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How Hard Is It to Get Rich the Easy Way?

2 October 2000

By Alan Krigman

Why do you go to the casinos? To have fun? Socialize? Overeat? Get out of the house into a world with a bit more verve than a ratty couch and grainy TV? Be treated with respect -- at least, to your face? Thrill to the ups and downs of money that matters to you? Take a shot at the kind of fortune that can change your life and is only a spin of the reels or a deal of the cards away?

Sadly, many solid citizens view casinos -- along with lotteries, sweepstakes, and television game shows -- as their best, maybe their only, chance to climb out of the economic abyss and amass enough wealth for a worry-free retirement. It's an illusion. Not just because the actual prospect of success is far more remote than they conceive. But also because superior strategies for securing a financial future are feasible for ordinary folks.

No, I don't mean that individuals who didn't get good educations or acquire strong job skills or work habits in their youth can readily overcome these handicaps. It's easy to say "go back to school" or "quit your dead-end job and get into one where they'll train you to be a computer ace." The unemployed, and working stiffs with day-to-day needs and obligations, who don't happen to have superhuman discipline, know such advice is fatuous.

The Consumer Federation of America and Primerica Financial Services, however, assert that almost anyone can feather a comfortable nest during their adult lives. People need only make small changes in their spending habits today, and systematically invest what they set aside in a plan that compounds interest. For example, these groups point out that a person can save about $25 per week by skipping one pizza, packing lunch instead of eating fast food, and buying three fewer lottery tickets. At a nominal five percent interest, $25 per week will grow to over $166,000 in 40 years. A family that saves $50 per week this way will have $332,000 after 40 years with the same compounded interest.

Yet, according to a survey commissioned by these organizations, an astonishing fraction of the population holds that the best chance to garner half a million dollars within a lifetime is through a high-payout jackpot. Across the population as a whole, the breakdown is 47 percent who believe they're most likely to reach this goal by savings and investment, compared with 28 percent by winning it. For reference, 10 percent presume their best chance is to inherit the money and 4% to collect on a big insurance claim or lawsuit; the remaining 11 percent don't know.

More disturbing than the totals is the breakdown by education level, emphasizing the degree to which those who can least afford to pursue the false promise of easy money are seduced by it. Of persons who never finished high school, only 30 percent see savings and investment as their best chance at achieving solid equity, while 37 percent imagine they'd be more apt to do so in something like a lottery. Even among high school graduates, the fractions are 36 percent for savings and 37 percent for hitting a jackpot. Those who completed college are more realistic, with 61 percent understanding that their opportunities are more promising with a savings program -- yet 17 percent deem it more probable they'll accumulate these resources by winning than earning them.

Do I oppose gambling? In particular, forms of gambling in which what seem like small bets can yield huge returns? No... not if players understand the odds and the risks, and view the activity as entertainment rather than a substitute for achievement.

A big score that seems as likely as anything else on the slots actually has only one chance in a half million or a million. When those reels stop on a losing set of symbols a mere notch off the payline from a combination representing a fortune, you didn't "almost make it." It just looks that way. Similarly, as you read the personalized sweepstakes letter from a magazine subscription firm shrewdly implying that you're close to winning $10 million, 30 million other hopefuls are opening their personalized letters.

The balladeer, Sumner A Ingmark, bid bettors seek balance:

While a stroke of luck can favor gamblers, fate is fickle,

As a substitute for savings, luck ain't worth a nickel.

Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns were focused on those interested in gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.