Not long ago, gambling was illegal almost everywhere. In those days, America sent gamblers into the desert to pursue their dissolution. Las Vegas—"Sin City"—existed like a disease under quarantine, separated from the commonwealth by hundreds of miles of arid wilderness. If you went to Las Vegas, you didn't tell your mother; you didn't take the kids.

But not today. Without much fuss, Vegas has come near to us all. You can legally gamble in 48 states of the Union. Gambling has become normal, like the sale of beer at Safeway. Casinos offer childcare.

Nowhere is this transformation more obvious, nor more surprising, than in poor, conservative, Bible Belt Mississippi, which now trails only Nevada in square feet of casino gambling space. In five years, Mississippi has grown 30 thriving casinos producing nearly $2 billion annual gambling losses. These losses are, of course, the casinos' gain, and the government's, for gambling operations are taxed by state and local authorities there at a 12 percent rate.

A deep strangeness
I began my tour of gambling in Mississippi at its southernmost part. As I followed State Highway 49 toward the Gulf of Mexico, billboards advertising games of chance slowly proliferated in the piney woods, until I reached Gulfport and saw my first Deep South casino. Downtown Gulfport looks beat-up and gray, with plenty of vacant storefronts and pawn shops. But on the waterfront gleam the Copa Casino—a converted cruise ship—and the glittering Grand Casino Gulfport, both seemingly lowered from a spaceship.

Mississippi's Gaming Control Act states that Gulf Coast casinos must be floating in the gulf waters. The Grand Casino sits on a barge so vast it is unthinkable that even a tidal wave could ...

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