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