Making a Rotten Bet

Nova Scotia’s desire to get into the online poker business is misguided and cruel.

When Don Connolly sat down last Wednesday to play on-air poker with NS Finance Minister Graham Steele, the veteran CBC Information Morning host was holding a royal flush. That winning hand had been dealt to him two days earlier by gambling expert John McMullan. The Saint Mary's prof told Connolly that the real reason provincial governments want to get into online gambling is that they're hoping to grab money flowing to big, private sites such as Full Tilt Poker and Poker Stars. That was Connolly's 10 of spades. McMullan's point that the NS government's own figures show that only 1.6 percent of the population actually gambles online was Connolly's jack. His queen consisted of McMullan's observation that a government online site would stand little chance of enticing existing gamblers from glitzy private sites that offer big prizes and bonuses. So, McMullan said, handing Connolly his king, the government would have to lure people into online gambling who hadn't tried it before. McMullan added that would likely lead to more gambling addictions with their high social costs. And that was Connolly's ace.

I couldn't help admiring Graham Steele. After all, he knew that, thanks to John McMullan's expertise, Connolly held an unbeatable hand. Yet, Steele's office still called CBC requesting that the minister be given a chance to respond. Steele clearly thought he could bullshit enough to make up for his own miserable cards. "Internet gambling is right here, right now. There are thousands of Nova Scotians who do it," Steele told Connolly. That was his pair of deuces.

His four of hearts consisted of his claim that "we have to seriously consider the possibility of having a regulated, Nova Scotia site in order to deal with the problem of the illegal, unregulated, offshore gambling sites." Steele admitted the government couldn't stop Nova Scotians from going to private gambling sites, but in an obvious bluff he added, "I cannot consider it to be responsible to leave problem gamblers to the mercy of illegal, unregulated offshore gambling sites many of which are thought to be fronts for organized crime." Steele suggested that government-run online gambling would raise money that could be used to help problem gamblers. That was his six of clubs. He said alcohol prohibition didn't work a hundred years ago and therefore, prohibiting online gambling wouldn't work now. That was Steele's joker.

As I listened, I noticed that, in spite of his great cards, Connolly seemed inept and unsure of himself. It reminded me of a saying about poker that applies equally well to radio interviewing: A player's character is revealed at the table; unless he is able to see himself as others do, flaws and all, he will be a loser in cards, as in journalism.

Instead of triumphantly laying down the hand that McMullan had dealt him, Connolly desperately tried to pluck new cards out of thin air. He strayed from the pros and cons of online government gambling to talk about problems caused by VLTs. "I can't imagine you don't look at that and just shiver as an individual and as an ethical person," Connolly told Steele who answered without missing a beat that "Nova Scotia spends more money than any other province on problem gambling."

Shortly after that, Connolly folded. The interview and poker match were over, an easy, on-air victory for Steele. Connolly may have been impressed by Steele's "good points," but I suspect most CBC listeners would agree with SMU prof John McMullan's observation, on another CBC program, that statistics can't begin to convey the suffering caused by problem gambling.

"We sometimes forget that what a statistic really is, is a human being with the tears wiped off," he said. "There are lots of examples of people whose lives have been devastated by different forms of gambling in the province." McMullan added the NS government should think twice about getting into online gambling---a business that exploits the citizens the government supposedly serves.

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