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Monica Yant Kinney: Pennsylvania makes it ever easier for gamblers to lose

Great news, Pennsylvania gamblers. You can now bet your house on penny slots. When table games roll out in a few weeks, feel free to wager your kids' college funds on blackjack or poker. Play all day, stay all night. Think big! The casinos are.

Great news, Pennsylvania gamblers. You can now bet your house on penny slots. When table games roll out in a few weeks, feel free to wager your kids' college funds on blackjack or poker. Play all day, stay all night. Think big! The casinos are.

Casino credit - instant fun money - is now available on your favorite gaming floor. Forget payday lenders, boring banks or credit unions. Parx and Harrah's let you smoke, and they offer free booze. Even better? Whatever you borrow from the casino is interest-free!

Some of you may recall politicians bragging that they'd never allow anything as scurrilous as on-the-spot loans from an industry that profits so handsomely from customers' bum investments. The same legislators also said the state would stick with slots. They lied.

In January, the legislature passed amendments to the 2004 Gaming Act to allow both table games and casino credit. Last week, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board quietly approved regulations governing this exciting new development.

The credit regulations are in standard legalese, except for the provision allowing a distraught player to put herself on a self-exclusion list that's so spineless she can have a change of heart, hop off the list, and resume borrowing in a matter of days. That part's just sad.

I'd love to let the casinos have their say, but reps from Parx and Harrah's didn't respond to my interview requests. Perhaps they're too busy helping players put their life savings on the line.

Borrowing made easy

All casinos have cash machines and accept personal checks up to $2,500. Credit, known as counter checks, is an option for those who max out but are convinced their luck will change - even though, statistically, it can't and won't.

"How many people who get $500 or $1,000 in credit will walk out of the casino with that money?" asks Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), a casino critic. "They're only taking credit because they already lost everything else."

Philadelphia gambling addict-turned-activist Bill Kearney still marvels at the night he blew through a $100,000 line of credit in Atlantic City, only to be cheerily offered another $100,000 so he wouldn't leave.

"They're not giving you the money, they're giving you something to gamble with," he sniffs. "You're not leaving with nothing."

Under the PGCB regulations, players seeking credit provide personal and financial information to casino staff. A credit check ensues. Of chief concern: players who've stiffed other casinos.

Each casino may extend as much or little credit as it likes. The only certainty is that markers must be settled within 45 days. If not, there could be legal hell to pay.

Trickling down

Last year, former 76er Charles Barkley faced criminal charges over failing to pay his $400,000 debt at Wynn Las Vegas. Here, even your low-roller Grandma could feel the squeeze if casinos seek judgments to recoup her losses.

Because slots players can get credit, too, activists worry about the trickle-down economics of working-class and retired regulars chasing elusive jackpots.

"People are going to pay the casinos back before they pay other bills," predicts gambling counselor C.P. Mirarchi. "It's a code of honor with gamblers. They want to get back in the game - even if it means not having money for food."

Paul Boni fought credit with Casino-Free Philadelphia, Asian Americans United, and area churches. He understands why casinos pushed for the right to pretend to be banks: Credit makes them more money.

But the lawyer remains disgusted that elected officials went along for the ride, knowing the price of all this false generosity.

"Government used to teach people to save money," he laments. "Now, it's pushing people deeper into debt or bankruptcy."

Are we having fun yet?

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