TORONTO — Coin in slot. Press "deal" button. View electronic playing cards. Press "hold" button. Lose. Begin again. Coin in slot.
So the rhythm goes for several minutes before it abruptly ends.
Electronic chimes and bells beckon, but the player sits quietly for a moment in front of the flashing video lottery terminal (VLT) - out of cash. Rising, she walks over to the casino cashier, returning with a roll of coins. The ritual resumes.
Scenes like this are common in Canada, where nine of the 10 provinces have legalized the 1990s computer-chip version of the old one-armed-bandit slot machine. But unlike the old slots, lightning-fast VLTs are so addictive that psychologists and researchers call them the "crack cocaine of gambling."
Wary of their dangers, only a few American states (South Dakota, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, Iowa, West Virginia, and Montana ) have legalized VLTs, allowing them in limited venues such as racetracks. Not so in Canada.
VLTs are big moneymakers despite their growing reputation as addictive. They have become popular with Canadian provincial governments struggling to cut budget deficits without raising taxes.
Earlier this month, Ontario announced it would legalize VLTs, making it the ninth and largest province to do so. The provincial government hopes to gain hundreds of millions of dollars of new revenue to fight its deficit. Only in British Columbia have citizens refused to permit VLTs.
"Ontario is making a big mistake," says Connie Fogal, spokeswoman for a Vancouver-based group Citizens Against Gambling Expansion. "Mothers earning $14,600 a year are stealing to feed their VLT addiction. It's a negative tax on those with least ability to waste their money. It's really a disgrace."
Advocates for the VLT machines in Ontario, however, pooh-pooh the dangers. They say legal machines are needed to displace an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 illegal machines. VLTs, they say, will be just one more type of gambling in a province that already has lotteries and a casino.
"It's a perfect government program because if people don't want to play it, they don't," says Marshall Pollock, president of Ontario Video Gaming Corp. "It's the essence of democratic choice."
Mr. Pollock says his company hopes to persuade the Ontario government to let it operate 35,000 VLTs across the province for a percentage of the gross revenue. He estimates the province could make more than $1.5 billion a year using his plan.
"It's not the device that causes the person to become a compulsive gambler," he says. "It's the person, their predisposition. Ninety-five percent of people can handle it."
But those who deal with the effects of VLTs on a daily basis say this is an understatement. Studies of provinces with legalized gambling show about 5 percent of the population to be "problem gamblers" and another 2 percent become "pathological" - unable to stop. The majority in both categories are hooked on VLTs, gambling addiction counselors say.
Alberta has at least 30,000 "pathological" gamblers - more than half of them addicted to VLTs, says Garry Smith, a researcher at the University of Alberta at Edmonton.
"VLTs are extremely fast and one of the few forms of gambling where the player controls the speed of play," he says. "A player can turn a cycle in a second and a half. It gives people a feeling they're challenging the machine. What they don't realize is that it's a randomly set microchip - it's not responding to them at all."
In Nova Scotia, the number of problem gamblers exploded after VLTs were introduced in 1991. The number of problem gamblers in the tiny province of 800,000 people is more than 10,000, says Kenneth Hannah, director of the Atlantic Foundation on Compulsive Gambling in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Worried by the addiction problem and pressed by an active citizens effort, the Nova Scotia government in 1993 pulled 2,500 slot machines out of corner stores where they were accessible to children and people who had never before gambled. About 2,800 machines remain in bars and restaurants.
"People will use all their savings, then credit cards, borrow what they can borrow," Mr. Hannah says. "Then all of a sudden they have bills they cannot possibly handle. If they have access to cash at work, they embezzle."
The US generally has not taken to VLTs as quickly as Canada has partly because of the dangers and partly because states aren't under the same financial pressure.
"Canada has been much more opportunistic, whereas in the US the debate has turned on the social implications," says William Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada at Reno.
Studies show that VLTs are particularly appealing to youths and women, he says, as well as working-class, single heads of households for whom the VLT "can become almost like a lover." As to whether VLTs are the "essence of democracy," as proponents contend, Mr. Eadington is less enthusiastic.
"I think that it is far too benevolent a view," he says. "VLTs are clearly in the hard gambling category. They are addictive. And there is a growing body of understanding that VLTs are not a free ride."
But with VLTs on their way, Tibor Barsony, head of the Toronto-based Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling, says he is resigned to a long, hard slog ahead - albeit with millions of dollars of fresh funding generated by the new VLT machines.
"I've been fighting against the VLT for many years," he says. "They are not something I'm happy to see in Ontario. I will fight till the day it is legalized - then I have to channel my energies toward taking care of its victims."