Are we becoming a nation of gamblers?

To some economists it seemed the ultimate signal of a recession when Atlantic City casinos lost money last month for the first time since they began operating in 1978. All six casinos are temporarily laying off help, and seizing the occasion, you may be sure, to complain about "overregulation" by the state of New Jersey.

But nobody really expects gambling to succeed automobiles as the next ailing American industry. Since 1978 the three original Atlantic City casinos alone have reported gross revenues of $921 million. Three more casinos are expected to open in 1981, and within three years the Atlantic City Boardwalk could boast of as many as 20.

Wall Street Brokerage houses now list among their investment specialists "gaming analysts," one of whom predicts that by 1985 Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos will be doing a $5.5 billion business -- just about the gross of the three TV networks combined.

In the February issue of Next magazine Robert Sam Anson surveys the scene and prophesies that by the end of the decade "Las Vegas-style casinos, now confined to Nevada and New Jersey, will have sprung up in as many as 10 more states, with their neighbors clamoring for a piece of the action."

The rationalization is already in place.A gambling complex, it is said, creates jobs and, with the swank hotels and restaurants surrounding, provides instant urban renewal. Politicians, pinched by Proposition 13, see the promise of golden rivers of tax revenue.

The glib arguments favoring gambling know no bounds. Gov. Hugh Carey of New York has suggested that, with the revenue from gambling, more policemen could be hired to clean up organized crime. Another New Yorker, proposing a casino at Niagara Falls, has maintained that Canadian gamblers, crossing the border laden with Canadian dollars, will aid the US balance of payments.

At this point everybody is very anxious to keep the discussion practical -- a matter of dollars and cents. But, as one Wall Street "gaming analyst" told Mr. Anson: "What we are witnessing is the creation not only of a new industry but of a new culture that will profoundly affect how this country thinks."

Rather carelessly, without much examination or self-examination, are we about to turn into a nation of gamblers? The climate of the times makes it so seductive. With double-digit inflation, the dollar becomes something temptingly easy to throw around. What's the future anyway, with a nuclear arms race going on madly about us? isn't history itself becoming a dicey gamble?

Not long ago a poll indicated that 80 percent of the American people approve of legalized gambling, and 69 million of them practice it.

Gambling is the least scrutinized of bad habits. We are shocked to read, as we have this month, of college basketball players bribed by professional gamblers. But that, we tell ourselves, is the exception -- like the few compulsive gamblers who can't control themselves.

We are at the stage of innocence we once were about alcoholism when a drunk was just a bum on the Bowery. For the rest of us, What's the harm?m

Gamblers Anonymous estimates that six million to nine million americans are already addicted gamblers, with inestimable harm to their personal and professional lives.

We need to reread Dostoyevsky on the gambler -- to remind ourselves of glazed eyes looking beyond reality at a pile of chips. We need to study to the point of agony the insane exultation of the winner, the panic sweat of the loser, and the perverse desire of the winner to lose.

The gambling industry wants to make every american a gambler. Slot machines on every corner. Numbers games and roulette tables from sea to shining sea. And if you can't make it to your neighborhood casino, why not place your bet on your home computer?

At one Atlantic City casino slot machines are coded in Braille for the blind gambler. Is there a dreadful symbolism here, for all of us

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