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Steve Friess: A Debate About Gambling With The Snake Lady On The Plane

The discussion on the plane with a woman who studies snakes shows you can reason with others about gambling and have a meaningful debate.

Steve Friess State Of Play A Debate On A Plane About Gambling
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7 mins read

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.


The turbulence drew us together.

I rarely chat up strangers on airplanes anymore. I used to do it all the time, but as life on the ground became more cacophonous with constant texts, calls, e-mails and media to consume, the solitude of the skies became more precious to me. I know the day is near when people will be able to loudly chat away on their devices from cramped middle seats of sardine-packed flights, and I am grateful I’ll be able to remove my hearing aids to ignore it. You all should be so lucky.

Anyhow, this flight from Denver to Detroit wasn’t full. The middle seat was open between me and a serious-looking woman gripping a yellow highlighter as she dug deep in a messy thicket of papers. I was watching a downloaded episode of “Emily In Paris.”

Then the plane jolted. We had been warned it might, that there was bad weather to navigate, but this didn’t feel like the usual bumps of a jet gliding through storm clouds. It went on for 10 minutes and felt longer. Two overhead compartments popped open. And at some point, the serious-looking woman began to weep and grabbed my hand.

“It’ll be OK,” I told her, although her crying made me start to freak out, too. “Just hang on.”

Moments later, the flight smoothed out. The woman wiped her eyes, blew her nose and looked at me and felt the need to explain herself.

“I was in a small plane crash in Brazil several years ago,” she said. “Broke my leg. Nobody died. So when there’s that kind of turbulence, it always gets to me.”

‘A snake lady on the plane?’

I told her I understood. That sounded scary. I didn’t know how she ever got back on a plane after that.

“Well, I’m a herpetologist. I travel all over the world doing research and presenting papers. I have no choice.”

“Wait, you’re a snake expert?” I asked. “So, like, you’re a snake lady on the plane?”

She laughed. Her first smile since we’d met 90 long minutes ago. That lightened the mood.

“So, what do you do?” she asked.

“I’m a journalist,” I replied. “I write about gambling.”

“Really?” she said, the elusive smile fading. “There must be a lot to write about. So many suckers out there.”

There would be no more “Emily in Paris” for me after that.

 ‘They think they’re going to win. And they won’t’

It’s not the first time I’ve had a version of this conversation, of course. I tell someone I cover the casino industry or Las Vegas or gambling and their first response is to disparage people who enjoy the product at the center of my beat.

But I rarely have near-death experiences with those people followed by inescapable hours sitting next to them. I was also in the right mindset; this was my connecting flight back home after a few days in San Diego at a conference for North American employees of Catena Media, parent company of PlayUSA.

I was ready to engage.

Me: “Why are they suckers?”

Snake Lady: “Huh?”

Me: “You just said there are ‘so many suckers out there.’ Who are the suckers?”

SL: “The gamblers. I mean, casinos are rigged. Everybody knows that.”

Me: “If everybody knows that, then how are they suckers?”

SL: “Well, they think they’re going to win. And they won’t.”

Me: “Probably not. But that doesn’t make them suckers.”

SL: “Doesn’t it?”

Me: “If people know the odds are against them and they go to the casino anyway because they like the atmosphere, they like the sense of risk and reward, they like the games, they’re making a conscious decision. This is entertainment to them.

SL: “What is entertaining about losing money?”

Me: “The money is the price of the entertainment. There are a lot of things people spend money on for entertainment that I don’t understand or enjoy. Should I think of them as suckers?”

SL: “What else do people do where they know they’re going to lose but they do it anyway?”

Me: “Have you ever been to a baseball game? The opera? Out for a really fine dinner?”

SL: “Those are not the same things.”

Me: “Really? They happen and they’re over. And afterward, you’re poorer. You can easily spend $100 going to the movies between the tickets, the snacks, and the babysitter.”

SL:  “There’s just a difference. You go to those things to see people perform, to produce art or food. It’s enriching. It brings joy.”

Me: “To you. I think anyone who pays a dime to Ticketmaster is a sucker.”

The flight attendant shuffled by asking if we wanted drinks and cookies. It was a good break from what was becoming a tense discussion.

‘I also write about billions of dollars made, spent and lost’

SL: “As a journalist, aren’t there more serious issues to write about?”

Me: “I’ve spent my life traveling the world covering serious issues. What I’ve found is that there are serious topics to write about everywhere, in every industry.”

SL: “Oh, so you write about addiction. Well, that makes sense. Yeah.”

She was trying to be generous, to provide a legitimate reason why a highly educated person would take the gambling world seriously.

Me: “Sure, I write about addiction. But I also write about billions of dollars made, spent and lost by major corporations that employ thousands of people. What seems serious to some people is uninteresting or unimportant to others. I’m finding most coverage of Congress these days to be dull as dirt, but that’s just me. Why is that not as serious as covering any other sector of the economy?”

SL: “It’s not.”

Me: “And what some people who look down on gambling and casinos don’t get is that there’s a shift in the popular culture right now when it comes to sports betting that is seismic. It matters to millions of people. It’s a major, major story with so many implications.”

SL: “OK, but didn’t you say you covered China? How do you go from covering something like that to this?”

Me: “Well, actually, the largest legal gambling market in the world is in Macau, China. They’ve got casinos so grand they make Vegas look like a mini-golf courses.”

SL: “I didn’t know that.”

Me: “But, also, you’re into snakes. You spend your life focused on snakes. This would be like me asking you why you’re not using your scientific skills to cure cancer. Aren’t there more important scientific endeavors with more immediate significance than why a certain snake has polka dots?”

SL: “I’ve always found snakes fascinating. Maybe because they’re so misunderstood. Most people are terrified and grossed out by them. I think they’re beautiful.”

Me: “Hmm. I really could say the exact same thing about casinos.

‘The people always look so sad’

Me: “Have you ever been to a casino?”

SL: “When I was a kid, my dad took me to the racetrack and I lost my allowance. Now I only go because a lot of scientific conferences are held at Vegas hotels these days. I try to avoid it.”

Me: “Why?”

SL: “The people always look so sad. You say they’re having fun, but all I see are people smoking and staring at machines and losing their money.”

Me: “What time of day are these meetings you go to?”

SL: “Oh, usually in the mornings. Or the afternoon.”

Me: “So you’re walking through empty casinos in the daytime, probably on weekdays?”

SL: “Yeah.”

Me: “I’ll grant you that’s about the saddest time to be in a casino. If that’s the only time you go, I understand why you are repulsed by it.”

SL: “Boy, you really love this stuff, don’t you?”

Me: “I mean, I love writing about it. I play a little myself, and I’m skeptical of the casino industry the way all journalists should be skeptical of businesses and people they cover. But mostly I get defensive for people who gamble themselves because it’s wrong to judge other people based on how they like to be entertained. I mean, as long as they don’t hurt anyone, it’s none of my business.”

‘Of course you gamble’

SL: “But what if they’re hurting themselves?”

Me: “They should be provided all the help we can offer, but that’s their choice.”

SL: “Well, I don’t gamble. I did it once when I was younger and lost my money and didn’t like it. That’s my choice.”

Me: “And that’s fine. Although of course you gamble.”

SL: “I do?”

Me: “Sure. You’re a woman who survived a plane crash who nonetheless flies on airplanes.”

SL: “I never thought of it that way.”

Me: “Then my work is done here.”

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Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

View all posts by Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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