Is the lottery a big deal?

Age-old lure of betting has already hooked thousands in the state.
By Jim Nesbitt / The News & Observer

From the hard brown counter of a Waffle House next to the Walnut Street exit from U.S. 1, you can see the Third Wave of legalized gambling in America at daybreak on Thursdays.

That's when Wayne Johnson, a 58-year-old roofing contractor, gets together with four or five buddies for coffee, eggs and a dawn-patrol strategy session. For eight months, Johnson and the 19 other members of what's known as the Waffle House Mafia have been pooling their money, picking someone to make the 216-mile round-trip to Emporia, Va., and plunking down $400 to buy Mega-Million and Lotto South tickets.

But playing the Virginia lottery isn't the only curl of the American gambling wave that Johnson rides. Twice a month, he and his wife, Janet, board a charter jet to Tunica, Miss., to play the slots at the Grand Casino. They also take an occasional trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to gamble on a cruise ship casino.

The Johnsons pocket a roll of $500 to $1,000 each trip. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. Each time, they have fun and can't wait to go back.


"Everybody's got a habit they enjoy, and that's ours," he said. "Some people prefer boats, some prefer fishing, some prefer other hobbies, but I prefer the slots -- me and my wife both."

In a country awash in virtual and live gambling, the lottery debate in North Carolina seems almost quaint -- a bow to the lingering power of Bible Belt conservatism and the curious Southern tradition of private sin and public salvation.

Consider this: Americans made more than $892 billion in legal wagers in 2002. That figure is a sevenfold increase since 1982, according to Christiansen Capital Advisors, LLC, a marketing analysis firm that produces an authoritative annual survey on legalized gambling revenue.

In a left-handed way, the notion of North Carolina finally legalizing a lottery is a testament to the staying power of what gambling expert Nelson I. Rose calls the Third Wave of legalized gaming in this country. Gambling has had a historic rise and fall since colonial times, with two earlier eras of legalization ended by scandal, revulsion and prohibition.

The latest era of legalization started when 21 states allowed parimutuel betting at race tracks at the height of the Great Depression. But since New Hampshire established a lottery in 1964, the Third Wave has been on a roll.

Now, every state except Utah and Hawaii has some form of legalized gambling -- from lotteries and horsetracks to tribal casinos.

Lotteries are in 42 states, including Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, which share borders with North Carolina. Commercial casinos, riverboats and so-called racinos -- horse and dog tracks with Vegas-style slot machines -- are open in 16 states, where bettors plunked down more than $31 billion last year, according to a report by the American Gaming Association, the trade group for commercial casinos.

There's also online gambling, which attracted $5.7 billion in wagers in 2003 and is expected to take in $18.4 billion in 2009 according to a projection by Christiansen Capital.

To put it in tidal terms, North Carolina -- which has a tribal casino in Cherokee, video poker and charity bingo -- is finally being swayed by the same wave of legalization that has made gambling an attractive revenue option for other state governments.

Baptized by lotteries, governments have become increasingly comfortable with harder forms of gambling as substitutes for taxes, said William Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada at Reno.

"Lotteries have made gambling more palatable," Eadington said. "They've proven gambling can be fun, can be run honestly and can be good revenue generators. The biggest concern about lotteries is whether they lead to more serious forms of gambling down the road."

At ease with betting

As the Third Wave continues to crest, there has been discovery of the truth that shocked Claude Rains' character in "Casablanca" -- people like to gamble. This is particularly true of Southerners, including North Carolinians who buy an estimated $100 million worth of Virginia lottery tickets, about 10 percent of annual sales, and about $114 million worth of South Carolina lottery tickets, about 12 percent of sales, lottery officials in both states said.

"It's like Will Rogers said about drinking in Mississippi -- Mississippians will vote 'dry' as long as they can stagger to the polls," said William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"There's a deep love of gambling in the South. Southerners have been famous for their willingness to place a bet, whether it's a cockfight, a dogfight, a horse race or a football game. Very few Southerners haven't made a bet."

A Southerner's fever for gambling, Ferris said, is rooted in the region's frontier mind-set, a cultural group-think that also puts a high premium on good bourbon and violence as a ready answer for an affront to a person's sense of honor. Frontier hedonism has been restrained by the region's deep religious convictions, a clash that has resulted in the classic contradiction between Saturday night sin and Sunday's saving grace.

The Southern tradition of sin privately co-existing with salvation has been diluted by transplants to North Carolina. A census study of migration among states from 1995 to 2000 showed that for every 1,000 North Carolinians, more than 48 came here within that five-year span.

Gail Bartley came to Cary from Connecticut 18 years ago. Her son, Aaron, has parlayed online poker skills into a lucrative career as a professional player. She has little patience with the folkways of her adopted home.

"There's so many other types of gambling out there that are accessible online, why are we worrying about a lottery?" said Bartley, 53. "It's almost a nonissue. If the money's truly going to be used for education, I don't know why there's even a debate about it."

Gaming in N.C.

The signs that gambling is alive and well in North Carolina are scattered and anecdotal. But they can't be missed.

They include the more than $100,000 in campaign contributions during the 2002 election cycle made by donors with ties to the video-poker industry and the more than $100 million a year in reported revenue from more than 10,000 machines throughout the state. Those numbers are from a report on video poker and political corruption made by Democracy North Carolina, a watchdog organization based in Carrboro that monitors money and ethics in politics.

M.G. Bobbitt, a former Durham radio personality who has filled casino-bound charter jets with North Carolina gamblers for more than 30 years, is witness to more direct evidence of Tar Heels' long-running love affair with gambling. He has a customer roster of 35,000 people, including Wayne Johnson. Bobbitt considers Raleigh, Fayetteville, Jacksonville, Wilmington, Rocky Mount and Goldsboro to be hothouses for gamblers.

"Lottery or no, they're going to gamble in the state of North Carolina," said Bobbitt, 72, who is licensed in New Jersey, Nevada, Mississippi, Louisiana and the Bahamas to run gambling charters. "It's just like drugs -- it's all over the state. You have people gambling every day. You have people gambling on the golf course. You have slot machines all over North Carolina. People are going to do what they want with the money they work for as long as it doesn't hurt their family."

Bobbitt points to the pace of his March schedule. His charters flew 900 North Carolina gamblers to Atlantic City, N.J.; Tunica; and Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nev. As of last week, he had been on the road with gambling junkets for nine weekends straight.

"I believe North Carolina should worry more about drugs and alcohol than gambling," he said.

Poker is drawing a younger crowd to gambling. This classic game of skill and chance has exploded into faddish mania fueled by fast-paced cable TV programs.

Its appeal can be seen every Tuesday night at The Point, a restaurant and bar in Raleigh's Five Points neighborhood.

Owner Frank Winslow runs an Internet-based poker tournament that draws up to 40 players in their 20s and 30s. They play Texas Hold 'Em for points in a tavern league popular in Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham, as well as bragging rights and the occasional free meal.

Ian Blanchard, 27, supervisor of a photo lab, is a tavern league regular who plays poker three times a week -- for points, not money. He grew up near the Turning Stone casino of the Oneida tribe in upstate New York and saves his betting money for the casinos.

Although the tavern league is cash-free, Blanchard said players study the game, watch the poker shows and see themselves winning a big-money tournament.

"Poker is giving them an acceptable excuse for gambling," he said. "It inspires them to try their skills in Vegas for money."

The addicted

North Carolina already has its share of gambling addicts and problem gamblers, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, based in Washington. In 2004, his organization got 2,406 calls from North Carolinians seeking help for a gambling problem.

"What you can expect [with a lottery] is not a rise in the rate of problem gambling, but an increase in the severity -- people having problems sooner with increased accessibility to gambling," Whyte said.

By the cold, breaking light of a Thursday dawn, Johnson and his Waffle House crew gather for another briefing. They decide to scrub the week's run for the border to let the jackpots build.

The stand down leaves them with little to do except sip coffee, smoke cigarettes and grouse about North Carolina not having a lottery.

Today, they plan to again hit the Red Barn convenience store in Emporia, Va. It's a favorite target, said Johnson, because it seems to spin out a lot of winning tickets.

"The bottom line is, if people want to gamble, they're going to find somewhere to gamble -- a lottery, sports, a casino, bingo," he said. "People gamble."

This article is a reprint from The News & Observer. To view the original article, click here.

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