Quarter by quarter, slot machines have transformed the Eastern Shore's fraternal lodges into mini-palaces and their leaders into the region's new princes of philanthropy.
Last year alone, players dropped nearly $30 million worth of quarters into one-armed bandits at 50 fraternal clubs across the Shore.
As required by state law, the clubs gave half their net proceeds -- $2.5 million -- to a variety of charities, including churches, Little Leagues and the NAACP.
The clubs kept the rest for themselves -- for high-tech beer pumping systems, building additions and fancy pool tables.
"People stop by. They spend money. They drink. We take their money, and they go down the road happy," says Andrew W. Holland, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Chesapeake City. "You can enjoy yourself playing the machines, but you know that every other quarter you put in there is going right back into the state of Maryland."
Critics are not so sure.
For one thing, while some fraternal clubs are building up attractive bank accounts, the cash-starved state of Maryland gets nothing: Slot machine proceeds are not taxed, and the jackpot payoffs are not regulated. The return to bettors ranges from 4 percent to 94 percent, although most are in Atlantic City's 83 percent range.
And critics despair that so many worthwhile charities depend on slots for financial support.
Meanwhile, state police, who say they have lost track of almost 60 of the slots, are worried that the big money involved may attract criminal elements.
But five years after the General Assembly legalized slots for Shore fraternal clubs, they're a lucrative fixture. And for at least another year, the Shore's clubs will hold on to their monopoly. The General Assembly has rejected legislation to allow slots in several counties on the western side of the Bay Bridge.
The Taj Mahal of Maryland slots may be VFW Post 6027 in North East in Cecil County. Inside the post's posh new bar, players are steadily feeding a bank of four slot machines and a video poker game. The constant whirring and clicking are punctuated by the occasional dings and beeps that announce winning combinations.
"I don't drink. I don't travel. This is a means of relaxation," says Ruth Brown, an auxiliary member of the post, after dropping $100.
Last year, Mrs. Brown and other gamblers dropped $3.2 million into these machines, the biggest gross in the state.
Daniel E. Dougherty, the post's longtime commander, watches over the bar like the proud owner of a prospering factory. "This place used to be a rat hole," Mr. Dougherty says. "The clientele was lousy; they let anybody in."
Today, the post is a sprawling testament to the allure of legalized gambling. With proceeds from the slot machines, the post has added the barroom, a screened porch with a riverfront view, a $50,000 kitchen, a large L-shaped meeting room complete with bingo board, a new beer delivery system, a paved parking lot and a giant TV set.
Oh yes, there's a new safe, a quarter wrapping machine and a burglar alarm. The post had to spend $170 on paper coin wrappers to roll up all the quarters that flow in.
Thanks to gambling proceeds, draft beer is only 65 cents, and the post has $30,000 in its savings account.
In the old days, before slot machines were legalized, the VFW post relied on old-fashioned fund raising -- dances and raffles -- to pay for its meager list of community gifts. A $200 donation to the Little League was a big deal back then.
"We had a tough time raising that, sometimes," Mr. Dougherty says.
Today, the post is a major Cecil County philanthropist. Last year, it gave away nearly $167,000.
It tries to help everyone who asks. It bought a new copier for the North East Police Department when the old one broke and paid for toothbrushes and razors for destitute veterans at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Perryville. Its showcase gift is a $100,000, multiyear commitment to the North East Fire Department.
"There's so much you do, you can't remember it all," says Mr. Dougherty.
Some recipients resist
Not everybody wants the slot machine money.
The Kent Island United Methodist Church, for example, turned down money from the local American Legion post, which wanted to make a contribution in honor of a Bay Bridge police officer, killed on duty, who was a member of both the post and the church.
Pastor Kenneth S. Valentine says he had no choice, because Methodist doctrine prohibits the church from accepting
gambling proceeds as gifts.
"It was a very difficult decision for me to turn that down in his TTC memory," Mr. Valentine says. "But that should be really something that people themselves should want to do and give."
But many other churches accept the money.
The Church of the Good Shepherd in Perryville bought new carpets and fixed its air conditioner with a $3,500 gift from the local American Legion post.
The Rev. Raymond Forrester, the pastor, says "approval" is too strong a word to describe his feelings about slot machines.