A sea change in gambling over 60 years

I watched an old black-and-white movie the other night titled “The Phenix City Story,” and it was re

I watched an old black-and-white movie the other night titled “The Phenix City Story,” and it was really amazing as a reminder of how times change.

It was based on events in Phenix City, Ala., in the early 1950s, when that city was a notorious vice den catering to the soldiers of nearby Fort Benning among others, its principal attractions being gambling and prostitution. The low point of its history was the assassination there of the state’s attorney-general elect in 1954, which led to the state imposing martial law.

In the movie the dramatic turnaround was illustrated by helmeted soldiers piling out of Army trucks, storming into the vice dens and dragging out and smashing — what? What do you suppose they smashed to smithereens as a symbol of cleaning up the town?

You guessed it — slot machines.

Yes, 60 years ago it was slot machines more than anything else that stood for moral rot, and it was slot machines that the government wanted to pulverize in order to keep the country decent. Isn’t that wonderful? Having in mind that any state without slot machines today is considered to be falling behind economically.

This also put me in mind of the old Kefauver Committee, if anyone remembers that — the committee to investigate organized crime led by Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee (I mean the committee was led by Sen. Kefauver; organized crime was led by others.)

About the same time as Phenix, Ala., was exploding, the Kefauver committee smoked out the little-concealed fact that Saratoga Springs (“History, Health, Horses”) was a hotbed of illegal gambling at such fashionable joints as Piping Rock and Newman’s Lake House, both near Saratoga Lake, and the result was that those places were forced to close and a good many livelihoods were wrecked, as I remember from my own childhood.

It’s something to reflect on, is it not? I mean, now that the state Lottery Division spends approximately $86 million a year on advertising to induce us to gamble, now that state-sponsored casinos spend another $100 million to the same purpose, and now that Gov. Cuomo wants a constitutional amendment to permit full-fledged casinos, surpassing the mere slot-machine operations that exist at racetracks.

Slot machines, far from being symbols of vice deserving of the sledgehammer, are now regarded as OK but really kind of entry-level stuff. For all their hypnotic appeal, they are small-time compared to roulette wheels and craps tables, and any state that wants to stay in the game has to take the next logical step.

They are like a gateway drug, if you want to put it in those terms, and the idea of the National Guard arriving by the truckload at the Saratoga Casino and Raceway, busting through the doors as the geriatric customers run out the back, dragging the machines into the parking lot and smashing them with sledgehammers is really pretty funny.

What do you suppose Sen. Kefauver would think if he could come back and visit that casino with its updated electronic slot machines and now also electronic “table games,” that is, simulated roulette wheels and simulated craps tables?

What would he think if he could see the billboards proclaiming “1,700 slots!” and showing perky young models frisking as if they were absolutely having the time of their lives?

What do you suppose the crusading attorney-general-elect of Alabama would think?

It makes my head ache to think about.

Categories: Opinion

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