Betting on yourself — not on the game

Risking it all..

March 11, 2014 

Steve Wynn, casino builder and operator of the Wynn Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, was once asked who the winners are when it comes to gambling — his simple one-word response — "casinos."

Most people who gamble are social gamblers. They gamble for entertainment, and normally don't risk more than they can afford. Even if they chase after their losses, it is only for a brief time, with few-to-no negative long-term consequences. They don't have a preoccupation with gambling, and are free of the compulsion to gamble it all away in a futile attempt to cover or recoup losses. Not so with the problem gambler.

According to the California Council on Problem Gambling (CCPG), there are two types of problem gamblers — the action and the escape gambler. Ben, the ex-attorney who forged his clients names on checks to cover his gambling habit is a combination of both, while Connie, the 66-year-old embezzler, is an escape gambler. (See part II in the March 6 edition of the Star).

Both action and escape gamblers have distorted thinking. They are in denial, have fixed beliefs, and have delusions of power or control born out of desperation. In general, the more hopeless the situation, the greater certainty the gambler has of that one big future win.

Action gamblers are generally domineering, controlling and manipulative men with large egos. They view themselves as friendly, sociable, gregarious and generous. They are energetic, assertive, highly intelligent, persuasive and confident. Even so, they typically have low self-esteem.

These gamblers primarily play the 'skill' games, such as poker or craps, or bet on sports. They have generally had one big win. While winning is important, they seek "action" — a euphoric state similar to the high one gets from taking drugs. It is even possible for action gamblers to experience a "rush" — characterized by rapid heart beat or sweaty palms — when just thinking about gambling.

On the other hand, escape gamblers are normally women with some of the same characteristics of the action gambler, in that they have low self-esteem, are liars and are manipulative. Gambling becomes a problem later in life (usually after age 30), and their games of choice are slot machines, video poker, bingo or playing the lottery.

They normally begin visiting casinos with friends or family as a social event, to have some fun, or for occasional recreational gambling. What hooks them is the almost hypnotic trance that occurs when sitting at slot machines. They live on the edge — the thrill of not knowing whether they will win or lose with each push of the button or pull of the lever. All life's problems seem to disappear, and the social interaction helps to fill the void in their lives.

It makes sense, then, that given the large number of retirees in the Mountain Area, Central Valley casinos not only offer a social setting, but a quick fix for boredom or loneliness. And because of this, seniors are particularly at-risk. Even though most are well-off, seniors can lose their entire net worth — the money it generally took a lifetime to accrue — if they become addicted to gambling.

It happened to Maureen O'Connor, the former mayor of San Diego and heir to the fortune amassed by her husband, Robert O. Peterson, the founder of the Jack-in-the Box chain.

Gambling away millions

According to The San Diego Tribune, O'Connor, 66, admitted to embezzling $2.1 million from her late husband's charitable foundation to pay off gambling debts. To fund her gambling, O'Connor began liquidating her vast assets, and once that resource was exhausted, she began a series of transfers from the foundation to her personal bank account. These transfers ultimately left the charity bankrupt.

According to her attorney, Eugene Iredale, O'Connor's net gambling losses topped $13 million from 2001 to 2009, and her personal fortune, once totaling as much as $50 million, had been depleted, leaving her broke.

Casino reports to the Internal Revenue Service showed her cumulative winnings at more than $1 billion from 2000 to 2009, however, O'Connor admitted to even higher losses.

Her attorney called her gambling "grief gambling," saying that she began her spree playing video poker in about 2001 due to pain and loneliness after the death of her husband in 1994, along with the deaths of several friends in succeeding years.

Ultimately, in early 2013, O'Connor cut a deal, which will allow her to try to pay back the monies she embezzled from the foundation. One of the conditions of this deal is that she get treatment for her gambling addiction.

While the amount of loss is staggering, O'Connor's story is not unusual.

"Normally with addicted gamblers, there's more to it than the gambling itself," licensed mental health clinician Pat Buffaloe said. "There may be a mental disorder, or the gambling problem may be triggered by a variety of reasons from deep depression, anger, grief, and divorce to a physical illness, boredom, loneliness or retirement — which in itself can trigger loss of self-worth and uselessness."

Help is available

With nearby casinos, multi-million dollar lottery jackpots, and the growing threat of online gambling — a billion dollar industry — looming just over the horizon, gambling disorders are on the rise.

"Our hotline, with all calls answered by therapists with masters degrees or above, operates 24-7, 365 days a year," California Council on Problem Gambling Executive Director Robert Jacobson said. "We currently receive about 20,000 calls yearly, of which an estimated 6,000 can result in direct intakes and direct help services."

Even so, few are seeking help.

"There are so many people affected," Buffaloe commented, "yet I only have 10 in therapy. The trouble is that many people don't know there's help out there. On top of that, there is an enormous stigma of shame associated with this addiction. The problem gambler is more than likely in denial, and when family members are aware of the problem, they can actually become enablers."

For those who have sought help, Buffaloe goes over the Freedom from Problem Gambling workbook. During counseling sessions, they discuss the distortions and feelings of their gambling addiction. Buffaloe helps them recognize and identify both the internal and external triggers leading to the urge to gamble. Together, they come up with alternatives or substitutions, specifically something the gambler enjoys doing like cooking, painting a landscape, or golfing — anything to occupy their free time other than their addiction.

"It's important to remember that therapy is only effective when clients want it to be, when they are truly ready to tackle the addiction," Buffaloe added, "and just as with any addiction, while several issues come into play, the main problem is the addiction itself because it has taken precedence over everything and over everyone."

Therapists, like Buffaloe, are specially trained in the treatment of problem gamblers and their families. They not only use defined diagnostic tools to determine the extent and severity of the problem, but develop a therapeutic relationship to help each client succeed using proven approaches, with the goal of preventing a relapse into destructive behaviors.

This free therapy is funded by tribal casinos, which have negotiated a compact to pay revenues into a specified fund, based on the number of slot machines they operate.

"Five million dollars is allocated annually for treatment in California from the Indian Gaming Special Distribution Fund," California Department of Public Health Matt Conens explained.

"Of that five million, four million dollars is for local assistance and direct services in communities, such as therapists and residential treatment facilities for services provided to problem gamblers and their families. The remaining one million is used for state support, which covers the training of the therapists, outreach efforts, and a clinical innovations program, which not only does research on evaluating treatment methods, but creates tools for providers."

While counseling services are offered for problem gamblers and their families, a few casino owners have taken it upon themselves to be more proactive.

According to CCPG, three Indian-owned casinos — all located in Southern California — recently earned Silver Responsible Gambling Certifications for at least the fifth time. They were awarded this recognition for receiving comprehensive training, for complying with a lengthy list of requirements, and for demonstrating both the willingness and the ability to help those affected with gambling addictions.

It is Jacobson's hope that, in the future, more gaming facilities will take the initiative to assist those struggling with this illness to get the help they need.

Responsible gambling

Central Valley casinos currently post the hotline number for problem gambling — typically near the cashier cages. They also have links on their websites for information on responsible gaming. Responsible gambling guidelines (per CCPG) include:

Think of the money you lose as the cost of your entertainment.

Set a dollar and time limit, and stick to it.

Understand that you'll probably lose, and accept the loss as part of the game.

Don't borrow money to gamble.

Don't let gambling interfere with or become a substitute for family, friends or work.

Don't chase losses. Chances are you'll lose even more.

Don't use gambling as a way to cope with emotional or physical pain.

Know the warning signs of problem gambling.

"Sooner or later, gambling addicts will have to take a good hard look at themselves. They will have to come face-to-face with what they've done, what they've become and who they have hurt along the way," Buffaloe commented.

"It's not an easy road, and it's not an easy fix. There's no magic pill and no instant cure. Nothing can keep addicts from relapsing, except themselves. I give my clients the necessary tools. They become more aware. But this is something that will require constant work and diligence on their part every day for the rest of their lives."

Note: Despite several attempts requesting comments for this series, representatives from the four Central Valley casinos did not respond to phone calls or emails.

This is the last of the three-part series on problem gambling.

Letter to my family

I am a problem gambler. I need your help.

Don't lecture, blame or scold me. You wouldn't treat me that way for having leukemia or diabetes. Compulsive gambling is a disease, too.

Don't let me provoke your anger. If you attack me verbally or physically, you will only confirm my already bad opinion of myself.

Don't let your love and anxiety for me lead you into doing what I ought to do for myself. If you assume my responsibilities, you make my failure to assume them permanent.

Don't accept my promises. I'll promise you anything. But the nature of my illness prevents me from keeping my promises, even though I mean them at the time. Don't make empty threats. Once you have made a decision, stick to it.

Don't believe everything I tell you; it may be a lie. Denial of reality is a symptom of my illness. Moreover, I'm likely to lose respect for those I can fool too easily. Don't let me take advantage of you or exploit you in any way.

Don't cover up for me or try in any way to spare me the consequences of my gambling. Don't lie for me, pay my bills, or meet my obligations. It may avert or reduce the very crisis that would prompt me to seek help. I can continue to deny that I have a gambling problem as long as you provide an escape from the consequences of my gambling.

Above all, learn all you can about compulsive gambling and your role in relation to me.

I love you, your problem gambler

—The Gam-Anon 1991 One Day Conference Book

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