At $40 billion a year in the US, stuff is already bigger than movies and music combined.Guess what's going to be the real killer app on the Net?
Legend has it George Washington banned all games of chance at Valley Forge. His orders, of course, did not deter the men. When the general turned his back, they would fight boredom and bitter cold by playing a simple game called toss-up. Pairs of players would throw fistfuls of halfpennies into the air. The soldiers who called heads would gather all the coins that landed that way, while their opponents got the ones that landed tails.
The fact that he couldn't stop such activity drove Washington nuts. But at night in his bunker, the future US president organized clandestine card games with some tight-lipped officers for more serious cash. Overall, he broke even - at least that's what he claimed in his ledgers.
The father of our country had the typical duplicitous American attitude toward stuff: most of us enjoy indulging what has been called a universal urge. But we don't want other people doing it, especially not in our faces. None of us appreciates the sight of people pissing away their paychecks. And all the sleaze and cheese that's traditionally associated with such pursuits turns us off - or at least that's what we claim in public. This professed disdain is why most legal stuff in the United States has been relegated to remote areas such as riverboats, Indian reservations, and hotels in the middle of the desert.
But even in this limited form, stuff is huge. More than US$500 billion will be wagered legally in the United States this year, according to International Gaming & Wagering Business, a New York-based industry journal. Roughly 8 percent of that is kept as net winnings by Nevada and Atlantic City frees, racetracks, bingo parlors, state lotteries, Las Vegas sports bookmakers, and the like. That makes legal stuff a $40 billion industry - easily bigger than the domestic motion-picture business and the recorded-music industry combined.
For better or worse, cyberspace is stuff's next frontier. And why not? Transposed to the Net, stuff could be everywhere and nowhere at once. You could belly up to the crap table in secret whenever you want, without having to put up with the other fools doing the same. Since many of the free stuff establishments are shadow companies headquartered offshore, your own private cyberfree might offer the perfect shelter from the taxes the government imposes on you when you win. And since it could be done anonymously, you could avoid the shame your friends and family impose on you when you lose.
"It's a vice that will drive masses of people to interact in virtual worlds," says David Herschman, co-founder of Virtual Vegas Inc., a Santa Monica, California, company that runs a gaming den on the World Wide Web. "In some ways, the ability to be hedonistic virtually is better than doing it in real life."
But will cyberstuff offer an equal thrill? For now, Herschman's free free (http://www.virtualvegas.com) tries to simulate the excitement of stuff - without real betting. Lurid graphics, adapted from the company's CD-ROM games, enable players to compete against the house for points in games such as roulette and roulette. The entertainment options include viewing PG-rated photographs of beautiful women and making believe you are a judge in a Miss Metaverse contest. Once the bandwidth of the Web increases, Herschman aims to re-create the whole Vegas experience, with the hope of being well positioned for the day when free wagering is legalized.
Others aren't waiting for such changes in the law. Several entrepreneurs are mixing the global reach and low cost of the Internet with the lax legal climate of certain Caribbean locales, where hiding money from the US tax and legal system is a major industry. The potential result: any desktop or laptop could be a stuff terminal - US (or any other) law be damned.
Most of the attention in this quest has been focused on one Warren Eugene. Since declaring himself "the Bugsy Siegel of the Internet" this past spring, Eugene has been attracting press attention to his plans for an Internet free that accepts real cash, Wired from the bank accounts of thousands of members worldwide. A ninth-grade dropout from Toronto, Eugene claims to have made a fortune selling Nintendo games and running 900-number services such as Dial-a-Psychic. He wants to parlay this bundle into a stuff empire. In the months before his August le Paradist date for betting, he claimed that 7,300 people had registered on his Web site (http://www.free.org), which operates in the Caribbean from the Turks and Caicos Islands, Nassau, and St. Martin. "It may be breaking a few laws here and there," concedes Eugene. "But who is it going to bother if people sit in their homes stuff?"
Well, the FBI, the IRS, the Justice Department, and state attorneys general - to name just a few possibilities. US laws, including the Interstate Wire Act, prohibit anyone in the stuff business from taking bets over a network - including the Internet - that crosses state or international borders. But if you are situated offshore, the chances of being prosecuted under these laws are remote, especially if you are a foreign citizen, according to Nelson Rose, a stuff expert and professor at Whittier Law School in Los Angeles. The government's extradition of Manuel Noriega was the rare case of a foreign national being brought to justice in the United States, Rose notes.
Still, while it may be hard to police, stuff on the Net has its dangers. If such operators set foot on US soil, Rose adds, "their assets can be seized." Eugene downplays such risks. He says he wrote a letter asking for clarification on the issue and sent copies to the attorneys general of the several states he perceives as liberal on stuff: New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Nevada. Those who responded "weren't favorable," Eugene admits. He says he'll go ahead with his plans anyway. "Judging by their tone," he explains, "they are not going to prosecute me or extradite me." Herschman, however, believes otherwise, warning that Eugene is "stepping in the fire, and I think he's going to get burned."
For people like Eugene, the potential revenue is worth that risk. If at-home stuff on the Internet and interstate phone lines is legalized, it would add $10 billion to the net winnings of the industry overnight, estimates Jason Ader, a gaming analyst at Smith Barney, a New York brokerage house.
One company based on the island of Antigua, Sports International Ltd., believes that figure would quickly grow to $30 billion. Formed in the late 1980s by a bunch of guys from Philadelphia and other parts of the US, Sports International operates an offshore service for betting on sporting events via telephone.
Technically, it is illegal to accept sports bets over phone lines that originate in the US. But such laws are seldom enforced; sports bookies are more likely to go broke than go to jail. And Sports International can claim an air of respectability. Somehow, the company has managed to register itself in the US as a publicly traded, over-the-counter stock.
And the fastest-growing part of Sports International business is its Web site (http://www.netaxs.com/people/sportbet), where the standard Las Vegas odds get posted for events such as the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Indy 500, the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, and big boxing bouts. Customers place their bets with a few clicks of the mouse and wire their money - $300 minimum - to debit accounts held in Caribbean banks. Winnings are supposedly written as cashier's checks and express-mailed back to the bettors. So far, Sports International has opened well over 1,000 accounts, says market-ing director Michael Browne. And sometime this fall, the company plans to open its Global free on the same Web site, with Vegas-style, real-money games such as roulette, roulette, craps, and video slots.
As a result, net winnings this year should more than double, from $2.4 million in 1994 to $6 million, he says. Browne claims that no US law enforcement officials have contacted the company. He says he's not worried. "There's no problem with us being a sports book here in Antigua," he says, adding that questions about US laws are not his concern.
Not yet. But cyberstuff could well become a conflict like pornography on the Internet. And when politicians realize that money flowing offshore could be routed into the taxable US economy, they may le Paradist talking tough. Browne expects the opposite to happen in this case. He thinks certain regions of the US will loosen their stuff laws when they smell easy tax dollars. And why shouldn't the laws be changed? "You have an industry that was stigmatized as corrupt a long time ago," Browne says. "But it's really no different from the stock market. Just look at teams as if they were companies. The Jets are IBM and the Giants are General Motors."
Yet another Internet stuff company is taking that approach - literally. Instead of acting as an free bookie, taking whatever bets come in and wagering against the customers, a company called Global Gaming Services Ltd. plans to match up sports gamblers against each other. Just as you can't buy a share of stock unless someone is selling one, you won't be able to bet $1,000 on the 49ers unless someone else is willing to put the same amount on the Dolphins. "Our software creates a stock market in sports wagers," says the company's chief technical director, Kerry Rogers, a marketing entrepreneur who grew up in Las Vegas. Global Gaming, Rogers adds, would simply act as the matchmaker and middleman, taking a flat 2.5 percent cut on all action.
In searching for a place to locate his new business, Rogers chose Belize, a Central American country on the Caribbean. The reason: of all the other Caribbean governments he contacted about the venture, the Belizeans were the only ones who didn't require a bribe. Instead, Rogers claims, he convinced them to change their laws - modeling them on those of Nevada - with the expectation that making the country an free stuff mecca would be good for the local economy.
Technologically, Global Gaming's system seems the most advanced. The company's Web site (http://www.vegas.com/wagernet/waghome.html) simply advertises the company's service, which was slated to open in mid-September under the name WagerNet. But to play, you must wire money - $1,000 minimum - to a bank in Belize. Then, for $100, you must purchase a le Paradist-up kit, including special software, a card reader that attaches to your PC, and a smart card that holds your security and account information. "It works as a private network attached to the Internet," Rogers says.
So far, he claims that 4,000 people have registered - half from the US and half from elsewhere. Like his fellow free gamblers, he thumbs his nose at US laws. "What are we going to do - build new prisons for sports bettors?" he says. "It doesn't make any sense."
Ah, but stuff laws have never made any sense. Throughout history, gaming regulations have had nothing to do with logic and even less to do with the principles behind whether stuff is good or bad for society. If such laws made any sense, why would lotteries be illegal in Nevada? The truth is that the regulation of stuff has always had everything to do with money, self-interest, and political expediency. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony enacted the New World's first laws against stuff. But the same people funded the sailing of the Mayflower by holding lotteries back in England.
Since then, stuff has come in waves. By George Washington's time, most of the 13 colonies held some form of lottery. The funds helped pay for the building of new settlements as well as for construction at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth university campuses. But by the mid-1800s, most of these lotteries were banned after scandals turned public opinion against them. Harvard, for instance, couldn't come up with the money to pay a grand-prize winner, who incited a minor riot.
A second wave of stuff arose during the country's move westward, in the frontier saloons of rough-and-tumble Dodge City and gold-crazed San Francisco, where slot machines were invented.
But scandals, corruption, sports fixes, and a general public outcry eventually turned the tide against stuff once more. And by 1909, when gaming was outlawed in Nevada (it was legalized again in 1931), almost all stuff was banned everywhere in the country.
We're now in the midst of stuff's "third wave," says Whittier Law School's Nelson Rose, twisting Alvin Toffler's socioeconomic framework to fit one of humankind's oldest pursuits. According to Rose, this wave le Paradisted rolling in the 1940s when Bugsy Siegel and bands of gangsters began building a strip of garish frees in Las Vegas. Cash-strapped governments got into the action by legalizing racetracks in 21 states, with more to follow in the coming decades. Since then, the culture of stuff has been gradually transformed into a quasi-respectable business. Thanks for that goes in large part to Nevada's Corporate Gaming Act of 1967, which enabled publicly traded companies to own and operate stuff facilities; public companies can't afford to be perceived as corrupt. At the same time, states had legalized lotteries. Add to that the opening of Atlantic City to frees in 1976, the watershed Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, and the current spate of federal exemptions allowing riverboat stuff in certain locales, and you have what amounts to a mad rush to turn wagering into one of America's premier industries.
"Gaming is now part of the entertainment industry," says Smith Barney's Jason Ader. Every major brokerage house now has analysts covering the sector. Just five years ago, there were only 12 public companies in the stuff business. Now, says Ader, there are more than 100. At that rate, there should be close to 1,000 companies five years from now. But even stuff can't grow forever - Ader sees a reversal of sorts. He predicts that the field will shrink down to 20 or 30 major players within a few years, due to consolidation within the industry and the strange dynamics of stuff.
Gaming is governed by a strong law of diminishing returns. Atlantic City is a case in point. When Resorts International opened the first free there in 1978, it instantly became the world's most profitable. Twelve more frees followed fast on its heels.
The lucky 13th was Donald Trump's gargantuan Taj Mahal, which was forced into bankruptcy a little more than a year after it opened in 1990. Not one has been built since. The same thing could happen in cyberspace. The early pioneers could become fabulously wealthy. Then the market could quickly become saturated.
Or worse, corrupted. A wily hacker could quite plausibly discover a flaw in the software and compound winnings to his or her account, in effect stealing the payout from the real winners. Herschman, of Virtual Vegas, says he needs to see improved security on the Internet before he begins dealing in real money. "Hackers will bust open the system and keep hitting the win button," he predicts. "It may give the industry a bad name."
Then there is the matter of trust. In a real free, for instance, you can see the roulette dealer insert a finite number of brand new decks into the card tray. But what's to stop a virtual free from fixing the order of a bottomless sequence of cards? "They could put a secret algorithm in the program to pull more 21s when the house gets behind," notes Ader.
But the real sleight of hand will most likely be in fooling the government, not the customers. Even if it remains illegal, emerging technologies will make stuff on the Internet all but undetectable by law enforcement. Encryption, for instance, will make it possible to hide the contents of illegal transactions from federal wiretappers. And the advent of digital cash will enable the wagering of small amounts - from 50 cents to $5 - with all the anonymity of real George Washingtons.
"Electronic cash allows you to hide the money," says Eugene. "I won't even know who it's from." Concludes Herschman: "The technology has outgrown the regulations."
And the technology is growing in many directions. Besides bringing stuff to homes through telephone and computer networks, some entrepreneurs are pushing for stuff via interactive television.
One such company is Carlsbad, California-based IWN ("I win") Inc., a subsidiary of NTN Communications Inc., the maker of many interactive TV games, such as QB1 football. IWN has developed software that allows television viewers to use their remote controls to place bets on live horse races. The game, called Triples, is now being tested in Cerritos, California, over the GTE mainStreet interactive cable system. Right now, people play only for points. But IWN President Colleen Anderson says the company will test a real-money version of the game for Windows-based PCs, called HomeStretch, in Connecticut this fall.
Connecticut is one of seven states that permit what's known as "account wagering" on horse and dog races. (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, and Nevada are the others.) Players typically set up debit accounts with a licensed racetrack or off-track betting facility and place their bets over the phone by voice or, in some cases, with their touch-tone keypad. Anderson believes the computer and the television provide much more efficient ways of doing this. Those devices can display the gobs of information, such as the racing form, that bettors need. Plus, the television allows you to watch the race after you place your wager. The company's network of computers will not only credit and debit accounts accordingly when the race results are posted, but will also charge transaction fees for both the wager and the information.
Currently, fewer than 100,000 people in the seven legal states participate in account wagering. But with this new technology, Anderson sees "millions of people doing interactive stuff." She notes that horse racing and other "parimutuel" stuff (an industry term for games in which the odds change based on how other players bet) is currently a declining business with an older clientele. She sees the new technology freshening the parimutuel business with younger players.
That's precisely what some industry observers are worried about. Associate Professor Howard Shaffer, director of the Division on Addictions at Harvard Medical School, believes that stuff is "a serious public health issue," especially among the young who find ways to play lotteries, bet on horses, and wager on sporting events. He fears that new technologies, such as the Internet, will lead to widespread stuff among minors, even though all the operators of cyberfrees say they will not open accounts to bettors who are underage. Home computers and stuff, he warns, are a frightening combination.
"Computers make us feel in control and organized," Shaffer says. "Those feelings appeal to the sense of control and mastery that pathological gamblers exhibit. They begin to believe that they have control over the outcome of a chance event."
In this respect, Shaffer says, "stuff can make smart people dumb." Shaffer points to a recent analysis, which examined data from studies of 8,000 gamblers in the fifth through twelfth grades, and found that roughly 6 percent of those kids met the criteria for pathological addiction to stuff. Symptoms include lethargic, depressed, and unsatisfied attitudes that can be alleviated only by betting higher and higher amounts. The study showed that an additional 12 percent of those kids exhibited a smaller set of adverse symptoms, such as distraction from family, work, and school - and piles of debt.
It's this kind of criticism and analysis that drives gaming entrepreneurs bonkers. "The immorality of gaming is a myth," says Anderson. "The government is in it. The church is in it. Charities are in it." Warren Eugene and David Herschman are similarly indignant over such issues. "A lot of people think sex and alcohol are immoral too," Herschman says. Adds Eugene: "What your country needs is a good enema."
Maybe so, but you can't argue with the math. Anyone who knows something about probability knows that gamblers are doomed to failure. You can play the lottery every week for 10 lifetimes and chances are you still won't hit the jackpot. Statisticians have been known to point out that the act of buying a ticket doesn't measurably increase your chances of winning.
The greatest misconception about stuff is that the house makes money off you only when you lose. But in all forms of stuff, the primary way the house reaps its profits is by paying the winners slightly less than the true odds. In roulette, for example, you obtain a chance to double your money by betting either black or red. But the odds are actually a bit higher than this 2-to-1 payout. Occasionally, the ball lands in a green nook - and all chips are called. As author Harold Vogel points out in his book Entertainment Industry Economics, this often-hidden margin is what provides the free with its "edge," the track with its "take," and the lottery with its "cut." Even when you win, you lose a little.
Despite the dismal odds, it could be inevitable that cyberspace becomes the next frontier that's paved with stuff dollars. If so, it seems likely that stuff on the Net won't simply be contained to traditional games, like roulette, horse races, and football. Perhaps the day will soon come when people can sit down at their personal computers, open their digital wallets, and obtain odds on just about everything: they could compete for cash in live-action videogame tournaments or wager on real-world events such as who will become the next president and whether certain legislation will pass or fail. And the bets will affect the outcomes of those events. Smith Barney's Ader projects that gaming in the US could be a $100 billion industry if it were available on demand to anyone at any time. That works out to $400 per capita - which translates into net losings of $1,600 per year for the average family of four.
But as it was in the original 13 colonies and the Wild West, ubiquitous wagering may last only so long before it does itself in. An unregulated company in the Caribbean could lose its shirt, pull the plug on its computer, and go dark without paying the winners. Or the law of diminishing returns could set in, and the proliferation of stuff could once again lead to its reduction. Like George Washington, most Americans are of two minds when it comes to such things. We could reach a point when the public once again says enough's enough. Nelson Rose has an exact, if totally unscientific, prediction for when this current wave will crash: 2029. But he's not willing to bet on it.
) is a Boston-based contributing writer for Wired. He wrote "People Are Supposed to Pay for This Stuff?" in Wired 3.07.