Originally created 06/27/99

Poker is part of state's image



The Double Diamond makes a profound statement to people who cross the state line at Augusta's Fifth Street bridge.

The video poker parlor is the first thing they see in South Carolina. The next noticeable landmark, on a hill, is the Treasure Chest.

A row of casinos on Martintown Road says the same thing, but louder, to people entering South Carolina from Georgia on Interstate 20. Fox Creek Junction, Fox Creek Crossing, Lucky 4, Tom's Place, Legend's and King's Treasure are clustered like lures in a fisherman's creel, and their parking lots any time of the day or night hold the catch.

Forget "Smiling faces. Beautiful places," the theme on South Carolina's license plates and in tourist advertising.

Video poker has become a graphic image of a state that never has quite figured out how to deal with the proliferation of gambling that got legalized in 1986 by legislative sleight of hand.

Since Georgia's gambling focus is a state lottery, with tasteful pictures of peaches where tickets are sold, neon-lettered invitations to play video poker just across the border can be a jolt. It is much the same anywhere a traveler enters South Carolina.

"It's unfortunate that's the first exposure outsiders have to our state," says Aiken Republican Sen. Greg Ryberg, who is bitterly opposed to video poker.

"We have such a wonderful state. But then some of the gateways to Aiken have junkyards, and you might have the impression that Aiken is not the beautiful place that it is," he said. "Video poker parlors are the junkyards of the North Augusta corridor. And as long as video poker is legal, we're going to have that image."

Last fiscal year, there were 29,760 video poker machines in South Carolina.

The casinos on Martintown Road have been added since then, and new poker locations have sprung up in almost every county. Nine new casinos are under construction in Cherokee County alone.

THE FIGURES AREN'T official, but the state Department of Revenue says about 31,000 machines are operating now, near the end of this fiscal year. That's down about 3,000 from three months ago, when legal uncertainties about the industry's future caused some operators to unplug their machines for a while.

Of all 46 counties, border counties like Aiken, which ranked 11th in the state in poker betting before this year's growth, and neighboring Edgefield, which ranked 14th, are especially attractive places to operate video gambling. They draw a clientele from two states or more.

From Martintown Road through Horse Creek Valley, there are dozens of places to stop and play video poker. Some are casinos. Some are convenience stores with poker machines lined along one wall. Some are gas stations with a gambling nook. Some are squat concrete-block buildings with neon signs, and some are restaurants or bars.

They differ in ambience and the number of players they can accommodate. But one thing is the same. People come to play poker. They cheer for each other when somebody wins a jackpot, and they hope to win one, too.

THE INDUSTRY HAS ITS SHARE of avid fans.

Ken McDonald, owner of Aiken's Mud & Stogies -- coffee and cigars -- has no poker machines but defends them and those who play.

"The opponents always talk about people who put their whole paycheck into poker machines and don't feed their kids, or the 10 to 15 percent, if that high, who are compulsive. They forget that 85 to 90 percent play for entertainment and have that right.

"I'm a recovering alcoholic, eight years sober. I can't take a drink. But I don't want the state to send armed guards to close all the places that serve alcohol. I'm a minority. Compulsiveness is a spiritual and psychological problem, and it's a minority problem."

At midafternoon on an ordinary Thursday, more than 50 cars are parked at Fox Creek Junction, about half with Georgia plates. Inside, chandeliers, red carpet and colored lights line a hallway between game rooms, carefully partitioned to hold no more than five machines -- the maximum state law allows in one location. Most of the rooms are occupied.

A regular named Maria slips $60 into a blackjack machine and plays two hands at once, so familiar with the table that she doesn't look at the buttons she presses while she watches the dealer's hands and hers on a colorful screen.

IN LESS THAN 15 MINUTES she has won a few hands but lost $52. Next time, she says, will be better.

She signs for her cash-out, scrawling a name on a statement that she has not won more than $125 today. No one checks to see whether the signature is valid.

An attendant admits that people can and do win much more than $125, and they collect what they win. And they sign the statement that says they've won no more than $125.

The record, she says, is "for the do-gooders and all those people who don't like places like this around."

Armed and uniformed security guards will see that they and their money make it safely out of the parking lot. But people can and do stay for hours. There is free food and drink, big-screen televisions, a variety of machines and games, and a helpful ATM.

At King's Treasure, there's nothing to sign at cash-out -- no need to attach your name or someone else's to any record of the winnings, which an attendant pays out of a fanny pack.

DOESN'T STATE LAW SAY you can't pay out more than $125 a day to a single winner?

"Not here," she says.

Not most places. Only five machine owners statewide are under a federal court order to obey the payout law. Fred Collins of Greenville, who owns nearly 4,000 machines in 1,100 locations, has asked an appeals court to overturn that order.

Department of Revenue officials don't expect to have the technology to link poker machines throughout the state to a central computer monitoring system until December, representative Vickie Ringer said.

And state law could change. Gov. Jim Hodges has called a special session of the Legislature to enact taxes and regulations for the industry and to set a referendum on its future. It begins Tuesday.

One effect poker has had is economic. It's a $2.5-billion-a-year industry, counting reported revenues from the manufacture and lease of equipment and the money it brings in. The industry employs about 27,000 people. Mr. Collins' payroll alone is said to be $9.6 million in South Carolina.

BUT THE STATE DERIVES only license fees for the machines and income taxes on people who get their income from the poker industry. Local governments sell business licenses to the establishments and the businesses that tend to grow up around them -- pawn shops, check cashers and vehicle-title loan companies.

That's the negative impact, say people who feel their neighborhoods have been breached.

A block off Whiskey Road, outside Aiken's city limits, residents of Owens Street and Murrah Avenue know that feeling.

One family's vegetable garden lies behind Royal Video Games -- an acre or so of corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and watermelons that could define the neighborhood.

But it is more easily defined by at least five places to play video poker.

Peggy Koon said it bothers her to give people directions to her house. The turn off Whiskey Road is between Matthews Corner and Aiken Bowl, both of which advertise their poker games. The turn onto Owens is beside Royal Video Games and across the street from Instacash, which offers games and check-cashing services.

ACROSS THE STREET, Cindy Fauls said she worries about what her sons are exposed to so close to home. They are 10 and 12.

Peggy and Robert Koon have lived in their house for 24 years. All around them, families have moved out and houses have become businesses. Mr. Koon doesn't object to video poker but says it doesn't belong in neighborhoods.

Mrs. Koon hates the 24-hour traffic, the noise that sometimes shatters a quiet night, and the fear of another killing or robbery.

There was one at Southside Pawn and Gold two years ago -- the building where Instacash operates now.

Owner Carlton Ennis was shot in the head in the room used for video poker, although the killers later were said to be as interested in pawned guns as in poker money.

"They ran right through our yard," Mrs. Koon said.

Ray Mills was in his yard on Murrah Avenue when it happened, and he associates crime with video poker in the neighborhood that was peaceful when he moved there 33 years ago.

"They ran right past me," he said. "It's always in the back of my mind; it could happen again."

"I really wish we could get together enough people to bring it to a vote and vote it out."

Margaret N. O'Shea can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.