The other side of gambling
The men gather each week to share their stories and help each other.
And although each story is unique, they all end the same way: in shame, humiliation and financial ruin.
“My rock bottom was in 2010,” one of the men told me. “I lost everything. There was no food in the house, and I’ve got a decent paying job.”
Gambling. Specifically, slot machines. The man said he began gambling in college while attending school near Turning Stone Resort and Casino. When Saratoga Casino and Raceway installed video lottery terminals in 2004, “I had to go check it out,” he said. He became a regular, arriving at the racino after work and leaving when it closed at 2 a.m.
“I don’t know how I drove to work the next day,” said the man, who is in his 30s.
Last week, I visited a support group for problem gamblers to see what they thought of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to expand Las Vegas-style gambling throughout the state. There were seven men present, representing a range of ages and backgrounds. Some were retirement age, while others are still working and, in a handful of cases, rebuilding their lives after embezzlement convictions and stints in jail. I agreed to keep identifying information out of the column, so that the men would talk freely about their addiction and the heartache it had caused.
In advertising and promotional materials, casinos are depicted as glamorous places where anyone can get rich quick. But the reality is a lot darker, as the men in the gambling support group will attest. For them, gambling is not a harmless diversion, as it is for most people; it is an all-consuming addiction.
And although compulsive gamblers comprise a small percentage of the population — the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions estimates between 3 percent and 5 percent of Americans have a gambling problem — they provide a substantial portion of casino revenues. A recent study by the Institute for American Values found problem gamblers account for between 40 percent and 60 percent of slot machine revenues, while a 2006 study found between 30 percent and 40 percent of gambling revenues in Ontario are derived from problem gamblers.
In other words, casinos need problem gamblers to thrive. A big part of their business model involves finding ways to separate addicts from their money, over and over and over again. The men in the problem gambler support group know this, which is why they’re worried about the casino referendum.
“It’s not that we’re against casino gambling,” one of the older members of the group said. “It’s just that we know what casino gambling will bring. I know guys in jail, guys who [killed] themselves. I tried to commit suicide once. Thank God it didn’t work.”
“I know the casinos are coming,” another man said. “I’ll just have to be stronger in my recovery.”
Now in his late 60s, he said he’s been gambling since “I was 8 years old. Flipping cards, throwing dice, playing craps — it just blossomed.” As an adult, “I got hard into casino gambling,” taking regular trips to Turning Stone and the Indian casinos in western New York.
“I’m concerned that if the casinos get here, the temptation will be too strong,” the man said. “I don’t like the idea of the casinos coming at all.
“If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have voted for this governor.”
One member of the group took up gambling relatively late, in his 40s, when he began buying scratch-off tickets. At the time, money was tight. He was working at a grocery store, earning about $300 every two weeks.
“I started off buying one or two tickets at a time,” he said. “Sometimes it was just a couple dollars, but I was spending it on tickets instead of getting a loaf of bread.”
The man’s scratch-off habit quickly escalated. Soon he was spending more than one-third of his paycheck on tickets. To make ends meet, he started stealing from his employer — about $8,000 worth of groceries over the course of several years.
“It was the most shameful thing in life, being led out of the place I worked at in handcuffs,” he said.
Another man stole about $130,000 from his employer, losing his certified public accountant license in the process. He predicted gambling would lead to a rise in embezzlement cases.
“I hate the casino idea,” he said.
When he was gambling, he said, “I worked to gamble. I didn’t work to put food on the table or to support my family.”
For the past three years, he has been taking the anti-depressant Wellbutrin, which has helped take away his impulse to gamble.
The support group is hosted by Lew Krupka at the Guilderland-based Gambling Recovery Center. He said there’s a lack of resources and treatment options for problem gamblers, and the state has little desire to discuss or acknowledge the extent of the problem.
If the casino measure passes, “It’s going to cost million and millions of dollars to help all of the people who are going to need it,” he said.
Should the gambling referendum be approved Nov. 5, funds to address problem gambling will be generated through the imposition of a $500 annual fee on all slot machines and table games. But when you consider the huge sums of money those machines and games will inevitably extract from gambling addicts, this seems woefully inadequate.
To contact the Gambling Recovery Center, call 356-1012 or visit http://gamblingrecovery.com.