OXFORD — Current gambling news, including closing of another casino in Tunica, legal sports betting and plans for a Mississippi lottery, remind me of a lesson I was taught when I was a kid.
This is a mostly true story:
I don’t remember the exact year, but it was sometime between the end of World War II and 1950 — before a group of Gulf Coast ministers and citizens, aided by a U.S. Senate committee hearing on organized crime, managed to get a number of slot machines in Harrison County thrown into Back Bay.
Gambling was illegal in Mississippi, but at that time it was as wide open in Biloxi as it is now. The difference was that slot machines could be found in clubs and stores, even service stations, instead of inside regulated casinos.
The leaders of the youth at a Baptist church my family attended in a rural community outside Hattiesburg thought it would be a good idea to take us on a day-long excursion to the Gulf Coast.
Although Gulfport was less than 100 miles away, some of the kids on the trip had never seen the Gulf of Mexico or anything else resembling an ocean.
I had seen the ocean but never a slot machine.
There was one boy on the trip, one of the smaller ones and a newcomer to the community, who did know what they were for.
As we walked around the area near the beach, he began playing one which accepted nickels. It must have been malfunctioning because it kept paying off.
He kept playing and the machine kept paying to the point he could barely hold all the nickels in his shirttail, which he had shaped like a sack. A bunch of us gathered around watching him.
Pretty soon one of our chaperones showed up — a war veteran who may have experienced some gambling while in the Army.
He obviously was not as steeped in the then rural Baptist tradition of being opposed to gambling, drinking and dancing, as were our other chaperones.
Instead of reprimanding the young slot machine player, he simply advised: “Son, you better quit while you’re ahead.” Then he ushered us to the bus.
Four decades later, after slot machines and other forms of wagering had become legal in Harrison County, I was told another story about a Baptist hitting the jackpot in a casino and this time it was for more than nickels. A preacher told the tale, so it must be true.
A young seminary student who had a part-time job at a Baptist church not far north of the Coast was struggling financially. Tuition was coming due, the young man was married, and he and his wife were wondering where they’d get the money. They prayed about it.
One evening they took a short drive to the Coast to have dinner. A casino featured a low-cost buffet. No harm in going there, even though they did have to walk through the gaming area to get to the food.
On the way out, after enjoying a good meal, the man had a quarter in his pocket. On an impulse he inserted it into a slot machine and hit the jackpot, winning enough money to cover his tuition.
Prayer answered? Obviously, despite the fact he was embarrassed by a lot of bells and whistles going off.
His next challenge was to persuade the casino’s public relations people not to take his picture and use it in a promotional advertisement. That he did, and he went on to a successful career in the ministry, where he still serves. I won’t say exactly which part or where.
Gaming, which became legal in Mississippi in the early 1990s, is expanding with the recent advent of sports betting in the casinos and the soon-to-be-established Mississippi lottery.
Through it all, Baptist ministers and denominational leadership have opposed it, but many members of the flock have participated.
Recent news has it that some casinos are struggling as the business has proliferated in other states as well as Mississippi. The third one to close in Tunica County since 2014 announced last week it was shutting down.
It’s not like it was in Tunica County when Splash opened in 1992 as the first casino in North Mississippi. Patrons, many from the Memphis area, would wait in line up to three hours to enter, then pay a $10 admission fee.
Splash closed within three years as fancier casinos began to move in — its owners, I suspect, getting out while they were ahead.
• Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.