Got that ramblin', gamblin' feeling

Monday Book Review

December 28, 1992|By David Holahan

TEMPLES OF CHANCE: How America Inc. Bought Out Murde Inc. to Win Control of the Casino Business. By David Johnston. Doubleday. 288 pages. $22.50. AMID all the talk about keno and the potential belly-flop of el gordo (unless the Maryland Lottery Agency pumps some steroids into the poor thing), this book should give pause.

America has gambling fever. Always has. George Washington had it. The Revolutionary War and Yale University were financed in part through lotteries. Today, however, the nation is turning to gaming as never before. And it isn't just individuals who are becoming increasingly addicted; governments and giant corporations have come to depend on the steady stream of easy money rolling in from growing legions of losers.

While citizens rail against new taxes, new casinos are bursting out all over, besieged by customers eager to lighten their wallets. The instant and overwhelming success this spring of the Pequot tribe's new gaming parlors in rural Ledyard, Conn. (within a month of opening they were selling more chips than the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City) stunned everyone involved. Perhaps most astonished were officers of the 33 banks which had declined to bankroll the project.

There are now more casinos in Minnesota than in Atlantic City, which boasts 12. Americans lost $9 billion in such places in 1989 and $24 billion all told to legal gambling. That latter figure is expected to rise to $40 billion by 1995. In Philadelphia, one hour's drive from Atlantic City, 28 percent of the population routinely gambles.

David Johnston, an investigative reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, makes a strong case that "Bad as the mob is, having corporate America dominate the casino business is worse." What tycoons like Steve Wynn, who runs the lucrative Mirage casino in Las Vegas, can do that mobsters can't, according to Mr. Johnston, is promote gambling as just another wholesome family pastime.

No longer tainted with illegality or "mob ties," gambling is now being promoted by major companies like Holiday Corp. (of Holiday Inns). Such upstanding firms can attract a broader spectrum of the population and enjoy both the expertise and capital to transform gaming into a phenomenal growth industry. As an example, the single stock which rose the most in value (441 percent) on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991 was International Game Technology, the leading manufacturer of jTC video slot machines. Wall Streeters are betting that more and more states like Maryland will eventually embrace such widely outlawed devices.

Mr. Johnston is relentless in his disapproval of the growing green menace: "Making full-blown casinos, on land or afloat, easily available to most Americans is just one part of the corporate plan to profit by infecting America with an incurable case of gambling fever." Later, his raw disgust is palpable: "At night, a halo seems to hover over Atlantic City . . . But the halo is deceiving. Atlantic City is no heaven on Earth, but an urban hell that brings together the filthy poor and the filthy rich."

So it is surprising that in his "afterword," Mr. Johnston simply concedes that gambling is "inevitable" and lists 10 regulatory commandments to keep this money-eating monster under tighter control. Few, if any, of these new and improved rules -- like no free drinks for high rollers and banning gambling on credit -- are likely to be adopted anywhere, or enforced if they are.

And if anyone should appreciate that reality, it is Mr. Johnston himself. He seems not to have read his own book, which repeatedly documents how governments are as fond of the "take" as any casino owners. In addition, with so many places vying for "the action" to save their budgetary bacon nowadays -- consider Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer's ramrodding of keno without putting the game to competitive bidding -- moguls like Steve Wynn can be awfully picky about where they expand and what regulations they will tolerate.

Another problem with "Temples of Chance" is that the author often lapses into numbing detail about the inner machinations of the gambling industry. The focus on truly memorable characters and significant details suffers accordingly. Still, the book is must reading for those who are concerned about side effects from the remarkable growth of the gaming industry. Rare is the state where legalized gambling isn't established, expanding or contemplated.

David Holahan is a writer in East Haddem, Conn.

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