Gambling in Md. was more seemly when illegal

March 21, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

A zillion or so years ago, when various professional gamblers and various police conducted business with an unspoken wink and a greased palm, the legendary bookmaker Philip "Pacey" Silbert found himself on East Baltimore Street, unfortunately holding some numbers bets widely known to be against the law, when he was approached by a uniformed officer who understood the rules of the game.

Moving instinctively, Pacey reached into his pocket, pulled out a $20 bill, and dropped it onto the sidewalk.

" 'Scuse me, officer," said Pacey, looking to pay his way out of this slight pickle. "Did you drop that $20 bill on the ground?" "Not me," said the cop. "I dropped a $50."

Such memories are always useful in the brave new world of state-supported gambling, in which nobody has to be bribed because all money is handled above the table. Only now, they want to increase the size of the table.

The state Lottery Agency, declaring some desperate need to keep pace with government gambling operations in neighboring states, which have recently learned to grab with both hands at a time, is planning to convert its Pick 3 and Pick 4 games into twice-daily drawings, adding a midday pick to the already existing evening selection.

The lottery people justify this, naturally, with much self-righteous talk of the additional money, perhaps $8 million a year, which this will bring the state. Hurrah, hurrah. Money's tight, folks are needy, think of all the people we can help if we all play our hearts out.

Oops! Did somebody mention people? See, in order to raise this extra $8 million, such money must come from somewhere, and this somewhere happens to be people's pockets. Many, unfortunately, bet money they cannot afford. Some can afford it only by sacrificing other things, such as home telephone service, or nutritional meals for their children. Thus, they wind up needing financial help from the state, which the state can give them by happy circumstance of having taken their money in gambling in the first place.

Is this what's known as a vicious cycle? The governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening, seems to have some sense of this. He said no to a proposed contract to buy 500 new Instant Lottery vending machines, and has announced his intention to veto any casino bills the legislature might pass this year. Others, however, look into the future and talk of the inevitability of expanding both lottery and casino operations.

A long time ago, the state's official position was to pursue the likes of Pacey Silbert who took various wagers and then dodged the cops as best he could. Gambling's not only illegal but immoral, the state declared, until one day it discovered the fabulous money to be made in such alleged immorality and commenced to cut itself into the game.

So why should anybody now defend those like Pacey, yet find fault with a state that runs the same game? Partly, it's a matter of degree. These state people are everywhere, charming the gullible with a variety of never-ending commercials that sell a dream but short-change the essential truth that the odds against winning are staggering.

Also, there is a difference between arguing that something should not be against the law and treating it as something to be applauded. The state, by mere fact that it operates the game, runs it up the flag pole. By advertising it incessantly, it asks us to salute it.

It's an interesting message in a time when government attempts to preach hard work and thrift and all the rewards it allegedly brings. The old-time bookmakers never gave such double-talk. They never implied that gambling made you a good citizen. They were just neighborhood guys who provided a service: You wanted the service, they were there; you didn't want it, nobody hinted you were a slacker for not contributing to the government's general fund.

So now we're about to double the number of daily games. To entice people to play, the level of public drooling must also be increased. The lottery people, sloughing off all talk of gambling addiction, and all talk of damage to families, instead mention what great fun they offer and what great financial help gambling brings the state.

Well, maybe. But, if gambling really is such great fun, and it really is such a civic benefit, why don't they just let people play as they wish, and stop shoving it down our throats?

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