Video-poker ban reveals two sides of the South

On the surface, momentum against gambling is building. But illegal dens are growing to feed an underground appetite.

When South Carolina last year decided to outlaw video-poker machines, the move was seen as a strong message from the Bible Belt: The spirit of casinos and scratch cards had not yet conquered the South.

For law-enforcement officials, though, it might as well have been a call to arms. Since the ban took effect this June, illegal gambling rackets have sprouted in dimly lit back rooms and smoke-filled shacks from Florida to West Virginia.

The reason is clear. Many of South Carolina's 22,000 video units have migrated across state lines, and small-time sharks are using them to run illegal high-stakes gambling operations.

Now, as South Carolina considers whether it wants a lottery, the myriad video-poker dens present a fractured image of where the South is headed. While many churches and Video-poker ban reveals two sides of South

antigambling activists seem to be having some success in persuading citizens to shun games of chance, the expanding black market is a reminder that an appetite remains.

"South Carolina suddenly helped us all become more aware of the problem," says Mark Senter, a supervisor with North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement.

Recent months have seen a flurry of busts throughout the South as police crack down on gambling nests.

•Operation Bad Bet in south Florida grabbed hundreds of machines and more than $500,000 in illicit revenues late last month.

•Police in north Georgia took a similar haul the same week.

•Authorities in West Virginia's Cabell County confiscated nearly 40 video-poker units in late August. It was their fifth successful raid in two months.

•In North Carolina, three separate raids in Mecklenburg, Union, and Cleveland counties - all along the South Carolina border - netted more than 140 machines during the past four months.

•An April raid in Arkansas turned up 182 machines and led to 22 arrests.

Localities have reacted to the trend with concern, but none have taken steps toward enacting a South Carolina-like ban. (Generally, they continue to allow video poker, so long as no prizes are awarded or prizes are of minimal value, such as coupons or cash less than $10.)

North Carolina, perhaps understandably, has taken some of the most concrete action. In July, lawmakers here put a permanent moratorium on bringing new machines into the state. But some border towns, seeking even greater protection, passed their own moratoriums, and others altered city ordinances so that businesses with machines couldn't locate near one another.

To be sure, gambling has had its ups and downs since keno was invented by China's Hun Dynasty in 100 BC In 19th-century America, for example, 22 of 33 states financed civic improvements through lotteries. Eventually, they all died out because of widespread corruption charges in the late 1800s.

New Hampshire started the trend again when it adopted the first modern state lottery in 1964. Twenty-six states adopted lotteries in the 1980s; 11 in the 1990s. As for casino gambling, the number of states that allow it has risen from two in 1988 to 27.

Still, gambling has been a particularly complicated subject in the South - interwoven with the area's strong religious tradition and states' reluctance to interfere in local issues.

Although the region has so far largely held out of the nation's rush to legalized gambling, there is evidence that attitudes are changing. According to one poll, 76 percent of regular churchgoers in the South now approve of some forms of gambling.

"The South is an open market," adds Bill Thompson, a gambling-industry expert at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas."Georgia and Mississippi have already shown that Southerners gamble. You can still make a lot of money even if 60 to 70 percent of the Baptists don't touch it. You only need 10 or 20 percent who actively gamble."

John Overington, a 16-year member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, sees it in his own state.

Ten years ago, there was "absolutely no support" for expanding gambling, says Mr. Overington, who has urged his governor for more enforcement. Now there are 2,000 Las Vegas-style slot machines at each of the state's four "racino" dog and horse tracks - complete with spinning drums and the "ka-ching" of falling coins.

But just because such tightly regulated gambling is only now appearing in the South doesn't mean that the region has no history with cards and craps.

Indeed, when casino operators first came to Mississippi after it allowed casinos in 1992, they saw firsthand that many locals had more than a passing familiarity with gambling.

"We were just amazed at how many experienced craps dealers we could hire locally," says Shannon Bybee, a former casino owner and industry regulator. "That has to tell you something."

Some people suggest that the evangelical resistance to Big Gambling may have exacerbated the spread of gambling dens. Most experts and lawmakers, however, point to the Southern states' desire to let localities take care of their own business.

Even now, many states have a very local approach, with "virtually no regulation of it," says Mr. Bybee. "There's a big difference between legalizing and regulating gambling and legalizing and letting it develop on its own."

Letting it develop on its own led to South Carolina's now-defunct dens of sleazy, illegal convenience gambling that appealed to the lowest instincts. "People would go on a binge and stay for 30 hours," says Thompson.

Yet as the problem becomes more well known, states and localities are becoming less tolerant. The recent raid in North Carolina's Union County featured sledgehammer-toting deputies, who dragged 11 machines out of a house and pulverized them beyond repair.

This, say experts, is the message that needs to be sent.

"The enforcement of the law will mean nothing unless they go in and smash the machines," says Thompson."You can't end up with injunctions and counter-injunctions - that's when they end up in West Virginia."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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