Oregon's keno devotees have learned to just count their losses and play on

December 13, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

SALEM, Ore. -- Don Brockman's Guest House is your typica small-town family restaurant, with clean olive booths, juicy burgers and pastel paintings of kittens on the wall.

But open the windowless door to the lounge down the hall and enter the brave new world of state-sponsored gambling.

Inside the smoky, wood-paneled lounge, gamblers can play traditional lottery games, hunker over video poker machines or bet up to $100 on a single shot at keno.

Playing the game

Keno is a frenetic numbers game with drawings every five minutes almost around the clock. In a recent week, people wagered roughly $20,000 on the game at Don Brockman's -- more than at any place else in the pioneer state. If you didn't know that casinos were illegal in Oregon, you might think for a moment you were in one.

Maryland will join the handful of states that have followed Oregon's example when it introduces keno Jan. 4.

Playing the game, which originated in China 3,000 years ago, is easy. First, you select up to 10 numbers from 1 to 80, blacken the appropriate spots on a betting slip and give your slip and wager to a bartender, who runs it through a computer and hands you a receipt.

Every five minutes a new set of 20 winning numbers flashes on a TV screen. Depending on how much you wagered and how many numbers you matched, you could win from $1 to $100,000. Miss your drawing? The waiter can run the receipt through the computer to see if you got lucky.

Of course, losing is not only possible; it's probable.

Stephen Allport lost $12,000 in a matter of months at Don Brockman's lounge. "That has something to do with" why the roofing contractor was nursing a beer, rather than clutching a keno ticket, one rainy night last week.

"I'm 46 years old, I'm single and I'm worth more than that," he said of the lost money. "It didn't kill me, no, but it was enough to make me realize I wasn't going to win."

He lighted a cigarette and glanced over his shoulder at the TV screen displaying the latest drawing. "I don't play that much any more."

Oregon does not have any studies of keno's social impact, but gambling foes say the game has a dark side.

"It's such a rapid-fire, immediate gratification type of gambling that it can be real addictive," said Robert Wentzien of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. "It has not been good for the state of Oregon."

Even Oregonians who enjoy keno seem to have mixed feelings about it. They say it's a sure-fire way to lose money, and they continue to play. They admit that winning the game is a matter of sheer luck, but in the next breath they claim to know how to beat the odds.

Cliff Powers played a few games of keno Tuesday afternoon while sipping a Bud Light at a sports bar named Cheers. It was his day off from his job servicing fire extinguishers. "It's a good game to stay away from," said Mr. Powers, a friendly, 56-year-old Salem resident who likes to talk about his children and grandchildren. "There ain't that many winners, because if there were, there'd be more people playing."

He's right about the number of big winners -- only one person has hit the top prize of $100,000 since the game began Sept. 13, 1991.

But somebody must be playing at the 2,000 bars, restaurants, bowling lanes, supermarkets and convenience stores that sell tickets.

$128 million

To date, Oregonians have wagered $128 million on keno, more than on any other numbers or instant ticket game in the same time period. Keno is second in sales only to video poker, which the state introduced last March amid considerable controversy.

Since adding its one-two punch of keno and video poker, Oregon has seen its lottery sales jump from $151 million in 1990 to more than $315 million in 1992. About 30 percent of that money will go to the state this year for economic development, a welcome windfall in a state anxious to promote alternatives to its dwindling timber industry.

It's no wonder Maryland wants to get in on the action, considering its chronic budget problems. Lottery officials hope Marylanders will spend $155 million on keno in the next six months, thereby enabling the state to fill a remaining budget shortfall of $50 million.

It's better than forcing folks to pay more taxes, right? And isn't it just a harmless form of entertainment that also happens to provide money for projects that benefit society?

Anyone who reads the brochure from the Oregon lottery might think so. According to the brochure, lotteries have had a "profound impact on the course of the world" while making "thousands of lucky players a lot richer for the experience." In fact, it says, "there's no such thing as a losing ticket" because of all the good that lotteries do.

Acting Oregon Lottery Director Steve Caputo said citizens like playing keno and other lottery games, while the government enjoys the "benign" and reliable source of funds. Keno is merely a "voluntary" tax on the willing, he said.

But one gambling critic, Oregon State Rep. Mike Burton, called it a "stupid" tax "because it's a stupid way of paying it."

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