Back in 2007 the world-famous video journalist Louis Theroux filmed a documentary for the BBC titled ‘Louis Theroux: Gambling in Las Vegas’. He attempted, in 60 minutes, to examine Vegas’ casino culture, exposing the myths and truths behind gambling in America’s fastest growing city. He met several people along the way, from the high rollers such as Martha, a retired doctor who had gambled away over $4m in seven years, to the average Joe who only gambled a few thousand dollars per trip, simply as a way of enjoying their weekend.
Eight years have passed since the documentary first aired, and while there are some similarities to modern day casino culture, there are many differences too. First of all, the relationships between the largest casinos and their biggest players are still very much a thing. By culturing a feeling of almost family-like trust and loyalty, the casinos keep their biggest rollers coming back for more. In the documentary we hear of Martha’s late husband and his memorial service – the Vegas Hilton threw this extravagant memorial service for the man because of how much she meant to them, and it didn’t cost her a cent. The entire service, the most beautiful thing that Martha professed to have seen, was entirely free of charge. This was explained by a casino host and friend of Martha’s as paid for with a percentage of her losses. Louis, of course, pointed out that while it didn’t cost her a penny at the time, by keeping her loyalty it effectively cost her more over the course of her return visits.
Considering Martha had lost $4m at the casino over her time there, Louis was keen to ask several casino hosts how responsible they feel for telling their clients (whom were often referred to as their friends or in once case the godfather of their kid,) that enough is enough. By and large, their responses were incredibly shrewd, stating that their clients’ finances are none of their business. However, if they start wagering significantly larger amounts than they know they would normally, they would turn around and try to take them to dinner, just to get them to take a break. In the UK gambling establishments are a lot more responsible than this – there are signs and constant campaigns like Gamble Aware telling customers “when the fun stops, stop”. The staff at high-street bookkeepers like Ladbrokes are actually encouraged to refuse bets from people who either appear to be suffering from gambling addiction or are otherwise incapable of making a sound decision. This would not have happened in Vegas in 2007.
Gambling establishments have also become increasingly transparent over the years, too. In the documentary a gentleman named Allan, one of the Vegas Hilton’s high rollers, was seen straddling three slot machines with two of them being $90 a spin, and the other being several hundred dollars a go. You saw him rhythmically feeding hundred dollar bills into what he described as “Hilton’s vacuum cleaner”, nonplussed at Louis’ suggestion that this was simply as engaging as working in a factory, hitting a button. When asked whether or not there was any skill to the slot machine, Allan replied no – it’s all “luck and timing.” Ladbrokes recently published an infographic dispelling slot machine myths like this – in reality, it’s all luck and zero timing.
One of the most interesting things in Louis’ documentary was the notion that when you are up you should just walk away. When this topic was broached to Allan, he seemed bemused, asking why he would fly 6 hours to play cards for half an hour. This much less of a problem now considering that you can load up an online casino on your phone, playing a round of Blackjack as you wait for your bus or train during your morning commute. Technology has come a very long way over the last eight years, and given the choice between Vegas and his phone, Allan would probably take Vegas – they comped him a 15,000 square foot, $25,000 a night penthouse suite for the weekend. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s any easier for gamblers to put down their phone. Anyone who remembers Flappy Bird will agree that it’s just as hard to walk away from a mobile game you’re absorbed in as it is a casino floor when you’re on a streak, be it winning or losing. That’s one thing that will never change about casino culture – there will always be people who struggle to know when to walk away.