Popular, pulsating fun with some devastating pitfalls

mvoorhis@sierrastar.comFebruary 25, 2014 

Stay and play. Gold Rush Jackpots. $150,000 Love Bug Giveaway. Free play. Free room. Win a Corvette. $200,000 cool cash blast. Bill busters. Triple points. More winners, more often. Get your win on. Wake up to fun. Your luck starts here. Marketing strategies and promotions all geared to tempt, entice, and lure people to casinos with the anticipatory chance of striking it rich.

There are four Indian casinos in Central California: Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians operates Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino in Coarsegold; Table Mountain Rancheria operates Table Mountain Casino in Friant; Tachi-Yokut operates Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino in Lemoore; and Big Sandy Rancheria of Mono Indians operates Mono Wind Casino in Auberry.

For about 96% of California's population, gambling is a leisurely adult activity, a fun and relaxing form of entertainment — a way to quiet the mind after a stressful week, to socialize with friends while enjoying the smorgasbord of foods, singing-along inaudibly during a concert, or gambling a pre-set amount of money.

Kyle, a divorced 55-year-old professional in a high-stress job, falls into this group. He makes a decent living and prefers to spend his recreational money at the slot machines, or on occasional lottery tickets, rather than dining-out. He has been actively playing slots for more than 10 years, calling it his "meditative trance."

"Casinos are like an amusement park for me," Kyle explained. "I love all the flashing and creative graphics on the slot machines, getting free spins, and the excited sounds of screams from big winners around me. My stress just melts away. I don't have to think about anything or anybody — I don't have to think at all."

Initially, Kyle spent about $20-40 every weekend, which had little-to-no impact on his finances. Gradually, over the years, that amount began to creep upwards.

"What I've noticed lately is that this has become a part of my weekend routine — one where I spend anywhere from $100-200 each visit. Win or lose, it doesn't much matter to me. I just enjoy the mental escape."

Kyle would have continued merrily down this escapist path had it not been for a wake-up call. His checks started bouncing.

"When I went to my bank for a print-out, I found seven withdrawals for $100 each at an area casino during one month. Even though I was the only one who knew, I was shocked and embarrassed," Kyle continued. "It made me realize how I had lost track of what I have actually been losing. I was okay with a hundred here-or-there, but $700 in one month was mind-boggling."

If friends, family or co-workers discovered Kyle's secret, he admitted he would feel ashamed. This forced him take a good, hard look at himself and re-evaluate not only his gambling habits, but his lifestyle.

"It made me think of the few-and-far-between times that I've won compared to all the times I've lost," Kyle said. "I've probably gambled away about $15,000 over the last 10 years."

Another thing Kyle lost was time.

"I'd say I've spent 1,000 hours sitting in front of slot machines," Kyle added. "That's 10 weeks of work or productive time I could have put into my relationships, into community service projects — not to mention money I could have used to pay off my credit cards, or better yet, to help someone in need."

Kyle has made the decision to put the skids on his gambling, a habit he says will be hard to break, especially since it has fit so nicely into his weekly routine for so many years.

While he said he won't stop going to the casinos altogether, he will only play with a pre-set amount, and leave once he has lost that amount.

Kyle has the ability to self-regulate and self-monitor. He can gamble and lose, without throwing caution to the wind and risking it all for the elusive big win. He not only has control over his gambling, but can stop himself before crossing the line into problem gambling.

For the remaining 4% of California's populace, gambling is a disastrous life-changer.

Sliding further down that slippery slope

John, a grandfather in his mid-50s, had it all — a devoted wife, two loving daughters, and a new grandson. He owned and operated a successful business in the Central Valley, owned two homes, and bought a third for his youngest adult daughter. He was deeply involved with his church and was the go-to guy for advice.

Gradually, he began spending more and more time away from home, telling his wife, Kelly, that he had to work late to get a job done, or work weekends to play catch-up on unplanned and spontaneous projects.

Even though she noticed John becoming more irritable and easily distracted, Kelly never suspected anything out of the ordinary. After all, spring and summer were typically John's busy season, and the busier he got, the less patient he often became.

Then the late payment notices began pouring in for bills not paid, along with threats of collection and repossession. The bank sent bounced check notices and fee penalties. When Kelly checked the bank balance, vast amounts of money had seemingly disappeared into thin air.

Kelly confronted John, who initially was angry and defensive. What quickly followed, though, was relief. It was as though he was thankful that his gambling obsession had been discovered at last — that he could now end his pretense and lies. He freely admitted not only to the secret life he had been living for more than two years — but the nearly $100,000 he had lost during the last month alone, playing poker at two nearby casinos, as well as an area card club.

He told Kelly he had tried to recoup some of the losses, but only continued to lose more and more on top of what he had already lost. John operated under the mistaken belief that if he didn't bet bigger and bigger, he could never cover his losses.

John's family promised to rally around him, to help however they could — the only catch was that he stop gambling and get some help. John agreed to try, but deep down, he knew he was hooked. He began gambling on the sly again, but because he was now in such a desperate spot, he wasn't as careful about not getting caught. It wouldn't have mattered anyway — now that his comings-and-goings, as well as the bank account fell under Kelly's critical and watchful eye.

Today, John finds himself living alone in a cramped, barely-furnished apartment. While he's still technically married, Kelly has told him not to come home. He seldom sees his family, and few relatives speak to him anymore. His credit cards are maxed-out and he lost the second home he owned.

While John truly loves his family and would like things to be like they used to be, he said that he has to gamble, even though he knows he can't win. He holds on to his fantasy of that one 'big win' — the one that will 'cure' all his problems. And more often than not, suicidal thoughts are frequently on his mind.

John has a gambling disorder. While he has won thousands of dollars, his winnings do not come close to covering his losses of an estimated $500,000 over an 18-month period — and yet, he continues to gamble.

Typically, those with gambling disorders compromise, disrupt or damage personal, family or vocational pursuits. Their family life is in shambles. They become increasingly preoccupied with gambling, have a need to bet more money more frequently, are restless or irritable when attempting to stop, and have no control to end their gambling behaviors despite mounting negative consequences.

In the more extreme cases, problem gambling can result in financial ruin, legal problems, loss of career and family, and even more tragically, suicide.

Gambling can be as addictive as drugs

According to the California Council on Problem Gambling (CCPG), although no substance is ingested, the problem or severe gambler gets the same effect from gambling as someone might from taking drugs or having a drink. While sitting for hours in front of a slot machine, with all its entertaining graphics and sound effects, dopamine — a feel-good chemical — is released into the brain, similar to children and young adults playing video games. This is what a problem gambler becomes addicted to — that feel-good chemical — even while risking and losing it all.

Because of this, behaviors are repeated in an attempt to achieve that same effect. But just as tolerance develops for drugs or alcohol, the gambler finds it takes more and more to achieve the same emotional feeling as before. This creates an increased craving for the activity, with the gambler having less and less ability to resist.

In the most recent massive study — the 2006 California Problem Gambling Prevalence Study conducted by the State Office of Problem Gambling — about 3.7% of the nearly 300 million population in California at the time were identified as problem gamblers — which equates to about one million adults.

CCPG has broken the 3.7% number down even further: an approximate 2.2% of Californians are problem gamblers, with an additional 1.5% having gambling disorders.

However, typically, the term problem gambler is all-inclusive, covering the continuum from compulsive gambling to gambling disorders.

"A problem or disordered gambler is someone who goes too far, causing harm to self or loved ones as a result of gambling," the California Council on Problem Gambling Executive Director Robert Jacobson explained, "and is considered an illness, similar to someone with an addiction to alcohol or drugs."

To understand the difference between a problem gambler and a gambling disorder, think of someone who is depressed. Many people are depressed, but it doesn't affect them to the degree that they can't work or function. On the other hand, severe depression is debilitating, and normally requires medication or treatment for the disorder.

Likewise, many people gamble (Kyle), but it doesn't lead to the point where intervention or treatment is necessary (John).

Questions to ask:

Perhaps your addiction hasn't reached the point of the devastating losses and extreme low points that John has experienced, but ask yourself these questions:

Are you gambling more than you intend to?

Do you gamble as a way to escape problems?

Do you ever lie to hide your gambling?

Have you ever lost a relationship, job or educational opportunity due to your gambling?

Do you borrow money or steal to finance your gambling?

Are you unable to stop playing, regardless of winning or losing?

Do you often gamble until your last dollar is gone?

Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?

Did you ever gamble to get money to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?

Have you ever considered self destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling?

If you answered 'yes' to any of these questions, you could be a problem gambler.

Help is available

For problem gamblers and affected family members, free individual therapy sessions from a specially-trained certified therapist are available by calling the California Council on Problem Gambling help line at (800) GAMBLER (426-2537).

For group support, visit the Gamblers Anonymous website at: gamblersanonymous.org.

Note: While their stories are real, the names of the gamblers and family members have been changed to protect their identities. Part two of this three-part series examines, in-depth, the stories of two severe problem gamblers.

History of Gambling

Gambling itself goes back thousands of years. Egyptians and Romans bet on games of skill and chance. The playing of dice was popular in Greece and Rome, and Emperor Nero was said to have bet the equivalent of $40,000 on a single roll of dice.

Columbus and his crew brought dice and cards to America in 1492. Inventor and politician Benjamin Franklin organized a Pennsylvania lottery in 1748 to help raise revenue for military supplies to defend Philadelphia against the French and Indians.

New Orleans established the first major gambling center in 1718, and its chief rival was Washington, D.C. By 1795, there were more than 2,000 lotteries in operation, many of which were severely corrupt.

George Washington recorded both his winnings and losses at horse betting and cards. Andrew Jackson, after losing all the money he had brought with him at the racetrack, would often bet some clothing items.

"Wild West" gambling was extremely dangerous. A poker hand with two aces, two eights and a queen is referred to as a "Deadman's Hand." It was named after Wild Bill Hickok won a poker game, and was later shot in the back by his former opponent while holding that hand.

In 1832, Edward Pendleton opened the capital's most famous gambling house, where a lobbyist would often cover a congressman's debt; the congressman would ultimately repay this debt by voting the way the lobbyist wanted him to vote.

In 1890 Judge Campbell ran his court from a saloon in California. After hearing the evidence in a case, he would throw a pair of dice. Depending on the crime, double fours could mean eight days or eight months in lock-up.

Nearly a century later (1978), New Jersey became the second state to legalize gambling in Atlantic City, and just a couple years after, Pathological Gambling was recognized as a mental disorder and included into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry III.

The insurgence of Indian casinos was a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling a decade later — when the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed in 1988. The ruling determined that if a state has legalized gambling, Indian tribes in that state could operate the same games free from government restriction (California vs. The Cabazon Band of Mission Indians).

The court ruling opened the door to the establishment of Indian casinos in California.

An estimated 62 of the 109 California tribes own 68 casinos, which include 50 Indian casinos, 15 Indian casino resorts and three mini-casinos. These casinos provide the public a combined total of nearly 64,000 slot machines.

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