If the people weren’t so old and shabby, they would look like a shift clocking in: streaming swiftly and silently past a few solitary smokers into the blank-faced, brick-walled, block-sized money factory, a continuous line of New Yorkers stepping off of buses in Yonkers. No lingering or idle talk, they go in ones and twos straight to the machines to begin the day’s lever-pulling. It’s depressing but crucial work: The state is banking on them, to the tune of a billion dollars a year and rising.
Back in August 2001, the Yonkers Raceway was for sale and expected to be converted to a mixed-use facility. It was revived in October, when, amid fears about how the 9/11 attack would impact New York’s economy, Governor Pataki pushed through a law creating so-called “racinos” with electronic slot machines at race tracks across the state.
That is, the state decided to go into the gambling business for itself, contracting out the operations so it could “regulate” its own cash cow and chopping up the take with shares going to education, to the still-staggering racing industry, and, of course, to the casino operators.
Although the 2001 law paved the way for a racino at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, it hardly registered in the city at large—even as it generated a wave of scandals as deep-pocketed, well-connected bidders paid off who they could for the lucrative right to play the house. Perhaps the story didn’t play here because the money goes to the state, not the city, or because there’s not much direct overlap between the Wall Street set and the bodega-lottery-ticket and casino-bus crowd.
But the money and the story move closer to home next month, when the Aqueduct slots—some 4,500 of them—start spinning after a decade of false starts, bringing a casino to the city for the first time. In 2010, the racinos brought in $658 million for the state, with more than a half-billion going to education and the rest subsidizing the horse-racing industry. The state expects to rake in a million dollars a day from the suckers at Aqueduct—well more than half as much as the other eight racinos combined—bringing New York’s cut north of a cool billion a year.
Call it a “voluntary tax” on the innumerate, with the house paying out 92 cents on the dollar. Those eight pennies add up but fast, and politicians have given in to the same magical thinking that motivates players, pushing for more “free money” despite the predictable problems gaming has brought with it. During the past 10 years, the New York Racing Association and the New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation have both gone bankrupt, and three different companies have won three different shady competitions to run Aqueduct.
Over two days on the casino floor at the awkwardly named Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway, which, owing to its proximity to the city, has been the most lucrative racino to date, the only loose conversations I heard were among the handful of horse players walking through and the people who worked there. While the casino players vastly outnumbered the horse players, the track crowd upstairs made all the human noise to be heard in the building. Men—it’s almost all men—watched races shown on two dozen screens, jumping up, hollering at one another, ripping up losing tickets, and, less often, dancing their way to a window with a winning one.
Downstairs on the casino floors, the people are as quiet as the grave. The machines make the noise for them. The handful of floor employees seemed like props at an automat for addicts or a particularly grim version of adult day care.
Because the New York State Constitution explicitly prohibits almost all gambling outside of the lottery and charity games, the machines are nominally lottery games; the digital wheels, dice, and the like are strictly for decoration. Amid the usual slots players hypnotized by the noise and light and promise of their machine were scores of “table game” players, each one putting down bets from $5 to $1,000 each time their machine started a new 50-second loop.
At the roulette tables, players circled around big screens showing a loop of a woman, at a much finer-looking casino, calling for bets and then, cleavage spilling, spinning the wheel. About every half-hour, each table’s screen rotated between a brunette, a blonde, and a redhead, each one reading from the same flat script (“no more bets”) and overlapping with the out-of-sync women repeating the same lines on adjoining screens. A few players jumped back and forth between two tables, getting action every 25 seconds.
Of course, politicians are every bit as easily hooked—and the cash sloshed around so far could end up as chump change. Governor Cuomo, looking for ways to raise revenue without raising taxes, has signaled his interest in changing the state constitution to allow 24-hour full casinos with real table games in New York. (Racinos are required to close for a few hours overnight.) Last week, Assembly Leader Shelly Silver told the Post that he was also open to the idea, which suddenly appears like a real possibility—though it would take two years, two votes, and a state referendum, all in the face of what’s sure to be furious opposition from native casino owners, anti-gambling groups, and others.
Prohibitions are usually problematic, but there’s a serious case for letting other states cash in on New York’s chumps (who presently “play” elsewhere at an estimated clip of $3 to $5 billion a year). Although drug dealing, for instance, is a demand-oriented business, with players going into the market to satisfy the customer base, casinos are supply-oriented, with new gambling spots intended to produce new players.
Do we really want the state in the business of funding education by growing and then trimming a dedicated class of suckers?