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Down to her last dollar, Linda Edwards bet it on the slot machine and felt sick to her stomach as it vanished, like the $75,000 that had gone before.

Since the riverboat casino opened here four years ago, Edwards, a 46-year-old factory worker had squandered her retirement account, taken out three loans and borrowed to the hilt against two credit cards. "It takes hold of you," said Edwards, who has a teenage daughter at home. "I had thoughts of suicide."Gambling has spread like prairie fire across Iowa, a state that did not even have a lottery until 1985 and now has 10 big casinos, not counting the horse track in Altoona and the dog track in Council Bluffs, both of which have 24-hour slot machines.

No longer does the state impose a maximum loss of $200 a day for each player on the riverboats. Now there are no limits, and some card games are as high as $1,000 a hand.

It is an astonishing metamorphosis of Midwestern mores: It was in Dubuque during the 1970s that a Roman Catholic priest went to jail on bingo charges, and now nearly nine of 10 Iowans say they gamble, a recent survey has found.

And in a statistic that has caused some alarm in the state, 5.4 percent of Iowans reported a gambling problem, up from 1.7 percent in 1989.

"You ask around, and just about everyone now knows somebody with a gambling problem," said Tom Fennelly, a state counselor who works with Gamblers Anonymous.

Among the 24 recovering gamblers who gather for support in a former law office in downtown Davenport, more than $200,000 had been lost aboard the riverboat casino a few blocks away where Main Street crosses the Mississippi River. Six of them went bankrupt.

Meetings of problem gamblers are now springing up here and throughout the nation, especially in the smaller cities and towns that had been isolated from casinos until the past few years.

For some gamblers the chase for a big jackpot has ruined more than just bank accounts. Jason Berg, a 19-year-old from the little Iowa town of Elkander, ended his life in June after running up a big gambling loss, leaving a note that read simply, "I'm out of control."

Philip Marshall, 51, shot himself in August after losing a bundle at the Catfish Bend riverboat casino in Fort Madison. And in Illinois, a 41-year-old suburban salesman, Howard Russell, shot himself in the parking lot of the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin last fall, after losing more than $50,000. When police found him, he had $13 in his pockets.

Gambling is the nation's fastest growing industry, now a $40 billion business that draws more customers than baseball parks or movie theaters. Besides providing an estimated 1 million jobs, gambling has also been a politically painless way to raise tax revenues: Casinos alone paid $1.4 billion in state and local taxes last year.

The cost in human misery - the lost homes, the broken marriages, the neglected children - is difficult to calculate. But with gambling growing at a breakneck pace, experts say, the problems are surely keeping pace.

John Kindt, a professor of commerce at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana, who has studied gambling, has estimated that for every dollar that states take in from gambling they pay $3 in costs to social agencies and the criminal justice system.