When is gambling a problem?

For the majority of individuals, gambling is a form of recreation that does not lead to negative consequences. However, for a small percentage of the population, gambling can have a negative impact on their health, family, job, emotional state and financial situation.

I often get asked how someone can progress to being $10,000 in debt from playing a slot machine in a short period of time. Here is a fictitious scenario that outlines how this progression may come about:

It is Friday night and a group of friends invite you to go play the slot machines. At this point, the only gambling experience you have is playing the odd lottery ticket or going to Las Vegas last year on vacation. You go to the casino with your friends and decide to take $20. You get $20 worth of tokens and on the second token that you put into the slot machine, you win $450! You are very excited about winning this $450 and decide to spend the rest of your original $20 and leave the casino with your winnings. You take your $450 that you did not expect to win and put a payment on your credit card.

Next week comes along and your same friends ask you to go to the slot machines again. You immediately say yes based on the "luck" you had last week. Your friends also are glad you accepted because they feel you will have a "lucky" influence on them. You decide to go back to the same area of slot machines that you were playing last time you were at the casino because they are the "lucky ones." You take out $20 in tokens and begin playing the machines. In about five minutes your $20 is gone and you are a little disappointed that you did not win anything. Your friends are still playing so you go and take another $40 hoping that it will last a little longer than the last $20. You lose your $40 and go home down $60.

A few days elapse and you are still thinking about that $60 you lost and also about the $450 you won on your prior experience at the slots. You certainly hope you can win a another $450 because that would actually pay off the balance remaining on your credit card.

You stop by the slot machines after work and take $60 again. You discover this time you can put your money directly into the machines and don't have to get any tokens. You are a little embarrassed about going on your own and don't want anyone to know you have a "problem" so being able to put the money into the machine is convenient. You put in $20 again and lose this 20 in about two minutes. After about an hour of winning and losing you leave and discover that you spent $100 and are feeling anxious about telling your spouse you just lost at the casino so you go back the next day and try to win it back.

You lose another $100 and become quite angry at yourself for losing this amount of money because it is just "not you." Over the next two weeks you try and win back the money you lost as you fear your spouse will find out when the bank statement comes in and you feel you have to win that money back.

Eventually you spend $1,400 trying to win back the money you lost. You start to go and gamble over your lunch period and find yourself getting deeper and deeper in debt. You have some wins but they do not cover all your losses and decide to keep trying until you win back all that you lost. So . . .

You can see how a gambling problem can develop in a short period of time. By continuing to chase your losses and have an expectation that you can win back the money you lost are signs that your gambling is becoming a problem. People also feel they have some control over an event (such as a slot machine) that is totally random.

CARROL NA)AB, insurance broker

"The Bible says to work hard and not look for free money. I don't believe in winning big. Those with gambling problems suffer from a spiritual malady."

VANESSA WALDRON, retail saiesperson

"I've never been to a casino; it's too obsessive and compulsive. I played the lottery once, but you're more likely to be hit by lightning than to win."

SHANE CREAMER, consultant

"I goto Las Vegas twice a year. All my guy friends gamble. Some go overboard-they'll lose a couple thousand dollars, but they're not losing their houses."

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD ONCE SAID, "Only a first-rate intelligence can hold two opposing ideas and still be able to function." If so, according to the most recent Toronto Life-Leger poll, which we conducted in the wake of yet another (failed) initiative to build a casino in the GTA, we must be geniuses. How else to explain that while a majority of GTA-ers vigorously oppose casinos within our borders, and over a quarter of us know someone with a serious gambling problem or addiction, three-quarters of us risked our hard-earned lucre on some game of chance last year? But maybe contradiction goes with the territory. Most of us don't really believe you can make big money gambling, and yet in the past year Ontario raked in more than $2 billion in gaming revenue, largely from people who think staying at the same slot machine increases your chance of winning the jackpot (it decidedly doesn't). The provincial government recently launched an ad campaign aimed at dispelling such myths about the odds of winning, with slogans like "Someone told her that pulling the arm would help her win more...

Actually they were pulling her leg." This is the same government, mind you, that since the legalization of gambling in Ontario in 1994 has licensed four commercial casinos, six charity casinos and 16 racetracks with slot machines, many of which send out seductive promotions to lapsed patrons and remind their moneylosing regulars that they can take out loans on their credit cards. Talk about contradictions. Maybe in our refusal so far to open our neighbourhoods to gaming palaces, we GTA-ers are displaying something more important than a first-rate intelligence: a little common sense.

While recent financial figures show a drop in both revenue and attendance at Casino Niagara, a local service helping problem gamblers continues to see more people.

"We have definitely seen an increase," Lisa Root, team leader for the problem gambling program at the Niagara Alcohol and Drug Assessment Service, said Thursday.

Niagara's problem gambling program saw an increase of 20 per cent in the number of people using it between the fiscal years 1998-1999 and 1999-2000. But this doesn't mean there was a surge of people with gambling addictions. In reality, it shows more people are coming forward and using the service, said Root.

More than 200 people were seen through the program last year (1999-2000), said Root. That figure includes family members of problem gamblers who also seek help.

"We think there are a lot of people out there who don't know there is help."

Signs that someone has a problem with gambling include spending longer or increased amounts of time at a gaming operation, trying to win back lost money, gambling debts or neglecting family and personal needs, Root said.

After looking at last year's figures when compiling the program's annual report, Root saw patterns emerge.

More men than women are seen through the program, said Root. While the majority are men, women continue to access services at notable rates.

The two main pressures pushing people to get help are financial and family problems, Root said.

"Often the spouse doesn't know that there was a problem until the person has dipped into their savings."

The gambling program offers private and group counselling and a 24-hour phone service. One group run through the program focuses on gamblers' cognitive behaviour. They are taught methods to alter behaviours and alleviate gambling-related superstitious beliefs such as a feeling they have to stick with a particular slot machine to hit the jackpot.

The majority of people seen through the program gamble at casinos or use slot machines. No one with an Internet gambling addiction has yet to be seen through the program, said Root.

Funded by the province's Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, the problem gambling program received its first fiscal support in late 1997. It is one of more than 40 such programs in the province.

While Niagara Alcohol and Drug Assessment Service treats people with a myriad of addictions, Root said there isn't much cross-over between addictions. In other words, people getting drug treatment don't also come for a gambling addiction.

Often people who use the problem gambling program are hardworking citizens who have never had previous addiction-related problems, said Root.

At Hotel Dieu Hospital in St. Catharines, its addiction services is in the process of putting together a multi-lingual, culturally sensitive Internet gambling prevention and education program and 24- hour similar telephone line. The Web site, with information in 10 languages, will be developed in the next six weeks, said Norma Medulun, manager of Hotel Dieu's addiction services.

As with other forms of addiction, people with gambling problems often reach rock bottom before they reach out for help. Depending on the individual, "rock bottom" can mean marriage breakup, job loss, severe financial hardship, or a combination of these and other calamities.

Is it possible to quell the devastating force of gambling addiction before its too late? The answer, of course, is yes. The key is to recognize the symptoms early enough and seek professional help. While that may sound simple, the fact is problem gamblers are often unable, or more accurately, unwilling to recognize or admit that they have a problem -- until disaster strikes.

The arrival of casino gambling in Niagara has focused attention on the problem of gambling addiction. While the term "problem gambler" conjures up images of the person who gives away his or her life-savings to a casino slot machine in the course of a few hours, in fact problems caused by other forms of gambling are just as prevalent as those associated with casinos.

Roughly half of the people in the gambling treatment program run by the Niagara Alcohol and Drug Assessment Service have been affected in some way by problems with bingo, sports betting, lottery tickets and illegal video lottery terminals. The rest report problems with casino gambling (slots, then cards).

Whatever form of gambling, the problem gambler exhibits the same warning signs, which if identified early enough by a friend, family member, or employer, can save years, if not a lifetime, of pain and suffering.

How to tell if someone may have a gambling problem? Here are warning signs. Five or more could indicate a serious problem with gambling:

- Preoccupation with gambling. The person is continually reliving past gambling experiences, planning the next gambling venture, or thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble.

- Increasing spending. The person needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement.

- Repeated, unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling, during which time the person is restless and irritable.

- Gambles to escape. The person gambles as a means of coping with problems or to escape from feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression.

- Chases losses. After losing money from gambling, the person often returns another day to win back the money he or she has lost.

- Lies. Repeated lying to family members, friends and others to conceal the extent of his or her involvement with gambling.

- Unexplained absences. The person is away from home or work for long, unexplained periods of time.

- Interferes with personal life. A person jeopardizes or loses a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of gambling.

- Borrows money from friends/family. Relies on others to provide money to relieve a desperate financial situation caused by gambling.

- Breaks the law. Engages in forgery, fraud, theft, or embezzlement to finance gambling.

Employers might also notice chronic lateness, excessive use of sick days, requests for salary advances, listening to or watching sports events while at work, and a general decline in work performance, preoccupation, or lack of concentration.

Of all the warning signs, the two most common indicators are the need to gamble with increasing amounts of money, and lying bout one's gambling habits.

The root of the problem for gamblers who get into trouble is the development of a flawed thought process. For example, some believe (wrongly) that persistence at gambling will eventually pay off. Others believe their knowledge or experience with the game can make them winners. They become blind to the fact that the largest factor in determining winning or losing is chance. The theory of "try, try again" holds true in may situations, but certainly not gambling. What we do as counsellors is try and help problem gamblers change the way they approach and think about gambling.

As with any illness, prevention is the best medicine. Here are some tips to help prevent becoming a problem gambler:

1. View gambling as entertainment. While it's perfectly normal to stand around the water cooler at work and fantasize about what you'd do if you won Saturday's jackpot, your ultimate goal is to have fun.

2. Set your limits and stick with them. If you decide you can afford to spend a certain amount of money for entertainment, then set that as your limit and never gamble more than that. If fact, leave your bank and credit cards in your wallet or at home.

3. Understand that the odds of winning are against you. Gambling is a form of entertainment, not a way of getting rich.

4. Never overestimate the value of your own game-skills. Gambling always boils down to chance, which you can never predict or control.

While it may be difficult to confront someone you suspect has a gambling problem, encouraging them to seek help is the best thing to do.

AT 5 A.M. ON a December morning, an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River is a cold and barren place, except for those holed up where the laws of nature are reduced to chance, odds and probability.

It's closing time on a weekday at the Montreal Casino and the thousand or so gamblers left in the five-storey complex on the old Expo site testify to the ``success'' of this provincially owned business. In the fiscal year ending last March, customers lost $336.7 million in slot machines and at gaming tables.

More than 10 million people have entered the Montreal Casino since it opened in 1993. To capitalize on its popularity, the casino expanded into an adjacent building this summer and now ``boasts'' 3,000 slot machines and 100 gaming tables.

Working hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m., but the casino's manager, Loto-Quebec, has informed employees that next year gambling will be a 24-hour business. And big business it is.

Quebec's three casinos, its lotteries and province-wide network of video-gambling machines generated $2.2 billion in gross revenue last year. That has helped reduce Quebec's deficit, but whether it helps the economy is less certain.

A leading American researcher, University of Massachusetts professor Robert Goodman, has noted that casinos must attract 40 per cent of their clients from outside their jurisdictions to stimulate the local economy.

In Montreal, only 7.5 per cent of the casino's visitors come from outside Quebec, suggesting it's working much like a hefty tax that sucks money out of the local economy.

But such questions haven't stalled the Quebec government's attempt to rake in money. Also lost in the cash grab are the increasingly obvious problems associated with pathological gambling.

Minor addictions can be seen as security guards remind gamblers that it's closing time. Players frantically try to squeeze in more spins from the slot machine, almost panic-stricken at the thought that the winning crank may be left to the next gambler when the casino reopens in four hours.

Similar fears have led to some uncommon behavior.

One casino employee tells of the gambler who left at closing time, slept four hours in his car and was back at the slot machine at 9 a.m.

One woman barely noticed when the man at the slot machine next to her's keeled over from a heart attack. When paramedics arrived, the woman refused to give up her seat to allow access to the struggling man. They literally had to lift her chair to move her.

Casino cleaners still grumble about the customers who have urinated between slot machines rather than risk losing their spots with a trip to the washroom, not to mention the man who filled his pants.

It's unpleasant stuff, but tame compared with the three suicides and one murder-suicide linked to big casino loses.

``There are possibly others. There are a certain number of suicides where we don't know what happened prior to the death,'' says Dr. Paul Dionne, a coroner who investigated two suicide deaths linked to gambling at the Montreal Casino.

The first occurred Aug. 10, 1994. Hue Khan Ngau, a 51-year-old mother, had just received an insurance claim of $45,000 for a fire in her kitchen. She headed straight for the casino and lost every penny. She threw herself under a subway.

Jean-Louis Delisle, 61, killed himself three months later and police found he left big debts from casino gambling.

Dionne then investigated the case of Yvon Gagne, a 39-year-old taxi driver who killed himself April 28, 1995.

Gagne was financially secure and had never gambled until curiosity led him to the casino six months before his death, Dionne says. He got hooked and the visits snowballed into a $100,000 debt.

Gagne confided to his wife that he almost turned his gun against himself in the parking lot of the casino after a big loss, Dionne says. Days later, he did it in his home.

The most publicized tragedy occurred last May. Vo Phu Van, 39, had lost thousands of dollars at the casino. One night, he stormed into the home of his in-laws, demanded money, was refused, and opened fire, killing his brother-in-law, and wounding his mother-in-law and uncle. When police arrived, Vo turned the gun against himself.

``The casino is operating something that's potentially dangerous,'' Dionne says in an interview.

An American study recently published in the Journal Of Gambling found that 48 per cent of gamblers surveyed considered suicide, while 13 per cent had attempted it.

Casino spokesperson Jean-Pierre Roy notes that Quebecers were spending $130 million a year gambling before the casino opened.

The casino has initiatives to help compulsive gamblers, including a self-exclusion program. Gamblers are photographed and sign a declaration banning themselves from entering the casino for anywhere from six months to five years. More than 2,000 people have used the program and 800 are currently on the list.

It's not unusual for banned gamblers to try to sneak back into the casino wearing disguises. One banned player was spotted by security guards and thrown out 12 times in one day. Another was thrown out 117 times in six months.

Pathological gamblers aren't surprised at this kind of desperate behavior.

``When I was gambling, I was in a dream world,'' says Larry, 50, who stopped gambling about 12 years ago. ``There was no reality; there was no family; there was no job and none of the problems that went with all that. It was the great escape.

``It's not the money, it's the action, it's the adrenalin. I never wanted the game to stop. I could go 30 hours drinking coffee at a craps table and not even take a bathroom break.''

But Larry, who now works for Gamblers Anonymous, doesn't criticize the casino. ``I never had any problems finding action before the casino opened up.''

At the Brewery Mission in downtown Montreal, a shelter and soup kitchen for homeless men, executive director Adrian Bercovici has noticed a new type of customer, the homeless gambler.

``You've heard of the black plague; well, we've got the gambling plague. It's a horrible thing because I don't need more people here. I've got the fastest-growing business in town.'' Bercovici says he has gone from serving 650 meals a day last year to about 1,000 now.

Jeff, 42, works and lives at the Brewery Mission. Gambling cost him his home, his family and his job as a well-paid foreman in the meat department of a major supplier.

He gambles monthly income from an inheritance, which is soon to run out. ``Do I want to stop gambling? Today, yeah. But ask me that another day and I'll say no,'' Jeff says.

His Brewery Mission pal, Yvan, is 22. ``When I know money's coming in, I get so excited I can't sleep,'' Yvan says. ''I just think about gambling it. It's this sensation of beating the machine, of conquering it. When I don't play, my heart aches.''

Pathological gambling commonly leads to crime. Police say there have been incidents of money being loaned to gamblers at steep interest rates, which have led to arrests.

But police say crime hasn't increased since the casino set up shop.

``Absolutely every place in the casino and in the parking lots is filmed with video cameras,'' says Detective Sgt. Richard L'heureux. ``The only spot that isn't filmed is inside the toilet stalls. But the spot where you wash your hands - that's filmed.''

The video cameras helped catch about a dozen casino staff. One incident involved cleaners who pocketed lost gaming chips they found on the floor. Another involved card dealers who padded winnings by giving players extra chips. The extra money was then divided among the players, the card dealers and the supervisor who monitored the gaming tables.

Video cameras also helped nab an armed gang that followed players leaving the casino and stripped them of their winnings.

Last April, a Toronto man was surrounded at an intersection on Montreal's West Island, stripped of his $3,000 winnings and locked in the trunk of his car.

The gang is believed to be responsible for six similar stunts.

``But in some cases, people simulated a robbery because they were afraid to admit to their spouses that they lost the money at the casino,'' L'heureux says.

All the gamblers interviewed by The Star say their habit began at an early age - confirming earlier Canadian and American research that has found that gambling often begins during adolescence.

Up to 6 per cent of children are pathological gamblers, estimates Jeffrey Derevensky, associate professor at McGill University's psychology department, whose research studies in Montreal high schools are funded by Loto-Quebec.

Derevensky found that 81 per cent of children aged 9 to 14 in one survey reported gambling with lottery tickets, video poker, sports pools and cards - often with the approval of their parents.

More than half of them reported doing so on a regular basis.

The study also found a link between video games and gambling. Children who reported playing a lot of video games were more likely to have gambled and more likely to place higher bets.

Video games stimulate children much the way games of chance do. Children develop a ``false sense of security'' by believing it's only a matter of time before they also master the gambling game, the study states.

In an interview, Derevensky says he fears an increase in adult pathological gamblers because ``this is the first generation of children that will grow up and spend their entire lives in a society where gambling is legal.''