Are Casinos a ‘Sure Thing' for Chicago?

Before blogging was invented, your Ward Room blogger used to spend half his life at the racetrack. I wrote an entire book, called Horseplayers, about guys who tried to make their livings by playing the ponies. I even became a skilled gambler myself, cranking out a 7 percent profit at the betting windows. Over two months, that amounted to $150.

In all my time at the track, though, I only met one man who actually made money, a character we called The Professor. He was a former business instructor who quit his teaching job and applied his research skills to a new career as a professional gambler.

One afternoon at Arlington Park, The Professor picked the 1-2-3 finishers of two consecutive races, and won $81,000. He took the check home and told his wife, “Pay off the mortgage.” Years later, at Hawthorne Racecourse, The Professor picked the winners of six straight races, winning $36,000. The next day, I saw him surfing the Internet for Lincoln Town Cars.

More common is the story of The Plumber. The Plumber got his nickname because, like a lot of gamblers, he’ll bet $200 on a horse, but he won’t spend $20 on a pair of pants. He’s a 50-ish suburban Jewish man, but his jeans sag like the man who came to fix the sink, his kinky russet hair looks as though it was styled by Beethoven’s barber, and he once spent an entire race meet wearing glasses with one stem. When he’s low on betting money, the Plumber drives a cab.

The Plumber has been refining his system for over 30 years now, and believes he’s close to discovering the Rosetta Stone of the racetrack. “I’m dividing all my horses into blue horses and red horses,” he told me the last time I ran into him at Arlington. “Blue horses are the best horses, so I’m further dividing them into blue horses with rectangles and blue horses with circles.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel thinks he’s found a way to enrich himself with gambling, too.

He’s already spent the money from a Chicago casino that hasn’t even been built, hasn’t even been approved by Gov. Pat Quinn. The mayor plans to use his casino windfall to fix up 25 schools and rehab the "L."

For every winner at the racetrack or the casino, there are 50 losers. And for every 50 losers, there are 50 guys who thought they had a sure thing. Gambling is no way to solve personal financial problems, and it’s no way to solve civic financial problems, either. It’s entertainment.

If Emanuel wants a casino so Chicagoans can enjoy poker, blackjack, craps and slot machines, that’s fine. But if Emanuel wants a casino so the city can squeeze more money from Chicagoans to pay for civic improvements, everyone’s going to lose.

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