Washington — In ``My Fair Lady,'' Henry Higgins asked: Why can't a woman be more like a man? Well, Professor Higgins, now they are -- when it comes to gambling.
Like men, women are playing the lotteries, rolling dice in casinos, betting on slot machines.
Like men, women are becoming compulsive gamblers who damage their families and their careers.
And like men, some women are turning to crime to support their gambling habits.
There's a growing debate over why this is happening. But there's no doubt that it is. Thousands of women who had never gambled a few years ago are now into very serious, high-stakes play.
Part of the debate is whether new, state-run lotteries are introducing women to gambling and helping to create new compulsive gamblers.
Lottery forces say adamantly, ``No.''
Some experts who work with compulsive gamblers disagree. They point to case after case of women who have become compulsive gamblers through the lotteries.
Whoever is right, female gambling has become a mounting problem for America during the past few years.
Robert L. Custer, one of the nation's leading authorities on gambling problems, says: ``If there has ever been anything that was male chauvinist . . . it has been gambling. Women were kept out for a long time.
``That has [now] changed. [For example] they are now into the poker tournaments. And they . . . are really as good as the male gamblers, and that tends to reinforce their gambling behavior. They like to beat the men.''
Dr. Custer estimates conservatively that there are 2 million compulsive gamblers in the United States today. Some estimates go as high as 8 million. Of these, a growing percentage are women.
Authorities in Maryland, where there is a very active, state-run lottery, say that a few years ago they almost never treated women for gambling problems. That's no longer true. More and more women are turning themselves in for help.
John Steele, a counselor at the Maryland Treatment Program for gamblers in Baltimore, says:
``The majority of women that have come to me for treatment [of compulsive gambling] have been lottery players.
``One woman, in her mid-to-late 20s, worked for a bank as a teller and embezzled money to play the lottery. Then she took another job and got caught stealing there.
``Another woman, in her mid-30s, had been playing the lottery for years. She had embezzled more than $100,000 from her company.
``In both cases, the crimes were driven by the need for money for gambling. In both cases, in their minds they felt that when they hit [the lottery jackpot], they could put the money back.''
Then Mr. Steele adds:
``There's no question a lot of the money the state has coming in through the lottery is stolen money.''
Dr. Valerie Lorenz, director of the Maryland program, cites the case of a woman who gambled away $79,000 -- everything her family had -- before she sought help.
Others, however, dispute whether state lotteries, which took in more than $8 billion in bets last year, really are creating many serious problems -- either for men or women.
Duane Burke, chairman and president of Public Gaming Research Institute, observes:
``In general, the money spent on lotteries is an infinitesimal percentage of total income of anybody. Play tends to be in the $1, $2, $3-a-week range for regular players.''
The question, Mr. Burke says, is whether lotteries are hurting either the players or their families.
``[My] observation is, based on 20 years' experience, that is not happening.''
Dr. Custer, who is president of the National Foundation on the Study and Treatment of Pathological Gambling, says most serious gamblers are not attracted to lotteries.
Serious gamblers prefer horse racing, illegal sports betting, casino and country-club betting, and stock and commodity options, he says.
The reason: Serious bettors think they can get an ``edge'' in something like horse racing -- an edge such as an inside tip. That is not true in lotteries, which are pure chance. So the serious bettor is not drawn to lotteries, Custer says.
He does concede, however, that lotteries can serve as an entry port for gamblers.
People who have never bet before, seeing a state-run lottery with the imprimatur of government upon it, might buy a ticket. And win. And that's when the trouble begins. All serious gambling problems begin with a big win, Custer says.
Buying that first lottery ticket might be compared to a future drug addict taking his first puff on a cigarette, Custer says. It's a starting point.
Several sources, including a federal law enforcement official who asked not to be identified, suggested that there are a number of reasons for the upsurge of female gambling.
First, the women's liberation movement now makes it acceptable for a woman to go unaccompanied into a casino and do serious gambling.
Second, more women now hold high positions in companies. These jobs give them access to money, and the final phase of compulsive gambling often includes theft.
Third, technology now provides various forms of electronic gambling, which many women find more to their liking than traditional blackjack or craps. Gambling tables are often dominated by male players, and the women feel intimidated. But ``video blackjack, craps, horse and dog races allow players to sit down and play at their own speed, and women use them,'' a federal law enforcement source notes.
Finally, there are changes brought about by the state-run lotteries. Bob Bezilla, who has studied gambling for the Gallup Organization, says that in earlier times there was a ``social barrier'' to women playing the numbers, as illegal lotteries are called. Women were not likely to go into a barbershop or pool hall to find the local numbers runner.
Today they can pick up a lottery ticket at the same time they buy a candy bar at a local store. And it's all legal. State-run lotteries have taken numbers playing out of the dark.
The lotteries have done something else. While sports betting, casinos, and most other gambling are still primarily the province of men, lotteries are played as much by women as men. A survey in Washington State found the lottery players there divided 49.4 percent male, 50.6 percent female. A New Jersey study found it was 50-50 in that state.
Some experts now wonder if this equality in the lotteries will eventually lead to equality in more serious, high-stakes gambling -- once these new female bettors get bored with mere lottery play.
Fifth of eight articles. Next: Lotteries and the law.