Confession time: At the age of 13, I was avidly watching a crap game in the stairwell of Joan of Arc Junior High in New York when a monitor caught us. Penalty: no diploma or hand-shake from the principal at graduation. Ma gave me hell.

That lesson may be at the root of my lifelong passion against gambling. I believe that casino operators are predators; that state-sponsored lotteries make a mock-ery of public policy; that politicians who are on the take from gambling interests are wallowing in the occasion of sin and that Indian tribal leaders who have turned aboriginal Americans into a croupier class are contemptible. (Nothing wrong with gin rummy at home.)Despite decades of my banging a moralizing spoon against the highchair, gambling is growing. The sucker who used to be born every minute is now born every second. The recent "Powerball" lottery was front-page news in respectable newspapers; nobody did a story on the kids who went unfed providing its huge payoff.

Now that organized gambling has become a $25 billion-a-year industry, it is buying protection from politicians. An independent counsel has had to be appointed to find out how high-bidding Indian tribes may have corrupted the Interior Department.

Not all politicians are vulnerable. Liberals like Ralph Nader know that gambling is a tax on the poor; social conservatives like Gary Bauer know that gambling substitutes get-rich-quick dreaming for the work ethic. That leaves political pragmatists - centrists with their hands out - as target for the gambling lobby's influence.

The gamblers own a piece of the GOP's Trent Lott, from casino-controlled Mississippi; he killed a Senate bill that would have ended the ability of gamblers to deduct their losses, thereby saving high-rolling millionaires $4 billion over a decade. And the gambling lobby recently bought a chunk of Al Gore by kicking in $700,000 for Democrats on the v.p.'s last visit to the labor bosses' pro-gambling orgy in Las Vegas. (Al's next fund-raiser: bingo for Buddhists?)

But one underfinanced little guy is driving the lobby up the wall. He is Tom Grey, a Methodist minister from Illinois who organized the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. Although big gambling's largess is buying influence in Washington, Grey's outfit has helped local citizens' groups keep beating the casino interests in state after state.

In Maryland, for example, where I usually vote straight right wing, Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat, stands fast against invasion by slot machines. If his Republican opponent goes soft on slots or takes contributions in gamblers' chips, I'll split my ticket this fall.

Grey and friends badgered Congress into forming a National Gambling Impact Study Commission.

Although the gambling lobby was able to infiltrate it with a Nevada casino operator and others grinding casino-union axes, the majority report next June might prove damning - and make it more embarrassing for politicians to skim profits off riverboat roulette wheels.

What should worry candidate Gore and GOP leaders most about the commission's studies is "slots for tots." If gambling is treated merely as part of theme-park entertainment, harmless fun for the whole family, then every casino and tribe will explode into the Internet with their own Web sites. Every wired classroom desk would become a casino table teaching a pernicious philosophy of something-for-nothing.

What worries the gambling industry most, however, is the commission's investigation into gambling addiction. If it turns out, as many psychiatrists suggest, that a significant number of gamblers are compulsive, and were encouraged in their addiction by the lure of casino advertising, then the gambling industry might find itself in the position of the tobacco industry.

Right now, among the legions of trial lawyers who were left out of the great tobacco contingent-fee bonanza, some are staring at the deep pockets of casinos, tribes, lobbyists and even municipalities that may be shown to be partly responsible for the damage caused to people's lives by taking advantage of a gambling compulsion.

Picture a smooth trial lawyer pointing to his gambling-ruined client, holding aloft a damning government document supported by scientific testimony - what are the odds on his winning a bundle?