Casinos and the Gambling Addict

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In the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5, problem gambling is classified under “Impulse Control Disorders Not Elsewhere Classified.”

It is referred to as pathological gambling, but we know it best as an addiction, and this view is supported by the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG).

NCRG cites Dr. Charles O’Brien, a contributor to the DSM-5:

According to Dr. Charles O’Brien, chair of the Substance-Related Disorders Work Group for DSM-5, brain imaging studies and neurochemical tests have made a "strong case that [gambling] activates the reward system in much the same way that a drug does."

A Basic Conflict of Interest

The pathological gambler is to a casino as an alcoholic is to a bar. They become the best of customers – sitting for hours at a time, with little interest in food or distracting entertainment, and they gamble. Sometimes, they gamble until they run out of money and can’t get any more – until they can’t write any more checks and until their credit card limit is exhausted. But the irony is that the casino is supposed to intervene when they detect such a person.

That’s right. We expect the casino to ban their most valuable type of customer. A customer so loyal they’ll spend their last nickel, go home broke and still come back for more as soon as possible.

The Black List

Problem gamblers can bar themselves from casinos. Often, as part of a treatment program, a gambler will sign up to have him or herself put on a black list. Once on, the gambler cannot get removed until a set time period has passed – usually three to five years. This is good when it works. The lists aren’t necessarily shared across establishments, and only rarely will a self-banning in one state transfer to another.

Still, the black list is a good idea. And if casinos really wanted to address the problem of pathological gambling, they’d be quick to spot these players and offer help, perhaps even blocking them from a return visit. But do they?

An Insider's Report

In a recent re-airing of a 2012 report, National Public Radio’s ”This American Life” covered the story of a problem gambler who was loaned (over six markers) a total of $125,000. They sued her and won not only the gambling debt but also damages for a total judgment of $500,000. Her only defense was that the casino knew she was addicted and encouraged her to keep playing – well past her means to pay.

The victim talked about casinos calling her at home, fighting with one another to get her “business.” She says she came to dread the calls, knowing they would trigger another round of the addiction cycle.

The casinos claim they operate like any business and they don’t support pathological gambling. But the radio show host interviewed one of the pit bosses and got a different story:

Sarah Koenig: [talking to a pit boss who worked at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas]: Did you ever serve gamblers that you knew personally, that you knew or suspected that they were addicted?
Kristian Kunder: Yes… There's a lot of people that come through who are obvious, obvious. I've seen players gambling. And I could go home, come to work the next night, they're still there in their same clothes, in the same seat.

Sarah Koenig: So when he [the casino spokesperson] says, "Our objective is to try to identify addicted gamblers as best we can and encourage them to seek treatment and help," that's not true?
Kristian Kunder: Not one bit. Not the slightest part. In no way. The only time they'll approach a player is if they're suicidal or something like that.

Is it a case of the fox watching the hen house? Perhaps. Plainly, there’s a lot of money to be made serving problem gamblers. With 1 to 3 percent of U.S. adults thought to be problem gamblers, the potential profit is huge. And 48 of our 50 states have some form of it available. (Stats here.)

As long as casinos remain immune from lawsuits, nothing will change. Bars can be sued when they serve alcohol to a drunk, but a casino cannot be successfully sued for bankrupting one of its clients – even when they should have known they had a gambling addiction.

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