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Taking another gamble

By: Mike Johnson

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WHEN THE first casino in the US opened in Atlantic City in 1978, it was the culmination of two centuries of gambling history.

During that time, games of chance offering rich prizes had been run by gangsters, syndicates, the church, charities, the state and local governments and, in whichever sphere that expansion took place, controversy followed.

Critics forecast disaster at every turn. It would, they said, attract criminal elements and, at first, they were right. Australia, known as ‘The Lucky Country’, was the first to be labelled a nation of gamblers, with 80 per cent of the population estimated to be hooked.  The country’s largest casino,  is the Crown complex in Melbourne, which is said to attract more than 12 million visitors a year.

A flutter

The British, we are told, love ‘a flutter’. Once upon a time this involved placing a bet on one of the big horse races – The Derby or The Grand National, doing the football pools, buying premium bonds and, more recently, taking part in the National Lottery. I remember my mother, a strict Methodist, being horrified when I proudly announced I’d won a pound in a Grand National sweepstake at school. “You’ll go the same way as your grandfather,” she said. “He died of gambling!” I didn’t and I wouldn’t, as I can’t bear losing and that is an inevitable long-term outcome.

Perhaps, surprisingly, Tony Blair’s government has now embraced the concept of a super casino.

Smoking, drinking and junk food are all frowned upon but, somehow, gambling is good for you. Of course, what it really means is that it’s good for the exchequer. Tax revenue from cigarette sales will fall when smoking in public places is banned from July 1, so the tax on betting will be a welcome substitute. It cannot have been lost on the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, that in Australia state revenue from gaming increased 20-fold with the introduction of casinos.

After a long period of deliberation, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell announced that Britain would create one super casino and a further 16 medium and large ones. The location of the super casino has been the subject of much speculation.

At first, the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, South East London, was the favourite. After lying vacant and unloved for too long, the site was eventually acquired by an American consortium, led by billionaire Philip Anschutz.

Doomed dome

There followed a series of meetings between Anschutz and Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, culminating in Prescott staying at his ranch.

It was probably the publicity given to these meetings that doomed the Dome’s bid. Tony Blair had enough on his plate, without being saddled with yet more claims of sleaze. So, another front-runner emerged in the shape of Blackpool, a fading seaside resort in North West England.

One of the prerequisites required of the body considering the venue of the super-casino, was that the preferred location would benefit from regeneration. That is where Greenwich lost out, with London already hosting the 2012 Olympics. Blackpool was rejected on the grounds that most of the social benefits would not be enjoyed by the town, but would go outside. So it was the city of Manchester, a 16-1 outsider that was selected.

The casino will be built on a 5,000sqm site, in a run-down deprived area where gambling is often seen as the only way out of poverty.

Now the city will have a casino housing 1,200 gaming machines offering jackpots of around 100,000 pounds sterling. However, Jowell said: “Las Vegas is not coming to Britain.”

One of the main concerns of opponents is the possibility of a rise in serious gambling addiction. At present, there are an estimated 300,000 problem gamblers in the UK.  The government,  is now planning to focus on the major problem of internet gambling. This is totally banned in the US, but it’s estimated about a million people in Britain gamble online. This could prove a dilemma for Scottish Presbyterian-raised Gordon Brown, if and when he becomes prime minister. He has already promised that any expansion of casinos will be strictly controlled.

Mike Johnson has had a long career in journalism, working for the BBC for nearly 20 years and continiuing to write when he came to the Algarve in the 1970s. He has now retired to the UK from where he will contribute a monthly article on British and world affairs.