Christmas and the Plight of Problem Gamblers

And the Christmas carols sounds like blues,
But the choir is not to blame.

-- Jim Croce

My late father was a professional gambler. Toward the end of his life, he was active in helping Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati.

One day, as dad was dishing out food to homeless people, he was approached by the Sister who ran the program.

"Joe," she said, "What do you do for a living?"

"I'm a gambler," replied my father.

"Joe," she said, "This is the first time we ever had a gambler on this side of the table."

The key to my father's success was that he was always on the house side of the table. He started in bookmaking, in the glory days of Covington and Newport. He later moved into organizing junkets for Las Vegas casinos, after wide-open gambling faded from the Northern Kentucky scene.

He understood that if the house has the odds in its favor long enough, the house will eventually and always win out. As he often noted, "You never see them tearing down a casino because people beat them out of money."

First with lotteries, then casinos and now with the push for slot machines at racetracks, governments realized that an easy way to gain revenues is by allowing and sponsoring gambling.

The games that have been legalized, especially the lottery, market to those on the "wrong side of the economic table."

Some European countries limit access to the casinos to those who prove they have sufficient assets. Various forms of stock and option trading, which can be considered a more elite form of gambling, require that those who invest in those instruments have the net worth to survive a loss.

In my father's era, bookmakers cut off bettors on losing streaks. Las Vegas casinos used to carefully monitor customers and cut off their credit when they lost too much.

There have been few, if any, moves by states to monitor the losing of their lottery customers.

Legalized casinos, which have several games of skill and reasonable probability, gear most of their operations to the highly profitable slot machines and video games.

Lotteries have evolved from a form of gambling called "numbers," formerly a very popular game, often run by the mob in poor, urban neighborhoods. If you go into a grocery or liquor store in any poor neighborhood today, you will see people who can't afford to lose even a few dollars, standing around playing scratch off lottery games until all of their money is gone.

I rarely, if ever, gamble. I can't stand to part with money on such a bad bet.

My few trips to casinos have been bad experiences for the house. I bet little and I am a terror at the low price buffet. I play high probability games and won't go near a slot machine. I have a certain profit target in mind and leave the second that I hit it. In short, I am a person casinos do not want to attract.

Making gambling illegal was an attempt to protect people from themselves. There was also a moral stigma about gambling. Now, few really care. Other moral issues are more pressing and the states are hungry for revenue.

People didn't stop gambling when it became illegal. It was just pushed underground where entrepreneurs like my dad were able to flourish. Gambling for rich people, such as options trading and sophisticated stock market "plays," have always been allowed.

When I passed the stockbroker's test many years ago, I called my father and asked, "Why is futures trading legal but betting on the Bengals illegal?" There is no logical answer.

I wish the people on Wall Street had been betting on pro football instead of trading in mortgage-backed securities. We all would have been better off.

States, like my home state of Kentucky, are under a lot of pressure to legalize casinos and slot machines. Like the lottery, they eventually will.

When legislators expand legal gambling, someone must think about and speak out for the person on "the wrong side of the table."

When I was growing up, my father would go around to the sleeping room hotels and give out bottles of low cost champagne at Christmas. Just like the patrons at the soup kitchen, many of those men were gamblers and often that bottle was the only gift they got.

Legalized state gambling is not responsible for putting those people into their station in life, but, just the same, states need to be careful that they are not keeping them there.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is one of the world's leading authorities in helping people deal with "Big Money" issues.

McNay is an award winning, syndicated financial columnist.

You can read more about Don at

McNay founded McNay Settlement Group, a structured settlement and financial consulting firm, in 1983 and Kentucky Guardianship Administrators LLC in 2000. You can read more about both at

McNay has Master's Degrees from Vanderbilt and the American College and is in the Eastern Kentucky University Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

McNay has written two books. Most recent is Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers and What to Do When You Win The Lottery

McNay is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Round Table and has four professional designations in the financial services field.