I love the new Taylor Swift album, Midnights, just as I’ve loved virtually all of Taylor Swift’s albums (except for Reputation). Produced by Jack Antonoff, Midnights is the perfect synthesis of the Bleachers frontman’s longstanding creative partnership with Swift. Yet I agree with podcaster Nathan Hubbard of The Ringer, who said, “This is the last time I want to hear a Taylor-and-Jack album for a bit, because it is getting somewhat redundant.”
This is how I feel about Jay Caspian Kang when he writes about gambling. Let it first be said that Kang wrote what has to be one of the most vivid, soul-baring, first-person essays on problem gambling ever written back in 2010. He’s gone on to enjoy a fabulous journalistic career that’s now landed him at The New Yorker, where he just published a column titled “What Would a Nation of Sports Gamblers Look Like?”
In between these two dispatches, shortly after the first legal sports wager was placed in New York, Kang wrote an opinion piece, “The Legal Gambling Free-for-All,” for The New York Times. In it, he took something of a sky-is-falling tack, while hedging just a bit.
“I am somewhat skeptical that today’s broad legalization will lead to a long-term epidemic of problem gambling,” Kang wrote. “These apps mostly seem to be targeting young, male sports fans who, in past eras, would have just found their way to an offshore site or a bookie. They may end up losing more money on beefed-up, absurd parlays, but they were probably going to end up broke anyway because most gamblers lose over the long term.”
Lose over the long term? Probably. End up broke? Rarely. But Kang’s lived experience, like that of any problem gambler brave enough to share their story, entitles him to trumpet the worst possible version of what might transpire.
The thing is, Kang took his readers to this awful corner of gambling addiction back in his 2010 essay, to a degree that’s nearly impossible to top. And while Kang is certainly free to return to a subject he’s all-too-familiar with, the New Yorker column seems to indicate what he currently has to offer has passed its sell-by date.
The lead, in which Kang distills the core of Circa Sportsbook’s clientele into “young, sweaty men in poorly fitted football jerseys, soft shorts that could have been bought off Instagram, and baseball caps that they wore backward,” is a a cliche of a cliche. Sure, there are guys like that in every brick-and-mortar sportsbook, each of which could probably do a better job of creating a more welcoming environment for women. But Kang seems to spite the sweaty, soft-shorted sportsbook guys, despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that he was once in their presence more than he might care to remember. (Side notes: Who doesn’t sweat in Vegas? Reptiles? And aren’t all shorts pretty soft?)
The “dudes in Instagram shorts” show up again at the end, where Kang concedes, “Instead of trying to cloak the issue in more palatable talking points such as tax revenue and homelessness funding, politicians, lobbyists, and the corporations who want FanDuel and DraftKings in their state might do better to just ask the question in a more up-front way. Because Americans, on the whole, do seem to want to become a nation of sports bettors — this year, Maine, Kansas, Minnesota, and Massachusetts passed sports-betting legislation. The will of the dudes in Instagram shorts with a few expendable dollars to put on a game will be served.”
‘A small chance of winning a great deal’
Sandwiched between the stale shorts, then, is a point well taken: that instead of touting California’s mobile sports betting initiative — which seems likely to fail — as a potential spigot of money to combat homelessness, the ballot measure’s backers should have just called it what it was. But however things turn out on Nov. 8, it’s hard to blame their strategic impulse, seeing as the promise of education funding successfully persuaded California voters to legalize statewide lottery games back in the day.
Nationwide lottery expansion happens to be the subject of another New Yorker article, “What We’ve Lost Playing The Lottery,” that appears in the magazine’s Oct. 24 issue. From an odds standpoint, playing a high-jackpot lottery game like Lotto or Mega Millions is unforgivably reckless. Most Americans would be better off waiting for a cash-filled Brink’s truck to mysteriously show up in their driveway, unmanned and unlocked.
So how have Americans responded to this snowball’s chance in hell? As Jonathan D. Cohen writes in his new book, For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America, “Americans spend more on lottery tickets every year than on cigarettes, coffee, or smartphones, and they spend more on lottery tickets annually than on video streaming services, concert tickets, books, and movie tickets combined.”
Or, as Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker article notes, “Lotteries formed a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who regarded them as not much riskier than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped what would turn out to be their essence: that everyone ‘would prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a great chance of winning little.’”
Schulz goes on to note just how little of the lottery windfall actually goes to funding the programs used to promote its virtue, before trotting out this sobering statistic: “According to the consumer financial company Bankrate, players making more than fifty thousand dollars per year spend, on average, one per cent of their annual income on lottery tickets; those making less than thirty thousand dollars spend thirteen per cent. That means someone making twenty-seven thousand dollars loses some thirty-five hundred dollars to the lottery every year. To put that number in context, nearly sixty per cent of Americans have less than a thousand dollars in savings.”
Cohen, whose book is the ostensible subject of Schulz’s article, adds, “Lottery sales increase as incomes fall, unemployment grows, and poverty rates rise,” while Schulz notes that “lottery products are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.”
Say what you want about sports betting, but twisting in the whims of sweaty dudes with soft shorts seems a lot less noxious than that.