Dec 20, 2013

    How Internet gambling is like Candy Crush

    FOR the past couple of months, I have been in the thrall of a game called Candy Crush Saga.

    It's about matching little coloured thingies on your iPad or phone. I am not going to explain it in any more depth because that would just make this whole discussion more humiliating.

    However, if you stick with me, I am going to try to use it to make a sweeping point about public policy, ending with some severe questions about the political career of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

    The game has been played about 150 billion times over the past year. There is no reward for winning; you just advance to another level in an ever-growing chain of chocolate mountains and lemonade lakes.

    Now, here's the thing. Candy Crush is free, but if you get stuck on a level, you can purchase extra moves, extra turns, extra weapons.

    The creator - a London-based company called King - won't reveal how much money it makes on this gimmick, but the consulting firm Think Gaming estimates it's more than US$900,000 (S$1.1 million) a day.

    What would people do if they actually had a chance of winning something? This brings us to Mr Christie. Earlier this year, he signed a Bill legalising Internet gambling in the state. The idea was to help resuscitate the Atlantic City economy and raise a projected US$150 million in tax revenue.

    Very few people believe the state will really make that much, but the number did help Mr Christie to run for re-election, waving what appeared to be a balanced budget.

    The law went into effect a few weeks ago. Now, state residents can go online, create an account with one of the sponsoring casinos, and gamble on all the casino games - like blackjack, poker and slot machines - in the comfort of their homes.

    So far, New Jerseyites have created more than 90,000 casino accounts, even though many banks and credit-card companies are wary of getting involved.

    You know that it's quickly going to get easier to play, and that more states will want to get in on the act, sniffing those new tax dollars.

    "This reminds me of the early 90s, when Iowa introduced the first riverboat casino. Within weeks, Illinois started its own legislation and, soon, the river was loaded with competitors," said Dr Earl Grinols, an economist at Baylor University who has written on gambling issues.

    Nevada and Delaware already have limited Internet gambling. Congress is looking at Bills to create a national Internet-gambling system, some of them proposed by Tea Party conservatives.

    Fighting to stem the tide, we have the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, financed by billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who told Forbes his "moral standard compels (him) to speak".

    Lined up on the other side are big casino owners, like MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment, as well as Mr Donald Trump.

    The whole idea of Internet gambling is enough to make you question the potential of Mr Christie for national office.

    There is no possible way the country could be improved by giving people a greatly expanded freedom to gamble for money in their pyjamas.

    Some day in the near future, you may look back nostalgically on the time when your grandfather did not have a slot-machine connection in his bedroom.

    This cannot possibly be a step in the right direction. I speak from the experience of spending US$32 last month buying extra turns for a game that involves moving bits of candy around an iPad. Just because it was there.