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Even rats enjoy a flutter

She said to me quite plainly: ‘If I lose I pay you a million dollars. If you lose you agree to have two large beautiful breasts, just like mine, implanted on your own chest. I lost.'”

At this point the speaker opened his shirt to reveal a pair of comely breasts arising like twin pink peaks out of the forest of his chest hair and already showing advanced Cooper’s Droop. This was the unique penalty paid by a perennial gamester, one of many telling their tales of woe in a BBC World documentary called High Stakes, which tried, not too successfully, to analyse the temptations of the roulette wheel, the slot machine and the numerous other seductions offered by the modern gambling industry. No more Mafia. Gambling’s now run by accountants. Far greedier.

Legalised theft, as one addict described it. Not content with already gluttonous profits, today’s casino bosses use all manner of subtle trickery. They commission scientists to help them scrape even more money off the punters.

The boffins have found a way to increase turnover by introducing undetectable chemical smells into the air-conditioning. Wham! Up go the takings by as much as 45%. So precise are the formulae that different smells are used for different effects. The areas around high-return machines are pervaded with an odour that drives the suckers away. Another discreet pong draws them, like flies to dog shit, to machines set up for low payouts.

One casino boasts no less than 700 surveillance cameras, each one capable of close focus and backed by computer databases, which identify known gambling sharks and “countdown artists”: people with an almost freakish ability to memorise the order of several shuffled packs of cards. Their faces and details are circulated among all the major casinos. They are refused participation.

In the 1970s a group of United States university students designed a miniature computer, hidden in a shoe, which, by instant application of Newton’s laws of motion, could predict roughly on which number the ball on a roulette wheel was going to rest. It gave the students, by gambling standards, a phenomenal 40% advantage over the house — and was perfectly legal. Shortly after the exposure of this method of taming the odds, new legislation was passed banning the use of computers in the casinos. Clearly the “system” operates at all levels.

Best of all was the experiment to show that, given the option of dull routine or the aleatory, even rats enjoy a flutter. To get a tiny sip of water a laboratory rat called R1 was given a choice of two levers to press. The first lever needed 10 pushes to produce the water; the second lever was set to operate on random numbers of pushes. Here R1 could get his water with anything from one to 20 pushes on the lever — a rodent’s slot machine. A gambler at heart, that’s the one R1 used.

Eighty percent of a casino’s profits come from 20% of its customers. This is the hard core. As most of these inveterates were to claim, gambling is as addictive as the worst kind of drug. With wounded bravado some told how they’d dropped fortunes on the tables and ended up in pawn shops looking for new stakes. As one said: “The winners are always welcome, the losers can make their own arrangements.”

As you watched the programme you found yourself thinking about the welter of casinos now operating in this country, fleecing poor and comfortable alike. And then you think about the shameless Lotto pillage. And you start to wonder whether the old Nats didn’t get some things exactly right.

You’d think that transmitting Big Brother to those who wanted such drek was bad enough, but at least it was democratic. People weren’t forced to watch. Recently though, one of the coarser of the Big Brother louts has been sneering and snarling at us 50 times a day in the cause of the single greatest scam of the subscription channel age: the smartcard changeover, in which DStv conned its subscribers into picking up the tab for the installation of new protective measures to guard the DStv profits. It was an exercise that included some arrant blackmail as well: “If we’d had to pick up the cost of posting the new smartcards to our subscribers, we’d have had to increase the monthly subscriptions,” threatened the acquisitive mandarins of Randburg.

That DStv chose this crude individual to lend face and personality to its campaign is a fair reflection on the strong-arm effrontery of the whole exercise.

As a matter of urgency the Mbeki office should retain Brad Wood to sell its fascist HIV-Aids package. Another perfect match.

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Television with guts December 15, 2000

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Too much cleverness November 10, 2000

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Television at its imaginative best October 27, 2000

Early struggles to be the same October 20, 2000

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Splints and bandages July 21, 2000

At long last, Sarafina III July 14, 2000

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