Originally created 07/01/00

Video poker folds after 14 years



NORTH AUGUSTA - Bo Glover's video poker business faded to black just before midnight Friday.

The lights on his machines flickered and went out as he pulled the plugs at 11:30 p.m. - half an hour before video gambling became illegal in South Carolina.

"They're dead. They're ducks in the water," said Mr. Glover, who owns Connell's Amusement Co. Inc. He owns 100 machines in Aiken, Saluda and Lexington counties, including those at Jerico's bar in North Augusta.

Mr. Glover said many parlors were closing before the midnight deadline to avoid raids by State Law Enforcement Division agents. SLED was prepared to seize any machines operating at 12:01 this morning.

In an eleventh-hour ruling Friday night, the South Carolina Supreme Court reaffirmed its earlier decisions banning video gambling after midnight, blocking a hastily issued order from a Circuit Court judge.

Within hours after Circuit Judge Gerald Smoak granted a temporary injunction to one Jasper County operator, three Supreme Court justices superseded the order in an emergency hearing, Attorney General Charlie Condon said.

The handwritten ruling by Chief Justice Jean Toal, issued less than two hours before the midnight deadline, gives authorities the power to enforce the state law banning video gambling. Justices James Moore and Costa Pleicones also signed the order, which calls for a hearing July 6. Earlier in the day, the court had rejected an appeal from three other operators.

Judge Smoak's order, issued Friday afternoon, said enforcing the law would cause "irreparable harm" to businessman Henry Ingram. It allowed Mr. Ingram to keep his machines running after the statewide ban at midnight, Mr. Condon said. Mr. Ingram owns five casinos in Beaufort and Jasper counties, and the order applied only to those machines.

"Those places will be shut down tonight," Mr. Condon said late Friday.

Mr. Ingram had 10 days to continue operating his machines under Judge Smoak's order.

"All of my competitors laid down, gave up. But I had to fight for my employees," Mr. Ingram told The Island Packet of Hilton Head Island on Friday afternoon.

Hours before the ban went into effect, poker players were dealing their last hands.

James and Carol Stinson were headed from their Hephzibah home to Maryland for the holiday, but they couldn't pass Treasure Chest II on U.S. Highway 1 in North Augusta without stopping a last time.

As they pulled onto the highway three hours later, their wallets were heavier - and so were their hearts. They are big fans of video poker, and they knew that 12 hours later video poker would be an artifact in South Carolina. On their trip home after the Fourth, there will be no legal place to stop and play.

"I'm a glutton for punishment," said Mrs. Stinson, the Hephzibah resident, feeding $20 bills into a machine. "This is just my way of unwinding after a hard week's work. Some people like to play golf. Others like to fish. I like to play video poker. All of it costs money."

Her husband, sitting on a swivel bar stool beside her, dealt himself a straight and then said, "Being here is a lot safer than getting shot in a crooked card game.

"And this definitely won't put an end to my gambling," Mr. Stinson said. "I'll bet on anything."

Across the state, video gambling machine owners were busy removing the machines. Owners have a week to move them across state lines. After that, they'll be contraband - a crime that carries a penalty of a year in jail and a $500 fine.

Gambling certainly isn't over in South Carolina, either. Voters will decide in November whether to create a lottery. The Catawba Indians run a big bingo hall in Rock Hill. Casino "cruises to nowhere" regularly sail from Little River in Horry County into international waters.

Experts say nearly 10 percent of people in South Carolina are addicted to gambling, compared to 5 percent nationwide.

Video poker became legal 14 years ago when a Bennettsville lawmaker slipped the provision into the 1985 budget bill. He successfully misled colleagues who asked what it meant. Since then, anti-gambling forces have fought to ban the machines - a fight that peaked two years ago when former Gov. David Beasley called video poker "a cancer on South Carolina."

Gambling operators fired back, funneling money into Gov. Jim Hodges' bid to oust the Republican incumbent. Part of Mr. Hodges' campaign was a promise to call for a voter referendum. But the Supreme Court said no.

Sen. Jack Lindsay, the Bennettsville Democrat, must have known the industry would be big business for South Carolina.

It grossed $3 billion a year, paid owners up to $2 billion a year and gave the state millions of dollars in taxes. Even so, its critics say it took food from children's mouths and turned attractive gateways into dark alleyways where crime is the only constant.

Even on the last day of play, Viola Price was learning new games, and winning a little money, too. At last count, she was about even.

"If I want to spend my Social Security playing video poker, that's my right," said Ms. Price, also of Hephzibah. "I feel lousy. I have a right to be here, and that right is being snatched away from me."

She says she now will gamble on a casino boat in Jacksonville, Fla.

For poker employees, the industry's curtain call is the beginning of an uncertain future. No one knows for sure how many such employees there are. Estimates range from 3,000 to 20,000 in the industry itself, with up to an additional 10,000 in related jobs that depend on legalized gambling.

On Friday, they finally realized video poker's future would not be resurrected.

"Once they violated my right to vote (about whether to keep video poker), I knew they were going to do what they wanted," said Mary Peterson, the second-shift supervisor at Treasure Chest II.

She has applied for several jobs at Medical College of Georgia and is waiting to hear if she's been hired.

The State Law Enforcement Division began checking machines shortly after midnight to make sure they were unplugged, but operators have until July 8 to move the machines out of the state.

The South Carolina Employment Security Commission also is preparing for the industry's end. Some workers are temporarily working other jobs to handle the expected crush of unemployment claims.

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.