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Guest Column - Portland Press Herald

26th May, 15:08

As we're now into the third month of Maine's lock down, how are your vices doing? If you gamble, you don't have many options left.

Our two Maine casinos are padlocked, betting on sports is in limbo, the cruise ships and their on-board casinos are tied up, and you can't sneak off to Las Vegas because the neon lights are switched off.

Even Maine's cultural gambling opportunities -- bingo, county fair harness racing, and raffle tickets at Saturday Night bean suppers have been outlawed by Gov. Mills' no more than 10 people edict.

Gamblers had great hopes when New Jersey's state-sanctioned betting was legalized by the courts, but there's no live sports left to bet on. I'm sure there's some dupe out there watching TV sports trying to place online bets, not realizing that he's watching a rerun of the 2018 Masters Tournament or the Patriots' wild card loss.

Back in March, pools were forming for the Final Four, but the college basketball tournament was canceled. If you've still got pool fever, you could set one up on Kennebunk's semi-deserted Main Street. Participants could place wagers in the How-many-Massachusetts-plates-can-you-count-in-a-20-minute-period pool.

Hint: Think big numbers if you want to win.

Professional team owners are making efforts to restart stalled or delayed seasons, reopening the sports betting door. Horse racing's Triple Crown has been rescheduled, but we've seen a computer-generated virtual horse race of great, but long-gone legends.

If the NHL restarts its season and playoffs, though it is hockey, don't bet on a July game being played on an outdoor ice rink again at Fenway Park. Great betting odds, but they wouldn't make it past the first called penalty.

New England football fans will be doing double duty glued to their TV screens. They'll watch the decline of our Patriots and they'll follow the Buccaneers' new quarterback, the GOAT. If there are no fans in the stadiums, do you think they'll run canned audience soundtracks like they did for the 1950s sit-coms? A lot of great bets here.

Too many what-ifs for a gambler? Are you looking for a daily betting opportunity with tailored risks and payoffs, the ability to scratch a spontaneous itch to gamble, and an honest game that doesn't enrich organized crime? The Maine Lottery could be your Plan B during this pandemic crisis.

First, you have to understand that all of today's state lotteries have their ancestral roots deeply embedded in the earlier organized crime era and descend from the granddaddy of all lotteries, the Numbers Game.

Beginning in the 1890s, the Numbers Game drew its customers from the Italian immigrant working class. The game used the last three numbers of the total shares sold on that day's Stock Exchange, which were listed in the newspapers and couldn't be fixed by the gangsters. When the Italians turned to Prohibition profits, the game moved to Harlem and other African-American neighborhoods.

Bets ranged from a penny to a dime and the payoff could be 600 to 1. Runners picked up the bet slips from local businesses and ran them to the bookie. The police and the judges were paid off to look the other way.

By the 1950s, major newspapers and televised U.S. Senate hearings began to peel back the corruption of organized crime.

Maine joined the other gambling states when our voters in a 1973 referendum approved the Maine Lottery Ben McCanna file photo/Press Herald

When the larger northeastern states belatedly began enforcing their anti-gambling laws, they were shocked by the enormous amount of money pouring in from the illegal Numbers Game, so they decided to make it their own cash cow. Those states now had their own, now legal, gambling monopoly.

Maine joined the other gambling states when our voters in a 1973 referendum approved the Maine Lottery, but many Mainers weren't willing to go beyond bingo and harness racing gambling. Many continued to buy their lottery tickets on their liquor runs to the lower-priced New Hampshire State Liquor Store.

State governments are experts at separating people from their money, so they started with the old mainstays -- the Pick 3 and Pick 4 games, then added scratch instant games, and later when they joined the draw games -- Tri-State Megabucks and Power Ball, the Maine Lottery became mainstream and was prosperous.

By the early 2000s, there were lottery retailers in over 300 towns and cities. The store owners were paid commissions, bonus payments for increased sales, and a share of the larger winning tickets.

Marketing was the key when the tickets were soon placed near the candy and tabloid magazine sections at the cash registers. The tickets were now an impulse buy. Over 1,000 flat-screen TVs were installed to broadcast glitzy lottery ads and clips of excited big winners. The lottery's image was changed from gambling to, "We're entertainment, excitement, and fun."

It worked.

This pandemic crisis has given us a rare opportunity to reprioritize our values and strengthen our character.

Sure, as a gambler, there's still plenty of betting choices out there for you, but I'd recommend what you could make your new gambling Plan A. It has all that you've been looking for since it has exciting competition, stacks of cash, groaning moments, valuable properties -- hotels, railroads, etc., all with considerable downside crash and burn risk of jail and possible bankruptcy. It has all the drama of real gambling without the financial pain.

I'd book the afternoon whether it's rainy or sunny, pull out that Monopoly game, invite the kids to the action, and you'll give them memories of you during this time which they will carry for the rest of their lives.

Tom Murphy is a former history teacher and state representative. He is a Kennebunk Landing resident and can be reached at [email protected]

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