
Looking at the slot machine / ATM comparison, there are two real problems with the comparison. First, most Americans don't have a clue how many ATMs there are in the United States, the same flaw inherent in most of these comparisons. Second, and more importantly, the CBS story doesn't provide any context for the statistic. What connection is there between the number of slots and ATMs? A statistic like "There are more health insurance processors than doctors" might generate useful debate about the relative impact of insurance paperwork on the delivery of health care in the United States. (Note: that statistic was created solely as an example and might or might not be true.) But where is the logical connection between ATMs and slot machines? The two might be connected within a casino (e.g., casino management might want one ATM for every 200 slot machines—again, an entirely fabricated statistic). But where is the significance in comparing slot machines to the number of ATMs in general? What possible useful conclusion can be drawn from that comparison?
To think about the absurdity of the comparison, let's compare slot machines to other categories. Why not state that there are more slot machines than:
- MRSA infections (94,360)
- Farmers (751,000)
- NCAA student-athletes (420,000)
- Annual adoptions (127,400)
- African-Americans in prison (308,000)
- Orphans (123,000)
- Fast food restaurants (160,000)
- Christian churches (322,000)
On the flip side, here are some things more common than slot machines:
- Hurricane Katrina evacuees (1.5 million)
- Gym memberships (45.3 million)
- Guns (more than 238 million)
- Annual DUI arrests (1.4 million)
- Annual bankruptcy filings (1.4 million)
- Bloggers (22.6 million)
- Atheists (1.6 million)
- Animals killed in tests (10 million)
These comparisons would be equally as true, and equally as pointless as the comparison drawn by CBS. But what logical insight would any of these comparisons support? What analytical connection exists between slots and ATMs?
Nonetheless, poker advocates take the slots / ATMs analytical non sequitur and double down by suggesting there is a logical connection between the number of slot machines in casinos and the legality of online poker. What if there were only 600,000 or 300,000 or 100,000 slot machines in casinos? Would those numbers change the argument as to whether online poker should be legalized? Does the legality of any form of casino gambling really bear any direct correlation to the debate over the legalization of online gambling in general or online poker specifically?
There are plenty of good arguments for legalizing online poker. Relying on the ratio of casino slot machines to ATMs is not one of them.