They Call It Video Crack
Gambling machines in South Carolina break hearts and bank accounts. The Governor wants them out
By Viveca Novak/Bennettsville
You know the tide has turned against video gambling when Doug Jennings announces it's time to throw it out of his state. The South Carolina legislator, a lawyer and popular fourth-term Democrat, had backed the video-machine operators ever since he took office in 1991; after all, they helped keep many small businesses alive in his rural, job-starved district skirting the North Carolina border. But this year Jennings listened to another part of his constituency, spouses and children of addicted gamblers who begged him to back a bill banning the machines.
Local tales of woe abound: there's the service-station owner who got rid of his after watching a neighbor lose his house and his car; or the young pizza-franchise manager in a neighboring county who has a criminal record after feeding the machines for weeks with his store's cash. "People have been losing their homes, their cars. Families are breaking up," said Jennings. "I had a client tell me, 'I want you to ban these things. I'm hooked, and the only way I can get away from them is if you take them away.'" So when a group of poker-machine operators visited him not once but twice this year and threatened to punish his political turnabout by financing a primary opponent, Jennings didn't budge. In his re-election bid, he faces Marlboro County coroner Tim Brown, who has hired one of the state's top-drawer consultants to run ads hammering Jennings for his vote.
But Jennings may have picked the winning side. The Governor, Republican David Beasley, has called video gambling a "cancer" on the state and has made getting rid of it a top issue as he runs for a second term. This spring's legislative effort to ban the machines passed overwhelmingly in the house, then was filibustered to death in the senate, but is sure to resurface next year. And the state supreme court is on the verge of deciding a class-action suit filed by habitual gamblers claiming the machines violate the state's constitutional ban on lotteries; the decision turns on the definition of a lottery, which is considered a game of chance (as players in last week's $195 million Powerball game will testify). The justices in South Carolina have to decide whether video poker involves more skill than luck.
The fact that Beasley has made video poker the hottest issue in the state reflects in part a nationwide backlash against most forms of gambling: it's evident from Oklahoma, where voters in February overwhelmingly rejected a referendum to bring casino gambling to the state, to Michigan, where voters may have a chance this November to overturn a plan for three Detroit casinos. But much of the new resistance has focused on video gambling, which experts have called the crack cocaine of wagering because of its quick and deep hold on players. Four years ago, a statewide referendum in South Carolina showed lopsided support for video gambling. But in a survey conducted by the Mason-Dixon polling firm last December, 47% of respondents said video gaming should be done away with and an additional 24% said they favored regulating it more tightly. Contributing to this mood shift is a growing collection of tragedies, such as the death last August of the 10-day-old daughter of Army Sergeant Julius Baker and his wife Gail; the baby was left in the sweltering family car for several hours while Gail played video poker in Jasper County.
There are signs of a reassessment's taking place in some of the other nine states where video gambling is legal outside casinos. In Louisiana, for instance, several of the parishes voted to ban the machines starting next year, even though the parishes get a share of the profits. In Las Vegas--yes, Las Vegas--Mayor Jan Jones has asked a panel to consider removing slot and video-poker machines from neighborhood businesses. And some states are pre-emptively acting to keep video gambling out: Alabama's legislators and those in nine other states voted against bills this year that would have introduced it at racetracks and casinos.
Professionals who specialize in gambling addiction agree that video poker provides an exceptionally fast track to addiction. Among the 5% of all gamblers who develop a problem, it takes those who bet on horses 20 years to "hit bottom," as Gamblers Anonymous puts it. By contrast, video gamblers get to that stage in just over two years. Why? Video poker has in spades the qualities that make up the addictive "power" of a game, according to Las Vegas clinical psychologist Robert Hunter: speed (a good player can go through as many as 12 hands a minute); the built-in ability to keep playing (many video-poker outlets are open 24 hours, and it's not unusual to hear of someone's playing 36 hours straight); the perception that skill is involved (largely false, Hunter says); and the game's hypnotizing effect. "It's like a trip to the twilight zone," says Hunter.
In South Carolina it's easier than ever to make those trips. The state has some 30,000 video-poker machines, up from about 20,000 in 1994 and more than anywhere else but Nevada and New Jersey. The amount of money players fed into the machines went from $1.4 billion in 1996 to $2.1 billion in 1997. Part of the reason for this increase is the spread of video "malls," which are what gambling entrepreneurs have come up with to get around a state regulation that limits an establishment to five machines. The operators simply put up warehouses and divide them into many rooms, each with five machines but separate electric meters. With the average profit of each machine reaching $22,000 in 1997, it's no wonder the industry is fighting to stay put.
Warren Holliday, a Charleston, S.C., video-poker operator who provides machines mostly to convenience stores, calls Beasley's crusade an attack on the small-business people of South Carolina. "Why let the small percentage that has the problems dictate what everyone else does?" he asks. But the gaming interests have also come up with a smart counteroffensive: they're asking to be taxed. Beasley argues that's a sure way for the state to become so dependent on the revenue that it will never rid itself of video gambling, and there is some evidence he may be right. In Oregon, between 1995 and 1997, the state budget relied for 9% of its revenue on the lottery system, most of it from video poker. An effort to get rid of video gambling there evaporated this year. "The state is overwhelmingly dependent," says Peter Bragdon, a lawyer who helped the Governor study the problem.
In South Carolina, the industry is trying to make its case over the airwaves; it poured more than $1 million into TV ads during the spring legislative session. That has only energized backers of the ban. "If we can't stop them now, they're going to own the political system within a couple of years," said Richard Gergel, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs suing the industry in the supreme court case. Jennings, for one, says the industry is paying the price for reaching too far into gamblers' pockets. His renovated Victorian law office in Bennettsville stands across from a bingo hall with 20 video-poker machines. Its owners recently put in an automated teller machine, though there's one at a bank right across the street. "The industry got greedy," said Jennings. "[Now] you can't find anyone in South Carolina who doesn't know someone who's addicted."
Where Video Gambling Is Under Assault
Several states are moving against it
The supreme court is set to rule on whether video-poker machines
are legal, and Governor David Beasley is crusading to ban all
30,000 now in the state
The mayor of Las Vegas is considering removing video poker from
Several parishes have voted to oust video poker from restaurants
This state and nine others have said no to video poker at racetracks and in casinos this year