Originally created 06/30/00

Poker employees brace for shutdown



AIKEN - The lights are supposed to go out at midnight tonight on an estimated 22,000 video poker machines when South Carolina pulls the plug.

At the stroke of 12, video poker will no longer be legal. At 12:01, if not a few seconds sooner, state and local law enforcement agents will start checking parlors, convenience stores and mom-and-pop shops to see whether machines have been disabled.

And when that's done, Tami Trachte, 35, of North Augusta, who oversees 170 machines in four Great Games locations, will be out of a job. So will thousands of other workers in the poker industry and on its fringes who will be left in the wake of the biggest ban on gambling since Nevada closed its casinos in 1910. And the end of video poker in South Carolina marks the largest shutdown of an industry by government since Prohibition.

One of Ms. Trachte's last tasks this week was to pick up unemployment forms for co-workers and help fill them out. On Thursday, she was lending a sympathetic ear to regulars, who were getting in their last days of play.

Ms. Trachte is taking no chances, because state Attorney General Charlie Condon has told local law enforcement agencies they're free to make criminal cases immediately after midnight. The law banning poker makes the machines and their parts contraband, with criminal penalties for possessing them, as of Saturday.

Barbara Mulligan, 70, of Augusta, said she grew up playing slot machines in Savannah.

"My mother asked me what I'll do when I can't play here anymore," she said. "I told her, `Go stir-crazy, I guess.'ƒ"

But she's planning to drive to Cherokee, N.C. - where there's a casino run by an American Indian tribe - and wait for South Carolina's Catawbas to build one on their tribal lands Upstate. Because she's become friendly with employees at the Treasure Chest, Ms. Mulligan said she is sad for them.

They're sad for themselves. Great Games is a big employer, last officially listed with 550 machines licensed to the Treasure Chest company and to Jimmy L. Martin Jr. and Sr. The workers say it's been a good company to work for.

"You can't tell me the state is going to find me a job that pays what I'm making now," said Mary Peterson, 36, of Augusta, who has the job of handling the money at Treasure Chest. "What happens when the state offers me a minimum-wage job and I say, `Thank you, but I don't want to be a custodian at this time'? I worked to get where I am now."

She's concerned that video poker won't mean much on a resume. She knows people who, like her, had to persuade a car dealership to finance a vehicle. She knows someone who couldn't get life insurance because the company called video poker "a risky business."

"I have skills, but I expect to be told they're not marketable," Ms. Peterson said.

Alicia Powell, 25, works an early shift, and her husband, Jason, 29, works a later one. Their flexible schedule has allowed the Aiken couple to spend more time with their daughters, 4 and 6.

"We're trying to be positive, but we're worried," Mr. Powell said. They have another baby due in September.

His wife isn't certain she can find work in the final stages of pregnancy. He's been looking but with no luck.

Wendy Christian, 22, and mother of two, said her job at Treasure Chest has been the primary support for a four-family household.

"I'm not sure what to do now," she said.

Katrina Johnson, 21, of North Augusta, was promoted after two months because of her experience at another poker establishment.

"At my age, I'm not going to be able to advance like that anywhere else," she said.

It's enough to make them all envious of Joan Kirk, 66, of Augusta. She was using her poker job to supplement Social Security.

"I'll still have that," she said. "I feel sorry for the young people with children, especially the single mothers. They're the ones who are going to suffer."

Nobody knows how many people will be out of work at midnight. Estimates range from 3,000 to 10,000 statewide. One reason is that poker machines are spread so widely. Some are in establishments devoted to gambling, but most are in convenience stores, restaurants, gas stations and bars. It's not clear how many of those places still will need their employees for other tasks.

A few miles off the Aiken-Augusta Highway, Jerico's owner Jerry Mabrey said his four machines won't cost any jobs when they go dark. He already has cut out a three-person day crew, opening at 4 p.m.

"The machines were mainly played earlier in the day," Mr. Mabrey said. "I've already taken my losses on them. I'm sure they'll be missed, but my business doesn't depend on them."

Bartender Sallie Lowe has plenty to say about the end of video poker.

"People who put their money in these machines and don't pay their electric bill or take care of their responsibilities aren't any different from people who splurge on other things," she said. "They make a choice, and they have a right to make that choice.

"The fact is, people gamble everywhere. They gamble on football. They gamble on the golf course. These machines pay taxes, and when they're gone the state is going to make up that money somewhere. We're the ones who'll pay for it."

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.