An estimated 200 people lost their lives Saturday night when fire swept through the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky. The night club's bigname floor show had attracted a large holiday crowd.

Up until about a decade ago, the big attraction at Beverly Hills would have been the wide-open gambling in its lavish casino.

In those days, the Kentucky shore across the Ohio River from Cincinnati was dotted with at least a dozen casinos - places like Sleepout Louie's 633 Club, Jimmy Brink's Lookout House, Pete Schmidt's Glenn Rendezvous, The Bluegrass Inn, The Yorkshire, and the Merchant's Club.

Anybody except a policeman in uniform was welcome at the dice tables. When area police officials wanted to shoot dice, they dressed in civilian clothes. Otherwise the muscleman on the door wouldn't let them in. One night when a police chief got into a drunken argument and reached for his gun, I saw a casino security man deck him with one punch and later heard the admonition, "You've got to behave here like everybody else."

I was a police reporter for the Kentucky World in those days. We crusaded against the gamblers. Two years later, the gamblers and their friends had put the Kentucky World out of business, and a dice table stood where my desk had been.

The Kentucky World was against the gamblers because they were "destroying the fabric of government" with their bribes. Our editorials said that gambling is immoral and has the pracitcal effect of enriching mobsters by draining money from the pockets of the poor and the gullible.

Today the biggest profits from gambling go to our states. Most states still enforce antigambling laws based on the World's thesis that gambling is immoral and produces undesirable social effects, but they make an exception.

When the state itself rakes in the profits, the immorality of gambling becomes transformed into a socially beneficial undertaking. Gambling revenue is a tax necessity now.

In addition to reporting the Beverly Hills fire, Sunday's editions of The Washington Post told about Tom Drake of Pittsburgh. Drake cashed in about $20,000 of his life's savings to buy Pennsylvania lottery tickets.

The state offers - at odds of about 35 million to 1 - a prize of $1,000 a week for life. So Drake proposes to keep buying lottery tickets until either he has hit the big prize or gone broke.

So far, he has bought $1,500 worth of tickets and won about $500 worth of small prizes. This is slightly less than the average payoff on state lotteries, which return to their players about 40 per cent of each dollar wagered, keep 40 per cent as their profit, and spend 20 per cent for administrative costs. The player's chance of winning is ruinously low.

Even the illegal numbers game returns 60 to 70 per cent to its players. Horse players get back 80 per cent or more. The dice shooter has less than a 2 per cent edge against him. American roulette wheels give the "house" less than a 6 per cent margin. So a state lottery is clearly the worst sucker bet a gambler can find, with the possible exception of a crooked slot machine, which can be rigged to pay back as little as its greedy owner wishes.

For every Tom Drake who gets his name into the paper by making a public announcement about his reckless plunge, there are untold anonymous suckers who are lured into going over board on state lotteries.

Absolutely the worst thing that could happen to the gullible people in this country would be for Tom Drake to happen to hit that 35-million-to-1 shot and win the big prize in Pennsylvania. For years thereafter, chumps by the thousands by the thousands would be losing the baby's milk money in vain attempts to duplicate his feat.

As Jimmy Brink looks down on all this from the Big Crap Game In The Sky, he must be thinking, "Gee, if only I had been a state, I could have been just as moral as the next guy - and I wouldn't have had to pay off all those cops and politicians."