Via satellite and cable, legalized gambling comes closer to home

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Legalized gambling in the United States has entered the age of high technology. As a result, gambling interests - whether private corporations or states looking for increased revenue - are poised to gain entree into arenas once closed to them. Those arenas range from specially built race-track theaters to living rooms with cable TV that could allow people to place bets without leaving home.

Some critics view this with concern. They caution that as gambling interests increase their reach, the attendant social problems - especially those revolving around compulsive gambling and its impact on the family - will rise.

But gambling promoters counter that the increasing use of sophisticated communications technology will allow more people to gamble. And gambling is, they say, just another form of entertainment.

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One example of combining communications technology and gambling is Teletrack, here in New Haven.

The scene has all the trappings of the race track: horses sauntering to the starting gate, the crowd stirring as the fanfare is sounded. Some spectators rise to their feet with the familiar ''And they're off,'' others call out racehorse names as the sleek thoroughbreds near the finish line.

Missing, however, is the faintest trace of the race track's pungency or the glare of the afternoon sun. The race is taking place 60 miles away in New York and is being relayed to Teletrack by satellite.

Teletrack's owner, AmTote, a subsidiary of General Instrument Corporation and the nation's leading maker of electronic betting systems, is building a second theater on the island of Margarita off Venezuela. It also is proposing others for northern Connecticut. And Britain's Ladbroke Group, one of the world's largest gambling corporations, is working on a joint venture to build a $10 million theater in Holyoke, Mass., at the foot of the Berkshire Hills.

So far, most of the objections to the facility have been based largely on issues other than gambling itself. Gambling promoters and critics alike say the American public is beginning to lose its uneasiness about legalized gambling. A Gallup poll taken last year showed Americans increasingly favor legalized gambling as a form of entertainment and as a means of raising government revenue. The poll also showed that as legalized gambling spreads, the public more readily tolerates it.

''People have accepted gambling as being OK,'' says Arnold Wexler, vice-president of the National Council on Compulsive Gambling. His prediction that the Massachusetts proposal would draw little antigambling protest has so far proved correct.

''People generally don't understand the extent of problems caused by the spread of gambling,'' he says. ''What's more, they're now seeing it as a panacea to a state's fiscal problems, which it is not.''

Mr. Wexler adds, ''There is no question that the local economy is hurt, even if the state reaps some financial benefit.''

Ladbroke's US partner in the Massachusetts proposal, Greylock Associates, predicts the Holyoke project would create up to 250 jobs and generate as much as and local officials are less than excited about the plan. Some doubt that Massachusetts racing would draw crowds as well as the New York races shown in Connecticut. Others say they doubt the promoters' methods or ability to deliver what they promise.

A Greylock report projects each visitor spending $110 per visit at its theater. Can such spending be a drain on a community if each patron is paying out more than $100 that might have been spent or invested in other ways? No, says Greylock's Mr. Dragone. ''You have to think of this as entertainment,'' he adds. ''These days you can't have a nice evening of dinner and dancing or a movie without spending close to $100, and no one thinks of that as a drain on a town.''

But Wexler says, ''Something which adversely affects the quality of life of many families is not just entertainment.''

Teletrack is one example of a growing number of public-private ventures that are bringing gambling into the lives of an increasing number of Americans. Eventually, such efforts are expected to reach into the home using technology such as cable television, and personal betting accounts, similar to charge accounts.

Dr. Gerda McCahn, professor of psychology at Furman University in South Carolina, says that ''the possibility of winning is always the lure'' to gambling. The easier the access to gambling facilities, she adds, the more likely a person is to gamble. This becomes especially true for problem gamblers, Dr. McCahn adds. That, she adds, is what makes the prospect of using two-way cable TV for gambling especially troubling: Not only is the temptation to gamble placed literally in arm's reach, but children in the home are more readily exposed to gambling.

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