Jim Thompson
Jim Thompson
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

On May 14, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 6-3, struck down the federal law prohibiting sports gambling. Katie bar the door.

Gambling has a long and sordid history in the United States. Famously, George Washington was known to bet on anything. During the time when gambling was illegal and/or frowned on, Ohio native son President Harding lost a set of White House china from the era of President Benjamin Harrison in a poker game one evening when he was short of cash.

I have generally been opposed to gambling (the Bible is, and I do my best to follow its teachings), but admit to profiting from the dreams of others. Our three kids achieved their undergraduate degrees from Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia on the Hope Scholarship, which is funded by the Georgia Lottery. Makes me a hypocrite, I guess.

Modern gambling in America, at least of the legal kind, got its start with the Hoover Dam project. There was a little jerkwater town just over the border in Nevada, Las Vegas, where the construction workers spent their money, which was actually script, on gambling and prostitution. The “workers” from Las Vegas then brought the script back to the company stores at the dam to buy their groceries and essentials.

We went through a period in this country where gambling and prostitution were illegal in most places. At the time, there were “wide-open” towns where the police winked and those who couldn’t afford to take their vices to Las Vegas could sate such appetites. Newport, Ky. once was such a place. So was Terre Haute, Ind. Another I knew of was East Cape Girardeau, Ill., which had one establishment, the Purple Crackle Club, allegedly operated by Chicago gangsters.

Such towns and establishments were all over the country, within driving distance of most people. Ken Burns’ series on jazz and his other one on prohibition cover these pretty well.

When I went to work in 1970 in Sharonville, there were at least two, and I think more, personnel on staff who made book on the horses every day. I was startled. I had never been around anything like that.

About that time, there started to be noises made concerning state-run lotteries. The first one I remember in the modern era was established in Maryland. In those days, establishing such an enterprise was equivalent to legalizing marijuana today.

Perhaps I have bought three or four lottery tickets in my lifetime. Usually, when the jackpot hits a half billion or so, my wife and I will buy a ticket. A few years ago, we were in upstate New York for, ironically, the Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony and spent a couple of hours one afternoon at Saratoga Springs, when the ponies were running. My wife put $2 on the nose of some horse. It seems to me she liked its name or something. She won $43 if I remember correctly and retired from gambling immediately. The person sitting next to us had been there all week while the track was open and was down several thousand dollars.

I mentioned the Biblical admonition on betting earlier. There is also an admonition on charging interest. I don’t think agreeing with one admonishment 98 percent of the time and ignoring the other 100 percent of the time is a particularly stirring record. Hopefully, the good Lord will accept “Well, everybody’s doing it!” (doubt that, though).

However, gambling, like most vices, has the potential to destroy lives, families and on and on. If you know someone who has a problem or develops a problem, I recommend the National Council on Problem Gambling (1-800-522-4700).

I have a feeling their business is about to increase.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press.