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How To Become a Gambling Addict in Five Easy Steps

Losing your home can be as simple as pushing a button.

toronto casino gambling addiction 1

When many of us try to conjure an image of gambling addiction, what comes to mind is a long descent and longer aftermath, a slow process of getting sucked in over years. It can happen much more quickly though: for some, one big win is all it takes to spark a full-blown gambling addiction.

Much has been made of the supposed benefits that a casino would offer Toronto, and many concerns have been raised about the potential drawbacks for nearby residents and businesses. Relatively little has been said, however, about the role that pathological gamblers play in the success of casinos—and the lengths that casinos will go to to entice them and keep them hooked.

If you haven’t been to a casino within the last 10 years, you might be surprised to find that the slot machines that were once relegated to the corners and along the walls are now arranged in clusters and rows throughout the room. Slots are now among the most addictive games to be found at the casino, and the most lucrative. While approximately two per cent of players are problem gamblers, they account for 60 per cent of slot machine revenue—in Ontario, about $1.8 billion annually—which is why casinos are loath to do more than a bare minimum in addressing gambling addiction. The financial devastation of their most faithful customers is literally what keeps casinos in the black.

Torontoist sat down with one such gambler, a suburban single woman in her early 50s named Ann (we’re not using her last name to protect her and her family’s privacy). Ann’s foray into the world of casino gambling took her from big wins to shattering losses in just a few months. She gave us some surprising insights into the world of the gambling addict, and walked us through the various factors that contributed to her obsession.

toronto casino gambling addiction 2

A predisposition
While it remains unclear what exactly causes problem gambling, Ann believes certain aspects of her personality made it easier for a gambling pathology to take hold: an addiction to smoking; ongoing chronic depression; previous socially inflected habits like compulsive shopping via The Shopping Channel; and the obsessive way in which she played certain “social” games online and in person, from community charity bingo to Facebook treasure hunts.

An introduction
One of Ann’s bingo friends, herself a problem gambler, encouraged Ann to join her at the casino, something she might not have considered on her own given that the casino was a 45-minute drive away. “She liked playing the slot machines, and she wanted company for the drive,” Ann told us. “I had developed a circle of friends from bingo, and thought that the casino would offer a similar social experience. However, when we got there, she and I quickly separated. I discovered that conversation and social interaction in the room was discouraged, as it distracted the other players. We went together a number of times, but always seemed to play alone. It was disconcerting at first, but I became more comfortable with it over time. And then it was an easy transition to going alone.”

A conducive environment
Like many of us, Ann already knew that most old-school casino game rooms are usually built without windows so that you can’t easily tell what time of day it is or how many hours have passed while you’ve played. But it was only much later, after she had joined a gambling addiction support group, that she learned how the design of the casino—the layout of the room, the angle of the lighting, the cheery imagery and sounds of the machines, the placement of chairs, the free snacks and drinks, and even the ugly busy patterns on the carpets—keep gamblers in the room, awake, and playing. Compounding this is the illusion of luxury and celebrity (first-name greetings, free rooms and meals, VIP treatment) granted to frequent gamblers, something they may not experience anywhere else in their lives.

While some newer casinos are experimenting with natural light, smaller game rooms, better navigation, and a more playful feel to broaden their appeal, the majority are constructed to part players from their money—swiftly, persuasively, and efficiently. “Unlike what you see in the commercials, compulsive gambling is not a happy activity that you share with your friends,” Ann says. “Sit in the casino lobby for an hour and watch the people coming in. How many of them are alone and in a hurry, sporting determined faces and making a beeline for their machine? They’ll walk out later with heads down, not making eye contact, checking their watches frantically. This isn’t social; this is barely voluntary for some.”

A learning curve
Part of the appeal of casino games, including slot machines, is that they are simple to play, difficult to master, and nearly impossible to beat. Countless books, videos, and websites are dedicated to the complexities of blackjack, roulette, craps, poker, and baccarat, and compulsive players will often immerse themselves in these strategies in hopes of finding the mathematical loophole that will help them beat the house. Slot machines have evolved from simple single-payline mechanical devices to dazzlingly complicated video machines offering enticing light and sound displays and multiple methods and lines of play, as well as massive lottery-like jackpots offered through network-connected machines called progressive slots.

A big win
Once Ann had joined her support group, she made another startling discovery: almost everyone in the room had, at one point or another, won a jackpot of $10,000 or more. In Ann’s case, she had won $25,000—the maximum possible at the machine she was playing. “At that point,” she says, “I had been going to the casino for about a year, and had built up what I thought was a manageable debt of $8,000. It’s funny to look back at it now, but that’s how I thought of it. I went to a machine that someone had just stepped away from, a $5 machine, went for the maximum as I usually did, and it was like the machine exploded. The sounds, the lights, the bells, I’d never experienced anything like it. And of course it went on and on for more than an hour: they keep you there beside the machine while they unlock and open it, validate your win, check your ID and the video feeds, and the bells keep ringing and people keep coming over and staring. The casino gave me my winnings in cash, in $100 bills. I gave half the money to the friend I came with, and gave $1000 to the poor man who’d been playing the machine right before me. I tipped a few people I knew at the casino in $100 bills. And I paid off my $8,000 debt.”

“For some people, I suppose, that would have been it,” she continued. “I had had a big payout. I had recouped the money I had spent all year and then some. But the rush had been incredible, I couldn’t get back to that casino fast enough. I was chasing the sensation, the temporary high you get from the big win. And you do think you are going to win again, despite the odds. Within two months, I was $40,000 in debt with no way out, except to join a support group, admit I was addicted, apply for casino exclusion, and add the debt to my mortgage—debt that I’m still paying off 10 years later.”

Part two: How to Make Gambling Less Addictive


  • bob

    Typical prohibition-era hysteria. Keep the “Good” in “Toronto the Good”.

    • OgtheDIm

      Yeah, cause that whole addiction thing is so over rated in this casino discussion.

      The woman is $40K in debt man…

      • torontothegreat

        *ahem* alcoholism?

  • ReadandFeed

    She’s right. Casinos are not the happy, social places that OLG likes to portray in their ads. They are designed to part people and money, and they’re set up so that the house is the winner.

  • estta

    Re: her point about happy people in advertising. I was looking at one of the “responsible gambling” posters on the TTC this morning, the one that has a poker chip in a condom wrapper advising you to play safely. I thought, even this is an ad for gambling. A red chip in a shiny black package, gambling as sex. How insidious.

  • rickm81

    So is there any reason why the proposed new casino would be any worse for attracting problem gamblers than the current Woodbine slot machines? Other than the fact that it would be a second location, of course.

    • ReadandFeed

      It wouldn’t be any worse, but it could attract new problem gamblers. They want it downtown to target those in the area — young people with money to spend. Great, a whole new slew of people bringing their money and leaving it behind …

    • OgtheDim

      The problem gambler issue is only one aspect of this.

      A resort downtown, that will either have people arrive via an underground parking sea, or who will drive into an outdoor parking sea, and then will actively discourage people from leaving its doors, is not exactly a good use of space. We want to encourage people to interact with ALL of Toronto.

      This won’t do that.

  • Patrick_Metzger

    Bars cater to alcoholics. All-You-Care-to-Eat buffets are a magnet for compulsive over-eaters. Online gaming has wrecked more relationships than Maury Povich, and right now some guy’s life is collapsing as he sits in his basement with a laptop, a credit card, and a bottle of hand lotion.

    Virtually anything that’s fun can and will be enjoyed to dangerous excess, and with all this other badness going on why we’re suddenly getting hysterical about a potential casino is a mystery to me.

    The legal gambling train has long since left the station in Ontario, so presumably we the people have decided that the trade-offs are worth it. And setting up a few more slot machines in a area that’s home to 6 million people will have a statistically insignificant effect on the problem of gambling addiction.

    Maybe some folks just think casinos are a little low-brow for world-class Toronto?

    • Eric S. Smith

      “All-You-Care-to-Eat buffets are a magnet for compulsive over-eaters.”

      To the point that they provide 60% of revenue, though? There’s a difference between offering something that some people will harm themselves with and actively encouraging them to keep showing up. A casino is doing the latter.

      • Patrick_Metzger

        If we’re making that moral argument, shouldn’t we be advocating the closure of all casinos (not to mention online poker and racetrack slots), not just worrying about whether we’re getting one locally?

        If you’re interested, google “Disordered Gambling: Etiology, Trajectory and Clinical Considerations” for a recent study from Harvard Medical School which found that increased “opportunities and access to gambling” had no effect on the rate of problem gambling.

        • Eric S. Smith

          “If we’re making that moral argument, shouldn’t we be advocating the closure of all casinos…?

          That wasn’t what was on the table, but okay, sure.

          “…increased “opportunities and access to gambling” had no effect on the rate of problem gambling.”

          If I pick your pocket, it’ll have no measurable effect on national crime stats, but I’m still a creep.

          • Patrick_Metzger

            I assumed the moral argument was on the table, since the piece is notionally about a problem gambler but is clearly intended as a case against a casino in Toronto. And if that’s our objection, it should apply to all gambling, not just this particular situation. Otherwise it just reminds me of a NIMBY objecting to a bar opening nearby by pointing out how miserable it is to be an alcoholic.

            If you pick my pocket you benefit yourself at my expense. If you open a casino, you benefit yourself, but you also add to provincial revenues and provide a service to people like me who enjoy casinos. Creepiness is irrelevant in both cases.

          • Eric S. Smith

            “And if that’s our objection, it should apply to all gambling, not just this particular situation.”

            As I said: okay, sure.

            “If you open a casino, you benefit yourself, but you also add to provincial revenues and provide a service to people like me who enjoy casinos.

            You left out the part where half of those revenues are coming from a small number of people whose weaknesses are being disastrously exploited. We know this is how it works. We’re not building a casino for the fun and enjoyment of all and then being sad later about a small number of casualties — we’re banking on the casualties to make the enterprise a success.

            Put another way, do you think that OLG and MGM, or whoever, are keen to implement all of the mitigating features in this article’s sequel? I’ll bet that they aren’t, because they’re not in this to “provide a service to people like [you] who enjoy casinos.”

        • tyrannosaurus_rek

          Is the argument that opportunity and access to casinos causes gambling addiction, or that building one here will only make it worse for existing addicts?

          • Patrick_Metzger

            I don’t know, though I’m not aware of any evidence supporting either argument anyway.

          • dsmithhfx

            Maybe ours will be the exception to what has happened to every other locale that has a casino. What are the odds?

          • Patrick_Metzger

            What happens to those locales? Cite please.

          • dsmithhfx

            The patrons make so much money from constantly winning jackpots, that they don’t mind paying taxes, and they build subways everywhere. Oh look, a castle!

          • Patrick_Metzger

            I won $45 last time I was in Niagara Falls then we went to the buffet with our winnings. I felt like a Kardashian.

          • dsmithhfx

            “I felt like a Kardashian.”

            My condolences.

          • Lee Zamparo
          • tyrannosaurus_rek

            Anecdotal evidence is offered in the latest installment of this series. Namely, that having a casino across the street from where they live or work deprives problem gamblers and recovering problem gamblers the space to talk themselves out of going.

          • Patrick_Metzger

            And the study from Harvard Medical School that I referenced above demonstrates empirically that increased access to gambling facilities has no discernible effect on problem gambling.

            The whole point would be to do it properly; you don’t just slap up a concrete bunker full of craps tables and start shaking down the punters. Of course the corporations that build them aren’t going to go out of their way to operate “morally” (whatever that means) if it costs them money; that has to be built into the negotiation and regulation processes.

            Casinos don’t save cities that are on the verge of economic and social collapse, as numerous municipalities have learned to their disadvantage. However, a casino complex isn’t going to destroy the social fabric of a vital and vibrant city, and managed properly would be a useful addition to the portfolio of tourist attractions and local entertainment options.I’d certainly prefer it to the brawling vomitous disaster that is the Entertainment District on a Saturday night.

          • tyrannosaurus_rek

            I’m not willing to pay $20 to read this study, but I’m betting it doesn’t contain measurements of how gamblers like Ann talked themselves out of going and the time/space requirements needed to do that.

            Nor am I willing to bet that anything will be done to ensure a casino is “managed properly” to maximize the benefits to the city and its residents over the house’s take.

          • Patrick_Metzger

            You can read it for free if you go where I went; I just didn’t post the link because it went wonky when I tried.

            I’ve played slots in casinos on 5 continents and I’ve yet to see one that caused meaningful damage to its environs. And if we really want to alleviate human suffering, we should reconsider banning booze, which is vastly more insidious. Except many of us enjoy drinking whereas gambling we can take or leave, so suck it, alcoholics and your families, the nanny state’s not looking out for you.

            But anyway I’m not that emotionally invested in the idea and no doubt we’ll be better served by filling up every square metre of land with condos, bars and artisanal cheese shops.

          • tyrannosaurus_rek

            I don’t oppose a downtown Toronto on moral grounds – there are plenty of other more concrete reasons to oppose it – put opposition to a casino downtown does not mean one is opposed to (responsible) gambling, or wants all forms of it stamped out, as you imply with the comparison to alcohol (which is far more controlled than lottery tickets or other legal forms of gambling).

          • Patrick_Metzger

            Absolutely, there are other arguments against. While I’m not in particular agreement with those either, in this case I was really only responding to what I perceived (perhaps wrongly) as the intent of the article – to rally opposition to a casino on the basis of sympathy for problem gamblers.

            I did write half of a TvT here about a year ago where I summarized my case for a casino – it’s simplistic as hell due to space limitations but it covers the territory.

            The issue starts to look to me like “This isn’t something I personally like and it feels a little threatening, so let’s not let anyone do it” and then invoking all kinds of vague, unproven dangers as reasons. And yes, unproven. A talking head expressing an opinion, even in the Globe, is not a scientific study.

        • Lee Zamparo

          “The legal gambling train has long since left the station in Ontario, so presumably we the people have decided that the trade-offs are worth it.”

          Why does that entail we shouldn’t be concerned about a casino in downtown Toronto? We most certainly have *not* decided that the trade-offs are worth it; we’ve decided that building a casino is a complex undertaking that has complicated effects on health, traffic, and the economy, so we need to consider how and where we build them. Which we are doing.

          “And setting up a few more slot machines in a area that’s home to 6 million people will have a statistically insignificant effect on the problem of gambling addiction.”

          First of all, a casino isn’t just a few more slot machines. Second, do you have any evidence to support this? Because the follow-up interview article with the same woman (“How to make gambling less addictive” in Torontoist) explicitly mentions that proximity to the casino had a huge effect on her ability to resist relapsing into addiction.

      • torontothegreat


        • Eric S. Smith

          Sure, the Ontario Tobacco Smoking Commission probably shouldn’t open up a new cigarette superstore and pretend that it’s going to be a great new source of jobs and free money for the city.

          • torontothegreat

            Perhaps not a superstore, but rather a slot machine in every public place in Ontario.

            Tobacco taxes generate 11.2 billion (2010-11) in revenue. 1/3 goes to province, the rest to feds. So how isn’t that a source of free money for the province and feds?

            The money generated isn’t less than the money needed to “cure” or “treat” diseases which come from either addiction to gambling or cigarettes.

            I’m addicted the smoking, your addicted the gambling, he’s addicted to alcohol and the governement is addicted to the revenues.

            The only difference is that the government isn’t pretending that it’s free money in regards to casinos.

    • james

      So your logic is lets just keep adding more gambling dens and make more addicted people.
      Your a dope !

  • Paul

    You know, I’m willing to “bet” that alcoholism causes more personal and societal harm than gambling addiction. I wonder how many of the no-casino advocates would also support prohibiting liquor sales in the city?

    I’m a card-carrying NDP lefty but that doesn’t mean I want a nanny state. There should be an effective, well-funded support system in place to help people with addictions, but I don’t think my choices should be limited because some people have problems.

    • Christopher Paul Dart

      I’ve known problem gamblers and I’ve known alcoholics, both can ruin lives, but it’s much easier for gambling to go unchecked for a long, long period of time.

    • John Duncan

      Bars are only able to serve patrons between the hours of 11am and 2am, and you can only buy booze at the LCBO or Beer Store until 11pm at the latest. And neither bars nor stores are legally allowed to serve clientele who are intoxicated. That certainly doesn’t address the entire spectrum of alcoholism, but it is something.

      In comparison, casinos tend to be open 24/7, and are even worse at cutting people off than bartenders.

      As the article notes, modern casinos (and casino games) are designed to maximize their addictiveness. Corporate boards, marketers, and scientists have spent decades identifying the features that will draw people in and keep them in their seats; you may have free choice, but they have millions of dollars invested in analyzing people’s behaviours and identifying the most effective pressure to make you choose to stay.

      Beer companies have done the same but, unlike casinos, they don’t have the direct connection (and accompanying tools) that physical presence provides.

      • torontothegreat

        Cause you can’t stockpile alcohol or find after-hours… Nope, nobody has ever done that evar…

        • Ron

          Your an idiot !

  • Don

    The logical location is Woodbine Track that has 680 acres and has the horse racing and 3000 slots already so adding a complete casino would be the way to go rather than jam something in the downtown core on a tiny site surrounded by outdated roadways that can barely handle the traffic now.

  • baccarat online

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