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Isn't Vegas Already Virtual
Jan 13, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

It rained in Reno. No, it poured. For weeks. The streets were flooded. The casinos, for the first time in thirty-odd years, actually closed their doors. So I took a jaunt through the web to find some action with decent odds...

The page has a deep green background. Across the top, a Java ticker tape applet streams the latest winnings on the virtual slot machine. The dealer has a four of hearts showing; I'm holding a king of diamonds and a five of spades. I click on the "HIT ME" button, and wait anxiously for the page to reload. Ten of hearts. Busted.

"You lose $50. You now have $450 remaining. Play again?"

It was three in the afternoon. Instead of hearing the ruffle of shuffling cards and the din of the slot machines, I was listening to the hum of my PC and the clicks of my mouse. Instead of standing at a table with a comp'd vodka at my elbow, I was sitting at my desk with a stale cup of coffee and a sweating Fresca. And instead of feeling the sting of losing real chips, I was playing with fake money, on an "entertainment" portion of casino.org.

This obviously wasn't the "real thing." But if I had wanted to, it could have been for real money. I could have plunked down $100, or $200 or $2,000 on my Visa card (it's everywhere I want to be, after all), and gambled away my student loan money in $50 increments.

Who's behind casino.org? I have no idea. But in addition to Visa, I could have signed up to receive my winnings (or part with my wager) through Mastercard, American Express, Discover Card, Wire Transfer, Money Order, American Express Moneygram, NetCash, DigiCash, CyberCash, First Virtual or CheckFree. They were even willing to help me set up an offshore bank account.

At InterCasino, a site based in Antigua, you can download a proprietary client/server application for real-time gambling on casino games and sporting events. They accept payment (or pay out) via the usual credit cards, plus wire transfers, Western Union Quick Collect or even the old fashioned money order.

The too-often cited New Yorker cartoon read "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." Well, these folks were obviously dogs. Besides the obvious question -- who are these folks? -- alarms kept going off in my head. Has anyone audited their CGI script that runs the blackjack game to see if it's honest? Who's making sure that my winnings actually do get credited to that offshore bank account they so conveniently arranged for me? At least in Las Vegas I know that the Nevada gaming commission has checked (and rechecked) the innards of the slot machine I'm feeding.

In 1995, the politicians discovered that little Johnny could find porn on the Internet, and not so long after we had the Communications Decency Act. In 1996, the politicians discovered that little Johnny's dad could lose his shirt on the Internet, and we're just starting to see the legislative wheels start to turn. Last summer, the National Association of Attorneys General asked the Clinton administration to ban all gambling on the Internet. The Clinton administration rightly declined, knowing full well that it would be a fool's errand to enforce such a law.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota State Attorney General, Hubert Humphrey, is bringing suit against Las Vegas based Granite Gate Resorts. Their crime? Offering sports betting to Minnesotans over the Internet. In a New York Times opinion piece, Mr. Humphrey argued that "unchecked, [Internet gambling] has the potential to turn every family room in America with a personal computer into an unregulated casino." And I thought that the Internet would turn every personal computer into an unregulated printing press...

Of course, it could end up that governments just decide to let it flourish, and take a piece of the action. The government of Lichtenstein already runs InterLotto, which is a simple lotto game (pick six numbers from a field of 40) run over the Internet. They offer payouts of 65%, compared to about 35% to 55% here in the U.S., but it costs $8.00 to play, and the payouts only reach about $60,000.

Meanwhile, here in the states, the Albany-based Offtrack Betting Corporation has asked for New York state to sanction its new web-based system for placing bets on horse races. The company's site already has a "virtual tote board," with jockeys, odds and other race information. It's the logical next step, and one that would only extend OTB's extensive telephone betting system.

Alexis de Tocqueville thought that gambling was an inherent part of the American character. If only he could see what that character has wrought. Of course, the rough and tumble roots of Las Vegas, appropriately mythologized by Martin Scorsese in "Casino," are long gone. The mobsters have been replaced by "family entertainment" conglomerates and the long arm of the Nevada gaming commission. Do you think they're nervous about the Internet eating into their $40 billion plus industry?

I doubt it.

I would bet that the MBAs that now run the real Vegas are in love with the virtual Vegas. Internet gambling isn't a threat -- it only whets the appetite for the real thing. For most, gambling isn't really about the transaction. Instead, it's about the experience: the lavish buffets, the watered down drinks, the feel of plush green velvet and heavy plastic chips.

What the Internet gambling operators don't understand is that there's probably no need for a Virtual Vegas. Because Vegas already is virtual. Where else in the world can you see two pirate ships battle it out every hour on the hour? Where else can you see Elvis perform nightly? Where else can you stay in a hotel built to resemble the skyline of Manhattan?

The kingpins of Las Vegas have already figured out the one thing that the kingpins of the Internet haven't: how to turn a virtual environment into real money.

 

 

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