The gambling industry era: A blight in almost every way

September 20, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

If you have never gambled, you are preciously rare and probably terminally boring. But for all its approval by contemporary social, political and economic standards, gambling remains a tax on fools. Beyond the personal grief it causes, gambling in America today is doing vast, hideous harm - with worse to come.

That is the inescapable conclusion of the most dispassionate, fair-minded and inclusive book on the subject I have read in a life of fascination with the urge and its impact. The book is "Bad Bet: The Inside Story of the Glamour, Glitz, and Danger of America's Gambling Industry" by Timothy L. O'Brien (Times/Random House, 324 pages, $25).

Now a staff writer at the New York Times, O'Brien did a lot of his work while reporting for the Wall Street Journal, covering gambling as an industry. (Industry? Well, casino owners today make more money per square foot of commercial real estate than any other business in the United States. The legal gambling business will have more than $600 billion pass through its books this year.)

O'Brien writes fluently, in fact-packed passages and chapters, arranged by elements of the industry, by regions and eras and technical development. This is the work of an accomplished, disciplined journalist. For all the data and details, the pace is fast, the tone bright.

Writing about Las Vegas in the 1980s, as volume moved away from tables: "Slot machines, performing like the effective little cash registers they were, reeled in low rollers in such vast numbers that Las Vegas built some of the most mammoth facilities in the world to accommodate them. In turn, gamblers crowded the slot machines like so many patients in a hospital ward, tethered for hours to their intravenous feeders."

And so it went. So it goes.

O'Brien punctuates his narrative with compelling little vignettes from hundreds of interviews with players, bosses, victims. Fairly typically, one of them, a man who had lost jobs, family, friends, concludes:

"I must've went through this scenario a million times when I was in prison, just laying there in some of the dungeons. ... It's just a state that you step in, the draw of the action, the chance of turning that card over and it's the right card. You know what that feeling is like? Whew, I thought about it awhile and that's better than any sex I ever had."

O'Brien gives an often enchanting chart of gambling's origins, deep in prehistory. The earliest records of human activity contain references to wagering, lotteries, decisions made by random chance. On Calvary, Roman centurions drew lots for Christ's robe. Columbus' voyage was funded, in part, by a public lottery.

That history is cyclical: Gambling grows until it poisons social structures, undermines local economies, trashes law enforcement and corrupts politics. Then there is a crash of recognition and reform. After a generation or so, the cycle begins again.

The familiar contemporary forms of large-scale commercial wagering in the United States are found in Prohibition and before, but the real growth, and the beginnings of high drama, started after World War II.

From the outset, it was ruled by organized crime, the Mob, the Mafia families from a half-dozen cities - with the collusion of the Teamsters Union and apparently with the acquiescence of J. Edgar Hoover (an inveterate gambler). Mafia families - and their Teamster Union partners and financiers - controlled Las Vegas from its beginnings until the 1970s, when heavy-handed excesses of mobsters and humiliated, red-handed politicians collided. Public outrage incited reforms. Regulation has been off-again-on-again in its effectiveness ever since.

Where is America now in the historic cycle? No one can be certain. But if history is any guide this is sure: Gambling and lotteries will so poison the places that indulge and depend upon them that revulsion will grow again and reform will wipe them out. Temporarily. How we forget! How we ignore history, we frail humans - we greedy, stupid, lazy folk!

Economic growth or job creation are brought in by gambling only in places that can draw in large numbers of outsiders and make them stay long enough to spend significant money on non-gambling activities. Las Vegas grew with gambling; Atlantic City, now larger in gambled dollars, has suffered by virtually every measure of personal income, social stability and welfare, law enforcement. It has been disastrous in New Orleans, other cities.

Where gambling is legalized, most new jobs for local residents are at the bottom of the food chain: dish-washers and floor-sweepers and the like. Middle-income employees often spend their salaries on - guess! - gambling. By and large, the only beneficiaries are the owners and operators and, of course, the legions of politicians and law-enforcement officers who have been bought, paid for, and, by the hundreds, later convicted in reform efforts.

The explosion of casinos and other gambling on native American territories and reservations in recent years has brought vast wealth to some Indian tribes and its members. But the wealth has also been accompanied by the social and economic blights and plagues that bedevil other gambling venues.

The future: The danger of more cities and states - including of course Baltimore and Maryland - succumbing to the false promises is still vibrantly pernicious. The money available for corrupting the public process is in the billions.

And then comes the Internet. "Nambling" - gambling on line - is growing rapidly and virtually unregulated. O'Brien fears it will turn out to be the most destructive manifestation of the entire gambling phenomenon - ever.

Want to bet?

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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