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Have you ever heard the phrase “as rich as Croesus”? 06-23-10-online-poker.jpg

Those of a certain age, or possessing a classical education, will surely remember the phrase as both a description of great wealth and a reference to a famous Lydian king in ancient Asia Minor.

Lydia had become fabulously wealthy as the ancient world’s cross between Hong Kong, Wall Street and Dubai. It was a focus for international trade. It was a place of great financial innovation. It was, in fact, the place where coined money was invented.

Not coincidentally, Lydia also appears to be the place where dice were invented. If you think you can have money sloshing around without someone wanting to gamble with it, you have been living a very sheltered life. Come join us out here in Reality Land, won’t you?

Yes, I’m talking to you folks in North Carolina’s governing class — to state legislators, county commissioners, mayors and sheriffs. All of you who have supported past attempts to ban video poker, and now want to pass new legislation to ban the “Internet sweepstakes” parlors that have been springing up across North Carolina.

I’d heard about the phenomenon, of course, but it really came home to me a couple of weeks ago when I was frequenting my favorite seafood restaurant down in Calabash, Captain John’s. Right there across the parking lot was a former seafood hut that had been turned into an “Internet sweepstakes café.” Then I began noticing similar establishments all around Brunswick and Columbus counties, then all the way back to my home in southern Wake County.

Not being inclined to risk my money so frivolously, I didn’t go into any of these places. Don’t need to. I’m reasonably certain that they look and feel just like the old video-poker rooms I’d previously visited, or like any gambling establishment on the fringe of respectability and/or the law.

The patrons came in at least three varieties. First, there are the few people just out to try something new. Most won’t be back. Second, there are the people who fancy themselves to be “serious” gamblers and insist on the awesome potential of some secret system. They’ll be back, pathetically. Third, there are the many people who are so desperate that they’re willing to risk their last nickel hoping for a big score. They’ll be back until their money runs out.

I’m no fan of gambling. But I’m also no fan of government officials sticking their noses into other people’s business. Many of the same politicians who gave us North Carolina’s squalid Education Lottery then went after video poker — can’t have those grubby private businesses competing with the state for gambling dollars — and now want to shut down the most popular way to evade the ban, Internet sweepstakes.

The Greensboro News & Record’s Mark Binker reports that the House Democratic Caucus recently tried and failed to come to some kind of consensus on what to do about Internet sweepstakes. My guess is that there’s also a division among Republican legislators in both chambers.

Whatever you think of the state’s current public policies on gambling, please don’t be deluded into thinking that government can actually forbid it. Again, gambling is literally as old as money. Last night, thousands of North Carolinians gambled their money on Web sites, in private card games, at pool halls, with bets on sporting events, by buying lottery tickets, at the Harrah’s casino on the Cherokee reservation and in Internetsweepstakes cafes.

If North Carolina bans the latter, all the other gambling will continue. And the video-poker industry will come up with yet another way to satisfy the manifest consumer demand for casino-style gaming.

So even if you’ll never agree with me that government ought to respect the rights of individuals to do what they want with their own money, at least consider the possibility that you might just be wasting your time and my tax dollars on a pointless exercise.

In other words, please stop betting my money so poorly. If I want to blow it, I’ll do it myself.

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