Betting against one-arm bandits

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 October, 1997, 12:00am

MAYOR Philip Owen admits he gambles. He's been to Las Vegas and played the slot machines. At one point he was up C$350 (HK$1,950).

Nevertheless he's determined to keep the scourge of one-armed bandits out of Vancouver. So determined, in fact, that he's willing to bet a wad of the city's legal affairs budget that he can win his case in court.

The provincial Government controls gambling in British Columbia. It recently decided to allow slot machines in casinos, a number of which operate in Vancouver under an agreement to give half their profits to charity and 10 per cent to the province.

Vancouver gets nothing, Mr Owen was quick to point out as his council voted to ban slot machines and limit the size of existing casinos.

Gambling has been a long-running controversy in Vancouver.

Supporters who prefer the more frivolous term 'gaming' would like to introduce resort-type casinos to compete against the ones in Washington state which attract (admission-free) busloads of punters, mainly Asians, from Canada each day.

Detractors say that for every dollar in gambling revenue, governments lose four to eight in policing, court costs, social services and lost business. Mr Owen noted that a proposal to put 183 slot machines into Chinatown's Gateway Casino would place the evil machines near the city's poorest people in the Downtown Eastside.

'What message does the provincial Government want to send to that community? That a highly addictive form of gambling is now available for 25 cents to the most vulnerable people in our society?' Although the latest fight is over small-change slot machines, gambling itself is big business in British Columbia. Punters spent C$1.7 billion trying their luck last year, mostly on the lottery which is unofficially known as a 'tax on the stupid'.

A city report estimates that the province's annual take from slot machines could reach C$344 million.

Mr Owen's city council lost a similar battle not long when the province allowed Club Keno machines in bars. But this time, call it a hunch, he believes he can win.

The ante? About C$300,000, the estimated cost to Vancouver taxpayers of the legal bills involved in taking the province to court.