We could lose big if state gambles on gambling

June 22, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ATLANTIC CITY -- Shattering all known records for caving in to gambling hunger, my wife enters the Trump Taj Mahal casino, gazes across such glitter as she hasn't seen since she was 11 years old and saw the nighttime splendors of Carlin's Amusement Park from high atop the Ferris wheel, and announces herself prepared to bring the nearest blackjack table to its knees.

"Are you sure?" I ask.

"Absolutely," she declares, pulling out a small wad of bills and hungrily looking around for an open seat in this supermarket of greed. "Just one very quick thing."

"What's that?"

"Now an ace," she says. "That's worth, what, 12?"

Oy.

The eyes in my head begin rolling around like the fruit in a slot machine. Forget blackjack, I say, go put quarters in one of the slots, and I'll see you in an hour. No, she says, and marches herself off to find a table. I march off to find my own, distanced from hers, knowing she's about to be fleeced big-time, and hoping I can make up the difference.

Well, it's a sucker's game, isn't it? The old American success story -- work hard, stay out of trouble, make a few bucks over the course of a career -- has yielded to the new ethic, which is to hit it big once and live off the residuals the rest of our lives.

Thus, the various state lottery games. Thus, the lore of Atlantic City casinos. Thus, Gov. Parris Glendening, naming a nine-member task force the other day to study the potential impact of casino gambling on Maryland.

Glendening does this, it is said, with some reservations. He's concerned about gambling's effect on crime and jobs and social problems and the impact on related industries, such as horse racing and the state lottery.

He should come here.

When they started casino gambling 17 years ago, the big promise was the very rebirth of this aging seaside resort, which had fallen on bad times. Gambling, it was said, would bring such money to Atlantic City as to clean its streets, employ its jobless, rebuild its housing base, and restore its citizens' will to live -- or, at least, to live in Atlantic City.

The governor of Maryland should send his gambling commissioners here.

After 17 years of rolling the dice with its economy, Atlantic City, recently described as a slum, is now described as a slum with 12 casinos.

You drive in from the Atlantic City Expressway, and spot the glitzy hotels ahead, and if you're lucky you don't notice the housing project directly across the street with its boarded-up windows, its trash cluttering the grass, its people standing on corners at midday who are going nowhere. Should we blame the casinos for this? Not specifically, but let's also remember promises not kept. There are reportedly 30 million visitors a year here, and they spend about $3 billion annually. The beach is filled with sunbathers, and on this muggy summer day the boardwalk's crowded with people, with a parade of various musicians and artists attempting to coax people into letting their inhibitions go. The city does seem to be trying hard to make itself lovable to its visitors.

But wander off the boardwalk, and you see block after block looking undernourished, unkempt, boarded-up houses and vacant lots and all these depressing areas where nobody gets out of a car if they don't have to.

Lately, the boosters talk of changes in the wind. Just off the expressway, there's a huge new convention center being built. There's been movement downtown to build shops and restaurants and theaters. There are 40,000 new jobs here since gambling started.

The knockers say, yeah, but most of the jobs went to people from outlying towns and boroughs. And anyway, they add, look how long it's taken for any signs of life outside the casinos themselves.

So any investigation of casino gambling for Maryland must include a visit here. There's a feel of action on the boardwalk, but it seems superimposed on the surrounding decay. There's loose money inside the casinos, but it hasn't noticeably drifted into the town itself.

The heart of the place is the roll of the dice, the flip of the blackjack cards. Take my wife, please. She knows nothing about the game, but walks away a $95 winner. I, on the other hand, a veteran player, walk away -- well, that's a matter between me and my accountant. As somebody said, it's a sucker's game.

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