Millions of people gamble every year. And the industry is frequently covered by new media, documentaries, and Hollywood’s finest moviemakers.
Although the film industry perpetuates many myths about gambling, audiences realize the stories and games are contrived or dramatized to be entertaining. Few people really bet on seven in craps and poker games never end with a royal flush, full house, and four of a kind, chasing a multimillion-dollar pot.
And even though we see through the hype and gimmicks through the eyes of veteran audiences, people still believe some wrong but appealing ideas associated with gaming. Here are seven things about gambling nearly everyone gets wrong.
1 – Gambling Has Never Been Completely Illegal in the United States
I’ve read many gambling history articles that talk about the legalization of gambling in the late 20th century. For some reason, writers imply that gambling was illegal across the whole country at one time.
As is so typical of popular ideas, the truth is a little more complicated than the assumption.
Considering that parimutuel betting was always legal in some states in any given year, Americans have always had at least one form of legal gambling they could indulge in.
2 – Many Churches Approve of One Type of Gambling
If there’s one thing my religious Aunt Tina likes to rave on about, it’s the sinfulness of gambling. To give her credit, she assumes anyone who gambles must also be involved in an assortment of sins and self-destructive practices.
There’s a family rumor that every Saturday, her husband would put on a dealer’s green eyeshades, light up a cigar in some stories, get a bottle of whiskey out, and call his friends over for a game of poker. Poor Tom then had to confess his sins in church the next day.
You may not be familiar with the game of beano, but it arrived in the United States in 1929. The game spread across the country like wildfire, through carnivals and other possibly “sinful” exhibitions.
Thanks to the efforts of toy salesman Edwin S. Lowe and Columbia University math professor Carl Leffler, the game became known as bingo. Soon after, a Catholic priest in Pennsylvania began using bingo to raise money for his church.
As states were outlawing many types of gambling across the country in the 1930s, many of them were careful to ignore bingo. The churches kept gambling going even when everything else was forbidden.
3 – The House Edge Is Worse Than You Think
I’ve said before that there is a “hidden” house edge in every gambling game. Blackjack experts often write about how the house edge is only about 0.5% if you use basic strategy.
And yet, most casinos rake in your money from blackjack tables. Blackjack is profitable for casinos for two major reasons.
First, most real money blackjack players are not experts. They make mistakes. According to a professional dealer named Kenneth Kurtz in an answer he wrote on Quora, “The biggest mistake a novice in [blackjack] makes is not playing the dealers hand instead of just their own.” What he meant was that inexperienced players only believe basic strategy is about what is in their hand.
Second, even experienced players can make mistakes. Casinos ply us with alcohol, making it harder to track time, and they use a generally ambient environment to lull us into complacency. When you start to relax and loosen your situational awareness, you become more careless.
States like New Jersey and Nevada require commercial casinos to file monthly income reports. When you look at the ratio of retained wagers to wagers made on these reports, most of the time, the difference goes far beyond expectations based on standard house edge calculations.
Casinos rake in billions every year because people don’t pay close attention to how much money they lose. This is why I always say we’re paying for entertainment. Too many of us refuse to leave a casino when we have money in our hands.
4 – Government Lotteries Are Not as Profitable as You Think
Somewhere in recent history, the general public in America embraced the idea that state-run lotteries paid about 80% of their sales to education budget. I remember hearing people say this many times throughout the years.
I don’t know where the 80% figure came from but it’s far from the truth.
In 2017, CNN ran a story that broke down how much money the states really keep from their lottery games in general terms. I’ve read other articles that provide different breakdowns of the percentages, so it’s good to remember that the numbers in each analysis come from slightly different factors.
The CNN article says about 63% of ticket sales are paid back to customers as prizes. This is an overall average for every game CNN analyzed. There may be some variations between states and games.
Although people assume the states’ cut is transferred to their education budgets, billions of dollars come out of these retained earnings to cover administrative and marketing costs. And small allocations are often given to gambling addiction programs, as well as other special allocations mandated by state legislatures.
The businesses that sell lottery tickets also receive commission payments. So, while lottery games may be the only kind of tax people love to pay, they don’t generate quite as much revenue for state governments as people assume.
5 – Venice Was Not the Birthplace of Modern Casinos
There are two kinds of gambling historians, those who say the first casino opened in Venice and those who study history.
The Roman Empire had secret gambling houses that catered to soldiers even when gambling was illegal.
Venice’s place in the lore of gambling history is assured thanks to Wikipedia and the internet. Tour guides will be boasting about Casino di Venezia for centuries to come, but gambling never went out of style after the fall of the Roman Empire. There were always special places where people would meet to eat, drink, and merrily toss their fortunes away on dice games.
Fans of Venetian lore can find solace in the fact that casino is a fine Italian word. It literally means “the little house,” although to 21st century Italians it may refer to something else—it’s a slang term for brothels.
6 – The Sandwich Was NOT Invented by the Earl
Almost everyone has heard the story about how John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, invented the culinary practice of serving his meats on bread.
That’s not quite how it happened. Historians agree that Montagu was the reason why the famous food style came to be so named but the English had been slapping meat and cheese between slices of bread for centuries. Until the late 1700s, they called this delicacy by such names as “bread and cheese” or “bread and meat.”
The story of Montagu asking his cook to devise a way for him to eat while gaming is considered a rumor at best. It has been attributed to a Frenchman who toured England and whose opinion of English cuisine was far from flattering.
Some historians mention the fact that the Earl had also traveled through the Middle East, where people often served meats inside breads called “pitas.” It could be, they surmise, these easily handled foods that inspired the Earl to adapt an old English custom to his gaming needs.
7 – Modern Casinos Did Not Hire the First World-Famous Chefs
To read a typical gambling history guide, you’d think everything interesting about casinos today was invented or improvised from about 1980 onward. American casinos grew out of dark times and needed considerable improvement.
The shift to family-friendly resorts started in the 1980s and led to fine hotel rooms, grand restaurants, and menus prepared by some of the most successful chefs in the world. But nearly all of these innovations have been attempted before.
The one true American innovation in casino design is the addition of luxury hotels and theme attractions. But everything else has been done before, chiefly in Europe.
Named for its proprietor, William Crockford, the club immediately outclassed all its rivals in design, elegance, service, and clientele. Crockford started out as a fishmonger, but he was good at gambling. Across 30 years of consorting with thieves, con artists, and gamblers who had no idea they were being cheated, Crockford accumulated a fortune, vast knowledge of the gambling world, and a long list of aristocrats whom he came to know very well.
Crockford realized that gaming halls could easily make a profit by running honest games, something unheard of in his generation. He also realized that he could attract the wealthiest men in England to his gaming hall if he offered them the same safe, luxurious environments they enjoyed in their own homes.
Whereas English gaming halls served typical English cuisine (usually summed up as “everything boiled on cabbage”), Crockford hired famed French chef Eustache Ude to serve the finest French dishes to England’s elite as they discussed politics, business, and sports. The gambling was almost an afterthought.
Crockford was so successful that he extracted tens of millions of pounds of wealth from England’s aristocracy, bankrupting a number of families. And he did it by running honest games.
Gambling lore is filled with many interesting tales of treachery and ingenuity. Even if half of them are true, they still hide a few myths. And there’s something alluring about gambling’s seedier side.
You may not be able to win any bar bets about the origin of sandwiches, but now you know a few secrets about gambling that most other people are still not privy to.