New Book Examines Growth of Casino Gambling

Up until 1978, casino gambling in the U.S. required traveling to relatively remote communities in Nevada. Since then, dozens of states have allowed the construction and operation of hundreds of similarly designed casinos, which collectively employ more workers than the nation's automobile industry.

The Nevada casino model now generates billions in revenues for cash-strapped governments in this country and has gone global as well.

In his new book, "The Labor of Luck: Casino Capitalism in the United States and South Africa" (University of California Press), University of Arizona sociologist Jeffrey Sallaz examines the culture, business and politics of casino gambling in the U.S. and South Africa.

Sallaz, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, spent several years in casinos in both countries, working alongside and interviewing dealers, as well as managers, owners and politicians.

The Nevada model, he said, is the notion that financial markets must facilitate the free flow of capital to encourage investment and entrepreneurship. Consumers also are allowed to pursue whatever goods and services they want, and labor markets are allowed to hire and fire workers as necessary to meet the ever-changing demands of the global marketplace.

The result is that over the last three decades legalized gambling is now in 680 casinos spread across 35 states. Since 1960, that industry's revenues have grown to more than $35 billion. On the other side of the table, gambling losses as a part of recreational expenses by consumers jumped about 1,200 percent in the same period.

Put in perspective, it is more money than Americans spend on movies, music and video games combined. Small wonder, then, that entrepreneurs and governments would want a piece of the action.

The rise in casino gambling in these years also corresponds to Americans increasingly moving their financial resources into the stock market. Sallaz calls these concurrent trends "casino capitalism," fueled by people's notions of themselves more as investors and less as middle-class savers. And while the current economic downturn has soured appetites for financial risk-taking, the casino industry has done little if any belt-tightening.

In his book, Sallaz also compares American casino operations to those in South Africa, where illegal casinos once operated in ethnic homelands at the same time the Puritanical apartheid government publicly denounced "America's Sin City." The irony, said Sallaz, is that the South African casinos were "down to the smallest details – mirror images of their Nevada counterparts." After the fall of apartheid, however, South African casinos headed in an entirely separate direction.

Sallaz worked for casinos in both countries, and offers illuminating insights on the relationships and interactions among dealers, managers and gamblers. What he found was that even with identical facilities, games on the casino floors in the U.S. and South Africa were run differently.

"Gamblers in Nevada," he said, "believe game outcomes result from an individual's adherence to the ‘book' of basic strategy; in Gauteng ( a province in South Africa), they believe that wins and losses derive from collective decisions made by ‘the table'."

Similarly, Nevada dealers enjoy a level of autonomy on the floor, and although they are closely watched, are part of a team effort that includes the pit bosses. Managers in South Africa see dealers as basically untrustworthy.

The growth of casino gambling and freewheeling capitalism was not coincidental, Sallaz argued. The fall of communism and the rise of self-regulated economic systems led to the notion that free markets would lead to the greatest good for all. Instead of increased efficiency and equality, what resulted was malfeasance, wild speculation and unbridled consumption, he said.

He speculated that repercussions from "casino capitalism" may also have played a role as voters in the U.S. elected Barack Obama as president in part on his campaign promise to increase market oversight. And South African President Thabo Mbeki, an advocate of neoliberal policy and new gambling laws, resigned under pressure from his party, the African National Congress, as a new political party emerged to campaign against Mbeki's policies.

Sallaz said it's impossible to know if the Nevada model will have any influence in the future, adding "materialistic realities are never absolutely determinative. They are amendable to symbolic framings and counterframings by challengers in political field games who, much like gamblers a the blackjack table, experience each round of action anew, confident in their belief that, after all, the house can't prevail every time."
By Jeff Harrison, University Communications January 7, 2010