It does not augur well to have betting made legal. The U.S. is a good example in this context.

Once touted as a source of “family entertainment”, the IPL has progressively exposed millions of its bemused followers to the unprepossessing underbelly of bookies, fixing and windfall profiteering. Young and talented players who have acquired overnight stardom and wealth have given in, got themselves inextricably entangled in Faustian deals, naively (or arrogantly) believing they would never be found out.

However, more than the drama surrounding the issues of corruption, power politics in the BCCI and the arrest of individuals who have overnight moved from prominence to notoriety, what has intrigued me is the slowly growing mumble that has now acquired the proportions of a rumble, that the way out of all this is to legalise betting.

The underlying implication is clear. If “honest citizens” could place their bets with legal bookies, then the underworld may not find the gambling industry an economically viable enough proposition, and therefore “fixing” would be a thing of the past. Not very different from the argument that prohibition encourages black marketing, bootlegging and moonshine, and therefore citizens should be “protected” by lifting it. Actually, if we don’t get on our moral high-horses, and consider the proposition dispassionately, we might realise that it’s not completely irrational.

One of the biggest sports scandals in the 20th century happened during the American Baseball World Series in 1919, when eight players of the Chicago White Sox conspired with the underworld gambling network to “throw” their game against the Cincinnati Reds. In the decades since, after betting and gambling became legal in most states in the United States, nothing on that scale has ever happened. So, the protagonists of this theory believe that maybe if we legalise betting in India, the IPL can safely carry on and reclaim its place as “wholesome family entertainment”. Just as betting on horse-racing has continued to thrive since it’s a legal activity.

However, we need to ask ourselves whether by legalising betting in our country, we might end up inadvertently throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In many American states (and likely elsewhere as well) some of the revenue generated from taxing the gambling industry is ploughed back into educating people about the risks of gambling and setting up centres that can provide interventions for those who become addicted to gambling. Evidently, most governments realise that legalised gambling increases the incidence of “pathologic gambling” or “gambling disorder” as the clinical condition is now called. And it does this, not by encouraging people to become gamblers (those who want to, will in any case), but by providing potential pathological gamblers an opportunity to indulge in it without fear of breaking the law.

A lot of recent research has demonstrated that neuropsychologically, gambling disorder is remarkably similar to any other form of chemical addiction disorder (alcohol and drugs), and some authorities recommend that gambling disorder be treated in the same manner as alcohol dependence. It appears that some people more than others, for a variety of reasons, are hard-wired to become addicted to gambling, chemicals etc.

This explains why not all drinkers become alcoholics and not all punters end up with gambling disorder. Only those who have a certain neuropsychological pattern hard-wired in their brains do.

Unfortunately medical knowledge has not advanced to the point where physicians can accurately predict those who are prone to gambling disorders. As a result when avenues for gambling are made more freely available, it is likely that even persons at risk, without realising their vulnerability, will access these and may end up becoming addicts.

Typically, there are two types of gamblers. The “action gamblers” are those who engage in games of skill like poker, believing they have the inherent capacity to “break the house”. They pit their wits against other gamblers and the high they experience has more to do with winning on the strength of superior skills than on just the money they earn. The “escape gamblers” get their buzz from winning in games of chance, like lotteries, slot machines etc.

Action gamblers are more ego-driven and bank on their intelligence and escape gamblers are more emotion-driven and rely on their instincts. As can be seen betting on a game may on the surface appear to be action gambling, but given that the parameters that govern the outcome of a game are too unpredictable, it is really escape gambling. And when we gamble, we tend to lose as much, sometimes more, than we win. And therein lies the temptation to “fix” things so the result goes our way.

Although there’s enough data to suggest that the incidence of alcoholism isn’t necessarily reduced by prohibition, the same cannot be categorically stated about gambling disorders, largely because bootlegging networks are much easier to both set up and dismantle than illegal betting systems. Also, legalised betting is far more risky for escape gamblers than action gamblers, since the former are usually casual punters who get sucked into vortices they never even knew of.

While I have no doubt that more effective monitoring can help reduce the possibility of match fixing, I’m not sure we, as a nation, are ready yet to deal with the possible larger fall outs of legalised betting in terms of gambling disorders. And until we are, we might want to give ourselves more time to think it through.

Email: vijay@vijaynagaswami.com