Vice Is Good

A bookie's recommendations to Congress.

Behold the simple joy of throwing a 50 on the - Browns-Texans. - Walter  Novak
Behold the simple joy of throwing a 50 on the Browns-Texans.
"Oh please," he says with the tone of one who's just been asked a really stupid question.

His name really isn't Mike, but we'll call him that anyway. He's an East Side bookie. Guys in his trade take a modest approach to getting their names in the paper.

We're asking Mike about a new bill in Congress that would bar U.S. credit card companies from processing Internet gambling transactions. It seems there's been a handsome rise in online casinos and sports books operating from the shores of England, Costa Rica, Aruba, and the like. Which means that you, the sporting Clevelander, can make wagers from the convenience of your own home. Which, of course, is bad.

But guys from Aruba don't much care what U.S. congressmen think, proving that theirs is a more advanced civilization than our own. So do-gooders in Washington, like our own Representative Michael Oxley (R-Findlay), have decided to shut off your money supply. If you can't use your credit card, you can't bet. Or so the logic goes.

The bill was launched by Republican Jim Leach of Iowa, after he learned how his son's college buddies were losing big online. Now a normal guy might heed the advice of parenting experts and have a frank, fatherly dialogue with his son, something like: "Your buddies took the Bengals and 6 in Green Bay? Didn't I tell you not to hang with degenerates?"

But Jim Leach is not a human being. He's a congressman. And when congressmen are confronted with things they don't understand, they send out smartly dressed Ivy League yes-men to generate "legislation," which most people know as "paperwork" or "debris." Neither Oxley nor Leach consulted Mike. He would have warned them about making a sucker's play.

Mike's been running a book since 1979. He's not the biggest in town -- unlike his former partner, who had a "half-million in action a week." Nor is he the biggest in the state, like the guy who has 362 employees and rakes in $191 annually for every man, woman, and child in Ohio. That would be Dennis Kennedy, "executive director" (Cajun for "bookie") of the Ohio Lottery.

But Mike is nonetheless a scholar in his field, and he talks about congressmen like most people talk about small children. They're cute, their innocence is amusing. He's particularly charmed by their situational morality.

Here in Ohio, you can only bet on horses and the lottery, which offers approximately a 1-in-17-billion chance of winning. "The lottery is a joke," says Mike. "Your odds of winning are much less than a slot machine or a football game."

So the moral code runs like this: The kind of gambling where we rip people off and the government gets a cut is very, very good. Everything else preys on the weak. It is therefore bad.

Mike readily admits that betting can become compulsive, particularly Internet play. "I think gambling is one of the most underpublicized, major addictions there is," he says. "I got one guy who it led to a divorce and bankruptcy. I got one guy who's probably got 30 credit cards."

Of course, damn near everything enjoyable is addictive, be it food, sex, liquor, or television. God said as much in Hedonists 3:15, when He told Abraham: "Doth you think that punk Satan could invent sports books and beer? People are gonna go nuts over this. That's why I'm God and he ain't."

Yet according to a somewhat lesser authority, Jay Seaton of Consumer Credit Counseling Service, gambling isn't on the radar when it comes to the chief causes of financial trouble. Those would be divorce, health problems, sudden loss of work, "something that wasn't expected," he says. And simple overspending still outranks gambling.

If Leach and Oxley truly wished to protect the weak, they would outlaw malls.

But this isn't about covering the feeble. It's about Washington guys with no street smarts playing way over their heads. After all, the ways of vice are not learned by hanging at the American Mortgage Association after-party.

Internet gaming houses have already figured a way to beat the legislation. They'll simply run their credit card billing through legit companies, leaving banks and the Justice Department to wade through endless off-shore corporate filings, the casinos always eight steps ahead. If MBNA starts getting huge bills from Fred's Dry Cleaning in the Dominican Republic, maybe they'll figure it out. But in the end, the bill is nothing more than a jobs program for financial investigators.

People will always gamble for one simple reason: They enjoy it. A lot. Conduct a Google search of "sports betting," for example, and 290,000 sites pop up.

What congressmen don't understand is the small spike of exhilaration a $50 bet brings to a Brigham Young-Wyoming game. They don't understand that it's a way to create adventure in decidedly unadventurous lives at the loading dock and the cubicle farm. "If you go out for dinner with your wife and another couple, it's gonna cost you 150," says Mike. "If you bet 50 on the football game and buy a pizza, that's cheap entertainment."

Most people can handle it; a few can't. Just like all things enjoyable in this world.

We tried to ask Oxley about his bill, but he wouldn't return our calls. Nor would he likely agree with our thesis that Republicans should stick to regulating things they understand, like securities fraud and proper table settings for the beef Wellington soiree. Congress tried to kill prostitution. Didn't work. Spent a bazillion on the War on Drugs. Didn't work. Now it's taking on bookies.

Think of it like the kid from the Dell commercials picking a fight with Evander Holyfield. Here's hoping Evander shows no mercy. It's time the kid gets schooled.