Keno, schmeeno, let's give Vegas a run for big gambling money

MIKE LITTWIN

December 23, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

The thing about keno is not that it's so terrible -- I mean, come on, it's just video bingo -- but that it's so unseemly.

Living in a state that has keno is like living in a house with a front lawn littered with rusted cars up on blocks.

Keno is the guy in the raincoat and shoes with no socks.

It makes a statement.

The statement keno makes is simply this: We've got nothing going. We're so broke, we go to Wayne Newton for a loan. Obviously, we can't think of a single, other way to raise money. This is what a state does when it's desperate.

So, keno. Coming to a bar, restaurant, bowling alley near you. Starting on Jan. 4.

Here's the way I understand the game works. You're having a romantic dinner, say at the Brass Elephant. It's just the three of you -- you, your significant other and the keno operator. Every five minutes, say during the soup course, you yell out, "Yo, keno lady," and then you hand the operator the betting slip and your bet. While slurping your lobster bisque, napkin tucked delicately under your chin, you look dreamily into the electric eye of the screen, up there amid all the shiny brass, and loudly root for your numbers to come in: "Twenty-two, I said 22, dammit."

Talk about a good time.

All right, all right. Probably the Brass Elephant is a little too classy to go for keno. It's more for the paper tablecloth set.

And where the game will proliferate, of course, is in bars. Which brings up this teensy, weensy ethical problem. Here you are in an establishment licensed by the state at which you are encouraged to get legally blitzed.

And then when the state has facilitated this blotto condition, wherein you now have all the judgment of a beer can, you are lured by said state to gamble away the grocery money, up to $20 a shot on a game that is played every five minutes for 16 hours a day.

It is expected to raise $100 million a year. For those who call keno the crack cocaine of gambling, that seems like a fair estimate.

I've seen the game in Vegas. The betting slips are right there at the table. The person waiting your table collects them as you eat the $4.99 surf-and-turf special. And you go through about five games during lunch. Soon you can do it all night in a bar right here in Baltimore, unless the objections of the attorney general and the lieutenant governor and not a few mayors are heard.

Is this what we're after here?

Is this what Doc "Riverboat" Schaefer, the only working governor wearing green eyeshades, has in mind?

If it is, why not go all the way? If ethics aren't a problem, why stop at lotteries? Let's put slot machines in bank lobbies; you can use your ATM card. How about video poker? Legalized sports betting? Dwarf tossing?

Maybe the state can start up an escort service. That's usually a big money maker.

How about a 900 number? Call the Guv, and, in his sexiest voice, he'll tell you how the state has this $100 million shortfall and how it's not his fault -- all for only $2.99 a minute.

If you want to raise money, let's get serious.

I mean, what does Atlantic City have that we don't?

Of course, there are drawbacks if you want to become another Atlantic City. The first thing is, Donald Trump is going to want to buy a hotel in the state, and he'll probably want to visit.

Also, you'll want to sleaze up the place a little bit. Maybe we can replicate The Block in Ocean City.

Sound good?

I'm not a prude. I love to gamble. In my former life, when the job took me to Vegas or Atlantic City, they had to drag me away from the tables. I never lost big money, but I never, ever went to either place when I wasn't there on business.

Now, they want to keep bringing more and more of the business to me.

There is an alternative, I guess. It's called taxes.

We don't like to talk about taxes. We'd rather talk about El Gordo. You want to know the dirty little secret of these games? The people who can least afford it are their traditional supporters -- and for all the obvious reasons, including the one about the pot of gold at the end of the keno slip. The more money gambled away, the fewer taxes others have to pay.

Unseemly? Well, gambling may not be immoral. But how about the state-supported shell game?

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