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Thursday, September 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

I-892: a game of chance we should walk away from

The camera fixes on a series of close shots: Hands dealing cards; hands nervously clicking and stacking poker chips, hands sweeping a pile of poker chips to one corner of a table after a win.

This is no ordinary film, no ordinary series of card games. The closer you look, the younger the hands appear. They are the hands of teenagers, mostly high-school juniors and seniors but also a few kids as young as 12.

In a high-quality homemade documentary, recent Shorewood High School grads Evan Turner and Nick Joy tell a story of teens whiling away the hours in game rooms and backyards of suburban Shoreline area homes playing card games. They tell about kids 16 and 17 years old using fake IDs to get into local casinos where the gambling age is supposedly 18 or older.

This cinéma vérité shows kids, some with braces and too baby-faced to shave, gambling and hooked on gambling.

At Shorewood High, next door to Parkers Casino, the local version of a nationwide teen gambling fad is on full display.

Why does this matter? It matters in part because Initiative 892, on the November ballot, would double the number of Las Vegas-style electronic slot machines in our state, bringing additional addictive gambling options to neighborhood restaurants, bowling alleys and card rooms.

The slot machines, to be located in age-21-and-over areas of the establishments, would increase the lure of gambling and send a powerful and wrong message to teens. At the very least, the initiative assumes policing diligence on the part of these places that may or may not be rigorous enough.

I-892 tells voters they can have something for nothing, a very modest property-tax break, perhaps $32 a year per $100,000 of market value by 2009. But the initiative also brings expensive social costs, including the very real possibility that it will exacerbate teens' growing interest in games of luck and chance.

After the Legislature wisely refused to allow these electronic gambling machines in bars, restaurants, card rooms, bowling alleys and other non-tribal establishments, the industry gave us this latest ill-considered initiative.

The initiative could put electronic slot machines in more than 2,000 locations, in neighborhoods like Shoreline. Washington would become Vegas North, with too many slot machines enticing too many people of all ages.

"The Games Children Play," an 18-minute documentary, puts an exclamation point on that thought.

The film introduces us to Dan Myers, age 17, who says, "Poker, well all my friends were playing. I didn't really want to play. I was bound and determined not to play at all. But, finally, my friends wouldn't do anything else so I was losing my friends. I started to play some poker and found out it was really fun....

"I would come home from school and I would just want to go to the casino really bad. I just wanted to spend my time there. I couldn't think about anything else."

Other teens in the film are equally obsessed.

The fact is, some establishments do a lousy job checking the age of their customers. There are several casinos in Shoreline, and according to the film, not all of them are diligent in this regard.

I-892 is a team effort between the gambling industry and initiative promoter Tim Eyman. Ironically, Eyman has long relied on conservative voters to support his initiatives. This time, conservatives are running away from him.

Jeff Kemp, president of Families Northwest, a group that works to strengthen marriages and families, appears in the teens' film. He opposes I-892's expansion of gambling.

"Children and young people are in a more vulnerable and risky position in life than other stages of life," says Kemp. "Things that have addictive power take away their innocence and trap them in a way we need to be concerned about."

Gambling is a fad among kids around the country. Seattle's Garfield High School student newspaper, the Garfield Messenger, ran a story last week on the popularity of Texas Hold 'Em and other poker games played at house parties held by Garfield students.

Part of the craze is tied to TV programs showcasing celebrity and professional poker.

Film director Turner says he and Joy made the film to document the teen gambling craze. As time went on, he became certain I-892 was a bad idea.

"Slot machines are very addictive. I don't think it is a good idea to put those next to our schools," said Turner, age 18.

Parents I spoke to in Shoreline are even more strident in their opposition to the initiative.

The state doesn't need I-892's unnecessary expansion of gambling. Washington already has enough gambling options — and more than enough dangerous enticements for teenagers.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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