Cases for, against slots not sure bets

October 19, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

From the slack-jawed, dull-eyed faces of the mesmerized players around you, to the smell of old cigarettes and spilled drinks, to the grimy plastic coin cups, is there any more joyless experience than playing slots?

I don't get it. Just for the heck of it, and the fact that you don't have to have any knowledge of poker, blackjack or the other table games, I've played some machines here and there when I come across them -- in the jangly, hyper-stimulated gambling palaces of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and in a small and oddly subdued Indian casino in the middle of Nowhere, North Dakota. The appeal of shoving money into a machine and cranking the arm over and over again just escapes me, so I usually quit after losing sums in, oh, the low two figures.

Obviously, I'm in the minority -- slots increasingly have proved irresistible to gamblers and state officials alike. They're no longer novelties confined to a couple of states, with nearly 40 states having some kind of legal electronic gaming devices and with Maryland, once again, considering joining the neon-flashing, coin-clanging rush. During the coming special legislative session that he has called for this month, Gov. Martin O'Malley will push for legalized slots to help balance the state budget.

They can make the machines flash and bleep and clang as much as they want, and yet there's something just depressing about slots. There's no skill, no thought, no imagination involved -- and that goes not just for playing them, but for how states have come to rely on them as a cash cow, sweetening the harder-to-swallow tax increases and budget cuts..

I'll be curious to see what comes out of this special session, as well as the regular one that starts in January -- and whether legislators will be able to make the tough, skillful and, yes, imaginative solutions to the state's budget problems. Will they opt for the easy fixes -- tax cigarettes; who will defend smokers, after all? -- or will there be some real, systemic solutions on how to raise the necessary revenues?

As you can tell, I'm not much of a gambler, so I guess I won't be holding my breath.

I decided to see what some experts had to say. I dropped in on a Gamblers Anonymous meeting yesterday, one of a number held around the state on any given day for addicts seeking support for their recovery efforts.

It probably stacks the deck to seek out a crowd like this -- you think compulsive gamblers welcome another temptation even as they're struggling to resist the ones that already exist? -- but surprisingly, a range of opinions on the subject emerged in the church basement where the meeting was held. And, because of who was sitting around the table, they were particularly hard-won opinions.

Among those attending, for example, was someone who within days of retirement gambled away his pension; another ran through the insurance payout from a loved one's death, and even a child's trust fund. Yet another checked into a monthlong gambling-addiction program but first placed several weeks worth of bets in the office football pool to cover the games that would be played during that time. Houses, jobs and families were lost; prison terms were served.

A couple of them feared the introduction of slots, saying they would only draw more people into the kind of morass that they've fallen into. Another said the current illegality of the machines is the appeal, so maybe legalizing them would remove the thrill.

Even in this room, the same argument for slots that has proved convincing to others -- the fact that Marylanders are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars playing slot machines in other states -- had some validity. Well, not entirely: One man noted that the lottery was supposed to go toward improving education, and yet today -- when we have Pick 3, Pick 4, Match 5, Mega-This, Power-That -- many schools are still in bad shape and still in need of more money.

So now we turn to slots, again, despite their being defeated repeatedly in the past. Maybe it's inevitable -- at a time when you can grab a bus to West Virginia or Delaware to hit the machines there, or play casino games online, or buy a lottery ticket just about anywhere -- maybe slots are on their way here and the only question is when.

And how: Maybe there's a way to get the payoff of slots without the accompanying problems. Maybe even if slots are the least imaginative way to generate revenue, there still is room for smart and creative thinking on how to truly solve the state's structural deficit, other than relying on the big, easy, clanging payoff. Wanna bet?

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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