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Date published: 10/6/2012


People have so much fun gambling that for generations, most forms of it were illegal in most of the United States. The Puritans considered it blasphemous, and later churches railed against its wickedness except when church-sponsored, as in Wednesday-night Bingo games to benefit the new social hall.

The upper and lower classes continued to gamble anyway. It seems to be basic to the human animal. When I was in elementary school, little boys pitched pennies in dark corners of the playground; the attendant penalties were awful to contemplate and must surely have added to the fun.

Illegality reinforced the joy of gambling and produced colorful "Guys and Dolls" characters and a steady income for the Mafia, while many an underpaid policeman sent his kids to college on the bribes. Then in 1951 the Kefauver Committee did a little snooping and announced that illegal gambling around here came to $20 billion a year, and in 1951 that wasn't chump-change. The government, nobody's fool, realized they weren't getting any of this, so they made the gamblers sign up to pay taxes.

Little by little, respectability has reared its ugly head. This is due to the link between taxes and morality, by which everything that produces taxable income is fine with us. Losing your shirt at Las Vegas or Pimlico is unfortunate but morally okay; losing it at the Saturday-night poker game is wicked, because the winners won't be telling the IRS.

Some complain that gambling is now so respectable it's quite dismally middle class and much of the joy has fled, what with everyone and his dog playing the slots and lotteries, and no office without its football pool. Gone are the fleet and skulking numbers runners; gone the sinister hats and snappy suits of the Damon Runyon touts; gone even the dazzlingly wicked concept of vingt-et-un at Monte Carlo, where countesses in shoulder-length black gloves wagered their diamond earrings and Russian Grand Dukes, having lost an estate the size of Nebraska, shot themselves on the balconies. What, alas, do we need with Monte Carlo when Atlantic City's so much closer, and has saltwater taffy besides?

Fiddlesticks. This is like saying the sexual revolution of the sixties took all the fun out of sex. What gambling has lost in romance it's gained in availability, and it is our duty in these pages to provide pleasure for all, even the respectable. Elitists who still miss the illicit thrill can always try Russian roulette.

Barbara Holland wrote "Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanities, and Other Indulgences" and other books. The above commentary is excerpted from "Endangered Pleasures." © 1995 by Barbara Holland . Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Co.

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