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Feature: Bennett's gambling in perspective

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, May 12 (UPI) -- The massive gambling losses that William Bennett -- former drug czar, compiler of the best-selling "Book of Virtues," and conservative intellectual star -- incurred playing slot and video poker machines draw attention to the complex class and psychological issues revolving around wagering.

While gambling retains a little of its European upper-class aura -- the image of a tuxedoed James Bond placing a daring bet at a Monte Carlo baccarat table while beautiful women gasp at his audacity -- the American reality, as Indian casinos sprout up ever closer to the inner cities, is increasingly downscale. Casino gambling is growing ever more conveniently tempting for people who have a lot less wealth with which to cover their losses than has Bennett, who makes up to $50,000 per speech.

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Last week at the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino, 75 miles east of Los Angeles, but still very much within the vast Southern California megalopolis, 3,000 gamblers methodically played. About 1,400 crowded the bingo room, which is nearly the size of a football field, while most of the rest tried their luck on the casino's 2,000 slot machines.

The haze of cigarette smoke that greeted me as I walked in testified that, legally speaking, I was no longer in health-crazy California, where public indoor smoking has been banned since 1998. The land owned by the 67 adult members of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians is considered a sovereign nation, largely exempt from control by the state of California. In contrast, the state of California is very much influenced by the San Manuel Indians, who donated an average of $520,000 each to the successful 1998 and 2000 campaigns to pass initiatives freeing up Indian gaming.

Although California's Indians take in about $5 billion per year from gamblers, they are too few in numbers to make up many of the customers or employees of their casinos. On Monday, I saw only one American Indian, a 400-pound man with a black ponytail down to his waist.

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In Southern California they say you can't be too rich, too young, or too thin. In the San Manuel casino, for just about the first time since I moved to LA, I felt relatively rich, young and thin. The crowd was a fairly random sample of blue-collar California, with whites, Latinos and blacks all in representative proportions. Racially, the patrons looks like an older, more subdued version of a professional wrestling audience.

The one ethnic outlier was that there were a few more Chinese and other Northeast Asians than you'd see at a World Wrestling Entertainment "Smackdown!" The Chinese have always been fascinated by numbers, prosperity and good fortune. It's no accident that the two best-known movies about Chinese-Americans -- "The Joy Luck Club" and the new teen drama "Better Luck Tomorrow" -- contain the word "luck" in the title.

While San Manuel's profits, estimated at more than $100 million per year, go to a few score people, the experience inside the casino is egalitarian. Not even James Bond winning millions at roulette could draw a crowd of onlookers. In fact, there are no onlookers, because there are no roulette tables or other games where high-rollers could distract visitors from wagering. The strategy seems to be to put every posterior on a seat in front of a game at all times.

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The congressionally mandated National Gambling Impact Study of 1998 found that gambling dependence was a sizable problem afflicting several million people, although it was not as widespread as alcohol and drug abuse. About 125 million people gamble each year and the vast majority suffer no major ill effects.

On the other hand, the National Gambling Impact Commission reported that the National Research Council had estimated that 1.5 percent of adults, or approximately 3 million people, had been "pathological" gamblers at some point in their lives. Of those, 1.8 million were pathological gamblers within the last year alone, suggesting that it's not easy to get the gambling monkey off your back. Further, another 3.9 percent of adults (7.8 million people) had qualified as less severe "problem" gamblers during their lifetimes.

To put this in perspective, alcohol dependence afflicts about 14 percent of the population at some point in their lives, and drug dependence roughly half that number.

What's pathological gambling like? A computer programmer told me, "A guy I knew was gambling away his family's meager money while his wife was trying to find money to feed their babies. It was gruesome. I had to lend her money so the kids could eat. I had to lend it secretly so he wouldn't spend it. They had to move out of Nevada to get away from the casinos."

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Reacting to Bennett's statement "I don't play the 'milk money.' I don't put my family at risk," a writer recalled, "My father was a horse bettor and he bet the milk money, the bread money, the mortgage-on-his-Levittown-box money and finally his career."

On its Web site, the San Manuel casino offers a link to advice on "responsible gaming." ("Gaming" is the casino industry's euphemism for "gambling.") There, you can answer 10 questions. The casino informs you, "If you answer 'Yes' to seven (7) or more of the following questions, you may need to seek assistance." Yet, one of the questions is: "Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?" By itself, that might seem to be sufficient reason to get help.

Last Monday, after a few days of downplaying the seriousness of his gambling, Bennett announced, "I have done too much gambling, and this is not an example I wish to set. Therefore my gambling days are over."

The National Gambling Impact Commission found that men were about twice as likely as women to be pathological or problem gamblers.

It noted that "pathological gambling is found proportionately more often among the young, less educated, and poor." Bennett, a best-selling author and popular speaker, was apparently able to cover losses reaching up to $1.4 million at a single casino, according to the story by Newsweek and the Washington Monthly. Poorer people, however, are more likely to suffer "gambler's ruin," when they simply run out of money.

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"Both studies (by the NRC and the National Opinion Research Center found that pathological, problem, and at-risk gambling was proportionally higher among African Americans than other ethnic groups. Although little research has been conducted on gambling problems among Native American populations, the few studies that have been done indicate that Native Americans may be at increased risk for problem and pathological gambling."

Gambling seems to be least popular in the South, the most strongly Protestant region but what impact that has on gambling addiction is not known. The Roman Catholic Church, of which Bennett is a member, is much more tolerant of gambling than are many Protestant churches. For example, charity raffles are not allowed at my sons' Lutheran elementary school but are an annual rite at our Catholic parish carnival, where my 10-year-old won $1,000 last year.

Pathological gamblers are often substance abusers and substance abusers are often pathological gamblers. Which is the cause and which is the effect, or whether both are manifestations of some underlying problem, is uncertain.

Other than gambling and smoking, however, few vices popularly associated with casinos were on display at the San Manuel. According to employees, the crowd was a little larger than normal for a Monday night because it was Cinco de Mayo. A mariachi band trumpeted away forlornly, unable to distract the customers from the slot machines. Although Cinco de Mayo has become a Mexican St. Patrick's Day in California, an excuse to drink too much tequila, there was no evidence of revelry at the casino, where zeal and purpose reigned.

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No loose women were on hand. The San Manuel probably wouldn't be the ideal location for philandering since you might run into your mom on her bingo night out.

Las Vegas recently launched an ad campaign to counter the convenience of local Indian casinos. Its new slogan points out one advantage offered by Sin City's remoteness: "What Happens Here, Stays Here." According to Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield, the new TV strategy "pretty much ditches the Disney of the Desert angle in favor of drunken debauchery and degradation. It may be the most truthful series of TV commercials in the history of advertising."

Well, that's Las Vegas. In San Bernardino's casino, propriety reigned.

The sobriety of the crowd was probably the biggest factor. The drinks aren't free and lots of patrons had to get up the next morning for work. The man tending the tiny bar in the bingo room was glad to have somebody to talk to to help him pass the time. Walking around with a Coors bottle in my hand, I felt a little out of place, a hedonist amidst the diligent.

And that was the overwhelming impression: Casino gambling looks more like work than play. The gamblers may have been having a great time on the inside, but they sure weren't showing it on the outside. The only thing rarer than a smile was a laugh.

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Playing modern electronic slot machines looks a lot like what I do for a living everyday: tapping away on a computer (although, as my editors might wish me to note, the gamblers tap far more industriously).

Modern slot machines no longer dispense jackpots with a merry clatter of coins, so that source of excitement is gone. They merely bong out a simple repetitive melody in muted tones, rather like the Mother Ship in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." When you win, the screen adds more replay credits to your total. If you have the willpower to cash out before all your credits are gone, the machine merely prints out a slip of paper with a bar code on it that you can turn in to the cashier.

The news that Bennett, a man with a doctorate in philosophy, played the slots religiously aroused much derisive comment from my acquaintances, who saw slots as a low-class, strategy-free solitary vice.

A novelist wrote me, "What astonishes me is the stupidity of Bennett's gambling. I used to be a drunk, but I didn't get sozzled on cheap gin and moonshine. I drank good Scotch and Carlos Primera brandy. Similarly, I can imagine being addicted to gambling, but not to slot machines. Even roulette is a better bet (particularly in Monte Carlo as opposed to in the USA). Craps is easy to understand for anyone with normal intelligence, and the odds are easily learned even if you can't calculate them for yourself."

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Another dice fan commended the "instant camaraderie of the craps table." Others praised the rich tradition of horse-racing lore, the psychological and tactical acuity required by poker, and the sociability generated by office sports betting pools. Slot machines and video poker, Bennett's two favorites, are widely seen as old ladies' games, although they account for such a huge fraction of the total take from casinos these days that their demographic profile can't be all that different from that of the average gambler.

A barber who has been playing poker three nights a week at the card rooms southeast of Los Angeles since he won $45,000 last winter, observed, "The slots are a no-brainer. You don't have to know anything to play them, so you can't mess up and be embarrassed."

Well, I managed to mess up trying to play these new-fangled slot machines, but since nobody was watching, my mortification before I finally figured out which buttons to push was limited. In contrast, at the blackjack table, I failed to stack my chips properly, which seemed to peeve the dealer. After losing $25 in four minutes, I fled back to the slot machines, where I managed to nurse 12 minutes of play out of a quarter slot machine for only $3. All in all, I lost $31 in about 20 minutes.

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A woman pointed out that slot machines use intermittent reinforcement to keep you hooked, just as behaviorist psychologists learned that they could keep a laboratory rat doing a drill longest when they only randomly rewarded him now and then with a pellet of rat chow. She claimed, "It's just like how I'm addicted to the solitaire computer game that comes free with Microsoft Windows," which somebody near you is probably playing right now.

One recreational gambler commented, "The real advantage of slots is that older, fixed-income types or just plain less wealthy or risk-averse types can sit for hours and days and play nickel, dime and quarter slots without huge bankrolls; but they also have the excitement of knowing that one lever pull could set them up for life. It's not for everyone, but that get-rich-quick feel is alluring."

It's easy to see why electronic games like modern slots have been called "the crack cocaine of gambling." They combine immediate small gratifications with the pleasant possibility of a big jackpot almost the size of those offered by the state lottery. One study reported, "Lottery players were found to view their playing as socially acceptable risk-taking that provides them with a means of fantasizing sudden wealth and escape from their current status."

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So, what was going through Bennett's head? Did he feel the need to fantasize about escaping from his current status as perhaps the highest paid professional philosopher in history?

One observer speculated, "For Bennett, I actually believe his explanation for why he plays slots: he doesn't like to talk at tables. Taking that one step further, playing alone at slots helps him stay anonymous and keep his habit private. I'd guess that if he'd been a regular table player, we'd have heard about Bennett's gambling far earlier than we have, even though I'm sure he'd have enjoyed his gambling more."

Finally, will these revelations permanently end Bennett's career as a professional purveyor of virtue? Perhaps, but he may come back stronger than ever. This old college football lineman's critics, such as the ascetic, almost bird-like journalist Michael Kinsley, may not understand why so many people like him. Americans have seldom wanted to be lectured on virtue by people who look like they don't understand the appeal of vice. Bennett, who drinks, used to smoke, and eats and eats, is clearly a man of appetites. Eventually, he'll be poised to come back as the traditionally appealing figure, the reformed sinner.

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