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Ethics change in community with gambling

Casino gambling is a statewide issue again, and we're getting too much advice from the marks: politicians, business people and the rest of life's bingo players.

We'd be better off listening to the pros.

"I don't have to cheat you," casino boss Mert Wertheimer once told me. "I can run on the up-and-up, and you still got less than a 50-50 chance to beat me."

This was 1954, and the man ran the casino in the Riverside, then the biggest hotel in Reno, Nevada. Wertheimer's credentials were formidable. According to New York Daily News clips, he was the most distinguished hit man in Murder Inc., then known as the Brooklyn-Jewish wing of the Mafia. My man's particular skill was the ice pick into the ear.

By the time I met him, he had moved to less violent branches of commerce. A smallish, shapeless man in his seventies, his only scary feature were icy blue eyes that stared remorselessly into his listeners. Still, you could feel reasonably safe inviting him into your living room with normal people.

A publisher had sent me to write a book about Nevada, then in its post World War II boom. The casino boss had been told by his own bosses to be candid with the press. His comments seem as germane in the spreading casino culture today as they were 40 years ago when Nevada had the only legal games in the country.

What impressed me most about this casino manager was his contempt for his customers. An individual player can come out ahead if he quits when he's ahead, Wertheimer said, but he never has sense enough or strength enough to do so.

Other tips from the old gangster:

In casinos, craps gives players the best odds. Slot machines are the worst. "Farmers," he said, looking derisively at the rows of ordinary-looking people playing the slots.

If you're going to play poker, do it with people you trust, in somebody's house. In a casino, he explained, even if you won every hand all night long, you would only take home 90 or so percent of the pots. The house always gets its cut off the top.

But it didn't take the old Murder Inc. alumnus to point out that legal gambling permeates a community. In Nevada, there are slot machines in drug stores, dress stores, diners.

Standards alter when gambling takes over a community. Some years later, I watched then-Gov. Mark Sawyer campaign in Las Vegas. In a casino, garishly dressed bar-women clustered around him.

Of course, this could happen to many gubernatorial candidates. But they would duck out before pictures were taken. Sawyer posed happily; these were his constituents. This was just what he wanted on the evening news.

I never wrote the book on the Nevada gambling boom. I had become too much a part of it.

I had found something in myself I'd never known was there: that I could be addicted to gambling. I began by playing a couple of hours after dinner. Soon I was staying later and later. By and by I began to gamble in the afternoons.

I stopped doing research, stopped interviewing. I just played. Anything. Blackjack, poker, roulette. One morning in the library, an illustration on a state history book began revolving like a roulette wheel.

Fortunately I only had $1,000 of my advance left to play with. But I made it last. I played conservatively, $1 a bet. I spun it out, not really caring if I won or lost. I just wanted the action.

Finally, desperately, with $100 or so left, I threw my suitcase in my car and fairly ran out of town. I never gambled again. I never dared to start.

This is one vote against casinos in Florida.

Jacquin Sanders is a columnist for the Pinellas editions of the Times.