Peter Pringle's America: Ol' Man River and Lady Luck

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The Independent Online
IN THEIR unrestrained pursuit of happiness, Americans are turning gambling into an official national entertainment. They take days off work and travel hundreds of miles for a few hours at the slot machines and a flutter on the green baize.

You can see them on the good ship Splash, a gambling boat on the Mississippi that is filled to capacity on a weekday afternoon. A score of boats will open within the year, and the cotton fields of the Mississippi delta, one of the poorest regions of the country, will suddenly become a 'destination resort', a hub of mass entertainment for the whole family.

Gambling is even touted as promoting family values. Parents can deposit their children with clean- cut theme-park nannies while they unload their contributions to the nation's dollars 30bn ( pounds 21bn) annual gambling pot. Bugsy Siegel, the hoodlum who started it all in Nevada six decades ago, would have been astonished to find how his desert dens have spread, with state approval, from Las Vegas to Atlantic City; today all states bar Utah and Hawaii have some form of gambling.

Opposition from church and state has broken down in the face of an economic recession and an uncertain jobs market. The religious faithful may oppose abortion and promote school prayer, but they cannot stand in the way of employment opportunities. Local government cannot turn down the chance to collect revenues from an entirely new wellspring.

The energy being expended is startling. The same can-do spirit, the sudden and massive outpouring of resources witnessed in national enterprises of yesteryear, from the first car production line to sending a man to the moon, is being applied to gambling.

Half a million jobs have been created in an industry that has grown by 11 per cent a year during the past 10 years. The most spectacular changes have taken place on Indian reservations, where 65 casinos in 17 states have opened since 1989, producing more than dollars 900m in annual profits. Local governments have found themselves dreaming of gamblers' gold, just like someone hunched over a slot machine. The government takes 8 per cent of the gross win.

Overkill lurks over the horizon. Casinos are being built at rates that would seem to be beyond what the market could possibly bear, but no one knows for sure. The excitement is such that no one wants to think of the social disruption the gaming will bring. Gambling may be dressed up as family entertainment, but it will not lose its attendant human miseries of alcoholism, prostitution and protection rackets.

The best place to view this burst of energy, entrepreneurship and plain old-fashioned greed is a tiny town in northern Mississippi called Tunica. Until a year ago, its flat Mississippi delta land, with wooden shacks on cotton fields and a string of main street shops in a makeshift town, was known as one of the poorest places in America. When television wanted to portray the plight of southern blacks it invariably chose Tunica. Local people had little or nothing to contribute to the well-being of the region; there was no tax base so there were no services. They called Tunica 'Sugar Ditch', the old negro term for the sewer.

Into this world, which had virtually stood still for a generation, came a handful of entrepreneurs cashing in on the latest way to make easy money: riverboat gambling. As long as the boat was on the water, Mississippi and four other states up and down the river allowed gambling. Fading images of old steamboats with their southern finery, chandeliers, columns and oriental carpets, and cargoes of cotton and slaves, were quickly replaced with modern blueprints for row upon row of gleaming slot machines.

But how to build these boats, and where? The steamboats had long given way to barges carrying cotton and soya beans, but these were now lying idle during a recession in which the cotton market was flat and the soya bean crop was history.

The strong currents of the river at Tunica make it too risky to have a flotilla of gambling barges moored on the banks, so in came the bulldozers. They dug ditches from the river bank into the middle of the cotton fields, allowing enough water to flow to float a barge.

On a bend in the river, Splash was launched in January. It was nothing to look at: a huge barge with a superstructure that resembled an airplane hangar. But inside big business was being conducted. In the first year of operation, it made more than dollars 90m for an investment of dollars 23m. Soon another gambling barge, Lady Luck, docked alongside. Others, with names such as The Sahara at Copper Belle, Lark Landing and Mississippi Rose are on the way.

On top of the barges they are building four-storey gambling dens. Some of the barges are half a mile from the river but, as the law says, as long as it floats, it's legal.

In a cotton field of 150 acres, a dozen gambling barges are under construction. Motels, restaurants, shopping malls, golf courses and theme parks are on their way. A year ago, this land would have been worth barely dollars 1,000 an acre. It was sold for dollars 25m.

In the Hollywood Cafe, a barn of a building that used to be a plantation commissary, the lucky strikers munch on 'French-fried dill pickles' and 'deep-fried frogs' legs', overwhelmed by their sudden fortunes. Bobby Leatherman cannot wipe the grin off his face. There is only a hint of the community strains to come when 'Sin City' springs to life. They say the cotton gins will have to close because the roads will not take the tractors and the gamblers. Bobby's brother, Richard, has a personal gripe: 'I'm goin' to miss the huntin'.'