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Issues of gambling

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-11-05

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

My varied and colourful CV includes being in charge of a casino in Prague for three months some ten years ago!

As the gambling laws in Britain are about to change for the first time in forty years, the memories I had repressed began to stir. As a result of a stroke my father in law had suffered I found myself the only member to the family available to take responsibility for his schemes in the Czech Republic which included this casino.

My knowledge of casinos was up to that point negligible. I had once joined my Italian family party in an outing to a Casino just over the border inside Switzerland. There for the first time I witnessed the strange surreal atmosphere of European casinos. Elegantly dressed men and women as if in a daze, moved around or sat in atmosphere of alcohol, perfume and thick smoke mesmerised by roulette wheels or decks of cards. The murmuring and whispers were broken only by calls of croupiers.

I didn’t bet. I have absorbed my father’s visceral opposition to games of chance (he wouldn’t even allow us to play card games). But I was fascinated by the people, the looks of concentration or despair and the way winners attracted groups of spectators and women, clearly attracted to the scent of money. There was some intangible atmosphere of immorality and danger. But I confess there was an elegance that cannot be found in the industrial casinos of the New World.

Another time in the same company I was stopped at the entrance to the Casino in Cannes and told by an Israeli bouncer that I couldn’t come in with my kippa on my head. ‘What if I were an Arab Sheik in a kafieh?’ I asked. ‘The same’ he replied but I didn’t believe him. So I left. And that was the sum of my experiences, not even a slot machine!

But now I had to act. I turned in desperation to a former Governor of Carmel College who knew about these things and he graciously came to my rescue. I was introduced to some experienced executives from the ‘gaming’ world as they like to call it (is fleecing suckers of money a game, I wonder?) and I was given a crash course. They knew all about the Prague Casinos (half of them run by Israelis) who was in with the Real Mafia and who with the Government Mafia. They even knew how much our manager (imported from Atlantic City) was fleecing the joint by. It was all about numbers. We put together a new team of young Britons who had cut their teeth on properly run businesses. We negotiated a deal with the Government; we paid our taxes, cut out a few of the non-profit making games and installed a whole battery of slot machines.

It became clear there were two sides to the business, the table gambling and the machines. The machines you simply set at whatever percentage profit you wanted and adjusted the payout (taking Government rake offs into consideration). And as for the real gambling there were several types. There were high rollers who were cosseted, given free food, accommodation and other perks. There were regular punters who came in like clockwork and consistently lost money. There were bored businessmen and there were also the professionals who either cheated or calculated the odds or the cards with precision and good recall. You had cameras everywhere to catch the cheats and if anyone looked like winning too much you simply shut him out! So Casinos would have to be dishonest, incompetent or stupid to lose. As a result, within a month or so we turned the Casino round from a loss making operation to a profitable one. My father in law recovered thankfully. The old crew took back control and returned it to its old ways and within three months lost the whole shebang! I must say I was glad to be out.

The Talmud is solidly opposed to professional gamblers who are excluded from giving evidence in a Jewish Court of Law. Relying on chance is frowned upon, as indeed is superstition. But for some reason we seem unusually attracted to gambling (as most Jews are to superstition). Planeloads of Israelis fly in for weekends to the Casinos of Turkey and the Jericho Casino when it functioned lived almost entirely off Israelis. And the Ultra Orthodox are not immune. Friends tell me that the tables at Atlantic City are heavily dotted with Chassidic players. Most of the Jewish gamblers I have known are men who have suddenly come into a lot of money. Perhaps they think that they got it by fortune and one stroke of luck is little different to another. And sadly I know of Jewish families devastated by gambling losses.

Why even in the Torah gambling was in fashion. In this week’s reading Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, certainly sounds like a gambling man when he went looking for a wife for Isaac. Indeed the Midrash (Leviticus Rabba 50.8) condemns him for it!

But in a free society I wouldn’t want to ban it any more than I would the lottery. Although I find it amusing that they and the National Savings Premium Bond operators like to call it ‘saving.’ Saving for whom? Only the operators! If people insist on doing stupid things then the least society can do is to take advantage and use the income for serious stuff like health and education. Gambling is indeed a sign of a decadent society and a decadent person. Its dangers of addiction are no more or less than smoking or alcohol. The sight of the Labour Party hacks this week in Parliament attacking the Government’s Gambling Reforms as too liberal, recalled the party of State Control Marxists, up in arms about taking advantage of poor innocent working class suckers. Everything I dislike about Holier than Thou lefties

I strongly believe that humans are easily seduced by environment and the company they keep, at work as well as at play. A spiritual person should avoid gambling like the plague. But if people are so determined to give even more money to the Government than normal taxes, I cannot think of a surer or better way of just doing that.

So why shouldn’t the Chancellor of the Exchequer want to help them? Besides Internet gambling is now universally available. You can’t slam doors after horses have bolted.