Fact: There are approximately 1500 casinos in America. Per capita, that works out to be about one casino per 213,000 people.
Fact: In Italy there are four, count ‘em, four casinos. That’s about one casino for every 15.5 million citizens!
Despite this tragic situation, or perhaps because of it, Italia has a big, fat gambling problem.
“Fears of Social Breakdown as Gambling Explodes in Italy,” announced the New York Times at the end of 2013. The epicenter of this explosion? The town of Pavia, near Milan, population about 68,000. According to the Times, there is one slot machine or VLT (video lottery terminal) for every 104 residents, who each spend an average of more than $4,000 per year on gambling. Evidently these machines are ubiquitous; not only that, they’re everywhere: malls, shops, coffee bars, even pharmacies.
On a broader scale, “one in every eight dollars spent by an Italian family goes toward gambling,” wrote Times reporter Elisabetta Povoledo.
Yikes! What’s the deal over there?
Answer: the Italian government. In an effort to combat a huge illegal gambling market that was largely controlled by organized crime, the powers that be deregulated gambling. Now instead of mobsters cashing in, the federal government does. In 2012, the feds took a rake of somewhere between $8 billion $11 billion in gambling tax revenue. Talk about a disincentive to help problem gamblers.
In The Daily Beast the head of an Italian organization that helps gambling addicts said, “Italy is becoming the Wild West of gambling nations.” Italy can also boast that it’s Numero Uno among European countries… in money spent on gambling.
The casino museum
It’s certainly not fair to judge Italian casinos (all four of them) on the merits and demerits of just one, but if the other Italian casinos are like the one in Venice, they’ve got a few issues to work out.
From the outside, the Casino Venezia is impressively old and handsome. Established in 1638, it bills itself as the first casino in Italy and Europe.
Like most edifices in Venice, it’s a stone’s throw from a canal, in this case, the Grand Canal. And like all buildings in Venice, it’s subject to strict codes which are designed to preserve the character of this magnificent—and once terribly powerful—little city.
When I visited, there was a shiny new sports car parked in the courtyard, some sort of casino promotion. Inside I asked an employee, “What’s going on with the car?”
“What car?” she answered.
Venice is, by law and practicality, a city without cars. You simply will not find an automobile on the entire island. I hadn’t seen a car in days. If you resided in Venice, you could spend your entire life without seeing a land-based motor vehicle. Here one was parked just yards away, a fact that might have been noted by someone who was forced daily to take a boat then utilize their own feet to get to their job. Maybe it had been so long since she’d seen a car that she simply didn’t recognize this newfangled hunk of metal and plastic within spitting distance.
Or maybe it was because the casino existed in a pre-Henry Ford time bubble. Except for the far-off bleating of electronic slot machines, this place was ancient, hermetically sealed off from the twenty-first century.
But, WHAT CAR?
I pointed outside with my thumb.
She raised her eyebrows, impressed: How did that get there?
Paging The Man With The Yellow Hat
Evidently this particular casino had a dress code, and since I’d arrived without a sports jacket, the Woman For Whom Cars Did Not Exist pointed me towards a counter where they supplied me with a black one that was about two sizes too big. It hung off my shoulders, giving me a simian appearance.
Curious George Goes to the Casino.
Inside, the casino floor was almost empty. It didn’t seem like a casino. It seemed more like a casino museum. Maybe a dozen or so tables, with just a handful of patrons who seemed tired and gray. You don’t associate this kind of staid atmosphere with a gambling hall.
This casino had been around for about 375 years. Just give it a few more centuries and maybe word of mouth will kick in.
I monkey-stepped my way over to a blackjack table.
Like any responsible gambler, I’d set a dollar limit for the evening, which came crashing to an end in about ten minutes. You see, it’s almost impossible to win blackjack at the Casino Venezia, thanks to rules which are aggressively tilted to the house. I discovered the most heinous of these rules about nine minutes into my session.
In the US, when the dealer and the player both have blackjack, it’s a push: no one wins. Here in Venice, when both parties have blackjack, guess who wins? The house.
Wait a minute: The name of the game is blackjack. How can they deal you blackjack then tell you that you lose?
My jaw dropped. The dealer had evidently seen this reaction so many times, he just shrugged helplessly: Mongo just pawn in game of life.
There was no way a guy was going to win under these conditions.
I quickly returned the borrowed jacket, regained my human form and made my escape from the Casino of the Apes.