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Political Animal

Slots Flop

By Brian Morton | Posted 3/2/2005

Those whom the gods wish to destroy,” the old saying goes, “first they answer their prayers.” Gov. Bobby Smooth (R-Gambling Industry) has bitten off exactly one bite more than he can chew—he is the dog that finally caught the bus. House Speaker Michael Busch has shown that, when it comes to the three-year-long game of Maryland hold ’em, he owns a pair of pocket kings, and it’s going to take some fancy maneuvering for the gubner to walk off with the pot before the legislature comes to a screaming finish come April.

Here is where we stand, with a load of chips in the center of the table: The governor, after pushing for slots for every reason under the sun except perhaps finding WMDs in Iraq, gets a House bill that gives him barely half of what he wants, which sure as hell won’t make happy all those gambling industry people who gave him all that money three years ago. There’s Senate President Mike Miller, who’s been all about slots for any number of years, which makes the governor a happy man. Except that the bill the Senate has passed and the bill the House has passed are radically different things.

If you like it high-stakes, baby, this is it—it doesn’t get any better. In Texas hold ’em, the cards are dealt, two to a person. Then you get three in the center of the table, “the flop.” Then comes “Fourth Street” and “Fifth Street,” aka “the turn” and “the river,” which is where all the action happens.

Bobby Smooth started out with an average hand—and then it got a lot better on the flop—both houses of the legislature passed slots bills. But the fact is, the governor doesn’t have a whole lot in his hand right now, and—did we forget to mention?—the speaker has that pair of kings. The governor knows that most of the electorate favors slot machines—but the ones that don’t, really don’t.

The folks in Prince George’s County, don’t want slot machines under any circumstances (except for Congressman for Sale Fat Al Wynn, who is pretty much the guy at the edge of the table whose chips are no good in this game). In Baltimore, the lawmakers love slot machines (at least, you’d think so from their reaction to the passage of the House bill), even though there wouldn’t be any in the city under the Busch bill. Montgomery County would get 9 percent of slots revenues under the House bill, while P.G. County and Baltimore each gets 20 percent and Baltimore County gets 15 percent—but there’s a load of electoral wrath that can come out of Montgomery voters and legislators in the future.

So there’s Michael Busch, with his pair of kings, while Bobby Smooth sits hunched with what our hidden camera shows is a nine and an ace of the same suit—clubs—with a 10, jack, and queen of clubs sitting on the table in the flop. If the next two cards come up showing kings, the speaker walks home with all of the dough, especially if no one else knows what’s in his hand (unlikely at this stage).

If a king of clubs comes up in the next two cards, the river or the turn, Ehrlich is one happy man. But as anyone who’s ever sat at a money table will tell you, hearts, wallets, and often lives are built on busted straights and flushes. Meanwhile, Busch has given the governor what he wants—a slots bill. He knows the odds: filling out that straight is pretty damn unlikely, and Ehrlich probably would have preferred to campaign against Busch as an obstructionist. Yet now, the Busch bill allows for 9,500 slot machines in four specific places and with the state holding the reins on who gets the money and how.

Ehrlich has got a lot of gambling interests bankrolling him, a lot of lawmakers salivating over the possible windfall of slots dough, a lot of racetrack owners crying poverty, and the pressure of balancing the state budget and building a bunch of new schools with the money that slot machines can deliver. And he’s suddenly got this measly straight flush with a hole in it, and he realizes, even if he gets a third, or, improbably, even a fourth king in the last two cards to hit the table—his opponent stands a better chance to walk off with the jackpot. So Busch is looking good, as a bad hand beats no hand and there ain’t no next year in this game, as 2006 is an election year and the bets are all off.

So here’s Bobby Slots, sitting and sweating, hoping the last two cards bring him a miracle, thinking, Crap. I can get better odds at Keno. And Michael Busch can sit back and think, I love this game.

Gambling isn’t as much fun at it looks when things aren’t going your way, is it?

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