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Pauline Frommer: If Casinos Go Touchless, More People May Suffer | Frommer's JK/Pixabay

Pauline Frommer: If Casinos Go Touchless, More People May Suffer

Like many people who work in the travel industry, I start my day looking at the daily stories sent out by Travel Weekly, a top source for news. Today's edition featured an in-depth piece on the ways tech firms are working with the major casinos of Las Vegas and other cities to make the gambling experience more safe in our coronavirus era.

And all I could think was: Once Covid-19 passes, these innovations could make gaming far more dangerous in other ways.

Take touchless gambling. The folks at Travel Weekly spoke with a company called Scientific Games Corp. that's working on what it calls a "Unified Wallet." Users of this product will be able to play slot machines without inserting cards or coins into them. Gamers will simply wave their phones over a reader.

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"You're using a smartphone, through Bluetooth technology, to upload currency from your phone onto the slot machine itself. So you're able circumvent touching cash," explained Matt Wilson, the company's executive vice president, in the story.

When players are done, the virtual wallet will alert the casino so a worker can sanitize the machine that was used. Users will be able to see when a slot machine has been cleaned, and when a gambler sits at one, the app will turn off adjacent machines to ensure social distancing.

I have no problem using the wallet for sanitization and distancing. But time and again, we've seen that touchless payment systems are usually a far bigger win for businesses than for consumers.

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As an example: the wristbands used at Disney's Florida theme parks and similar ones aboard several cruise lines. Vacationers get the convenience of not having to pull out their wallets to pay for drinks or excursions or other purchases. But that trade-off often means they're more likely to lose track of expenses and spend more money than they would have otherwise. Using spend-and-track devices also provides big companies with reams of data on personal spending habits—information that will help those firms use psychology to separate the traveler from even more of her hard-earned cash in the future.

With gambling, this type of convenience becomes dramatically more dangerous. People who are addicted to gambling often find betting compulsive, and even without touchless spending, they can find it difficult to stop.

According to the addiction treatment center Algamus Gambling, one of the differences between regular players and addicts is that "people without a gambling addiction will stop gambling when they reach their loss threshold." When that loss threshold is less noticeable, gamblers are more likely to keep spending, with few cues to stop.

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Thankfully, the Unified Wallet does not draw money from gamblers' bank accounts on a rolling basis. Instead, at the start of each session, a fixed dollar amount is moved from the user's account into an online account, and game play deducts only from that budgeted amount. But not everyone finds it easy to self-police spending that way. Will that safeguard be enough?

The gambler of the future may also no longer have the visual trigger of a dwindling stack of chips. Since chips are so hard to sanitize, some casinos in Europe have already replaced them with virtual chips that are displayed on iPads attached to the rims of gaming tables. It's only a matter of time before that innovation comes to the United States.

Dealers may be virtual soon, too. That would be a huge blow to those in the profession, because in many casino towns, becoming a dealer is often a gateway to the middle class.

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Too many jobs are disappearing because of Covid-19. It is devastating to think that these professional gaming jobs may also be on the chopping block.

Still, with lives at stake, should I be quibbling? I don't have an easy answer to that question. I just know that if gambling gets much easier—and these steps will certainly reduce friction and interactions that cause a player to pause and take stock—more addicts will suffer.

That's an unintended consequence I'm betting none of us wants to see.

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