News Flash! Gambling Is Not a New Vice in Jamaica

Church leaders had to protest, of course. They knew they were expected to lift up their voices against the sin of gambling. But, unless they live in a cave in the Cockpit Country, they must know Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s decision to legalize casino gambling won’t have the slightest impact on morality in Jamaica.

Gambling has been a fact of life in the island forever.

What could be more sinful than the off-track betting centers? What could be more seductive than the government’s own sweepstakes?

I can still remember the radio commercials of my childhood…

“With the sweepstakes you can win big money
To buy a house or marry your honey.
A five-shilling ticket can take you to France,
But if you don’t have a ticket, you don’t have a chance.”

And I remember the groups of men, squatting in the dirt behind Miss Icy’s rum shop, rolling dice, cursing and swearing. I don’t recall the constable ever arresting any of them.

I remember the shop owners openly taking bets for Pyackapow (sorry, I don’t know how it’s spelled because I never saw it written down) and Drop-Pan. I never once heard of a shop owner being arrested for running one of those “illegal” games.

When I stayed with my mother’s aunts in Kingston, I remember them tut-tutting about “a gambling den” operating in the neighborhood. As good Christian ladies, they deplored the fact that a few men would gather at a neighborhood house to play cards – for money! They also deplored the fact that young ladies were wearing skirts that showed their knees and even painting their faces with rouge and lipstick.

It didn’t bother them, though, when Cookie baked a cake and raffled it off to raise funds for missionary work at the church. They even bought tickets.

In my experience, the biggest promoters of gambling would have to include the churches, which are known worldwide for their Bingo games and raffles.

One rap against the casinos is that they allegedly attract “unsavory characters.” It seems to me Jamaica already has a lot of homegrown “unsavory characters” that may or may not have anything to do with gambling.

I have read complaints that casino gambling is operated by “organized crime.” And I agree that we should all try our best to shun criminals – organized or otherwise. But I expect governments have learned by now how to keep casino gambling relatively crime free. Casinos flourish on Indian reservations all over Florida, and I can’t recall any Mafia-style gun battles resulting from their operation.

Besides, even if the “organized crime” allegations are true, the island might be no worse off than it already is with the unorganized kind of crime that has resulted in such disasters as the recent investment scandals.

George Graham is a Jamaican-born journalist and author who has worked as a reporter in the Caribbean and North America for more than half a century. He lives in Lakeland, Florida. His new book, “The Color of Ice: A Canadian Serenade,” is available at His previous books are available at