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Lottery or none, gamblers will start young

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I recently heard a radio broadcaster say the North Carolina Education Lottery that’s been around since 2005 and raised $5.5 billion in education funds is responsible for teaching today’s youngsters about the evils of gambling and thus should be discontinued.

While I can respect someone feeling that way, I hate to break the news that whatever today’s youngsters know or have learned about gambling didn’t just begin with the advent of the North Carolina lottery.

Gambling is defined as “the wagering of money or something of value on an event with an uncertain outcome with the primary intent of winning money or material goods.”

Although modern-day gambling comes in many forms, historians tell us the practice in general has been around since prehistoric times.

While we did not have the lottery during my childhood years, we still experienced gambling in a number of ways.

It could be argued gambling began for us at carnivals or county fairs when we were still toddlers and our parents placed bets for us on which number would turn up on the underside of a toy rubber duck floating in water that we’d pluck up in an effort to win a prize.

Most of you who were around back then also recall the carnival game that involved betting on which color-coded opening a live rat would run into whenever a bell rang and the rat was released from a box.

The next level up the gambling ladder for us was probably with speckled bubblegum balls. The concept here involved glass-globed machines like those found in barbershops and service stations.

Each machine was filled with hundreds of bubblegum balls of varying colors along with an undetermined amount of balls carrying a speckled design as if they’d been spattered with different colors of paint.

A penny was required for each turn of the knob with a goal of trying to get a speckled ball. Whether we had one or 10 pennies in our pocket, they usually were all fed into the machine.

If we got a speckled ball, it could be redeemed for five cents worth of goods on the spot by the man behind the candy counter.

Just like when playing the slot machines in Las Vegas later on, whenever we got a speckled ball we almost always had to try again and again until we eventually ran out of pennies.

Next up the gambling chain was playing marbles “for keeps” during recess on the playground at grammar school.

While no set of official rules existed, the way it worked was we got to keep all the marbles we knocked out of the box in games of boxcar, triangle or ring.

With the right combination of skill and/or facing weak competition, it was possible to win 25-50 marbles or more during a 30-minute recess session. That was enough to fill a blue jeans pocket and show classmates how we had done that day at marbles.

Although our teachers warned us about playing marbles for keeps, their threats usually fell on deaf ears.

Another example of gambling for us was called “matching,” your basic head-to-head competition between two people flipping a coin. This game was based entirely on luck and required no skill whatsoever.

The idea was when each participant tossed a coin into the air and caught it in our hands, a verbal bet was made on whether the side turning up after the flip, either heads or tails, was the same or different than that of the opponent.

The winner got to keep the opponent’s coin.

Additional forms of childhood gambling included playing punchboard games that involved buying chances, winning prizes through raffles as part of cartoon festivals at the local movie theater, lucky number “A” or lucky number “B” drawings in souvenir programs at Wilson Tobs baseball games and later on, playing golf with friends for money as teenagers.

While these examples may have been on a small scale, they certainly sound to me like the early stages of gambling.

We could go on arguing both for and against, but the bottom line is doing away with the North Carolina lottery would no more to prevent a child from learning about the evils of gambling than would doing away with rubber duckies at the fair — and we all know that’s definitely something we don’t need to do.

Keith Barnes is a reporter for the Johnstonian News. Email him at