Adrenaline keeps gamblers coming back
December 17, 2003
Addicts can learn to live without the thrill
By Susan Wood
Tribune staff writer
Even though she’s toyed with games all her life, Eleanor Jeanne’s high point of her gambling addiction came at the lowest time for her family.
Her firstborn, Janet, used a gun to commit suicide 17 years ago because she saw no light at the end of the tunnel in dealing with the pain of a debilitating illness. She was 24.
“I couldn’t block the pain. I tried grief counselors, but I went to the casinos. All my life I took pride that I was a good mother,” the Meyers woman said Wednesday.
Recommended Stories For You
After the initial shock wore off, she blamed herself for the incident that shook her confidence and sent her on a roller coaster ride with an affliction experts say gets less notoriety than alcohol and drugs, but is every bit as serious.
At Harveys Resort Casino, Jeanne pulled in her biggest jackpot – $9,000 on a $1 poker machine about a decade ago. The win came about the time she decided she needed help from Gamblers Anonymous, a 12-step group established in the same framework as Alcoholics Anonymous.
GA – which brings out between four and 10 people once a week to St. Theresa Catholic School – was a place where she could share her story, which included private poker clubs with friends.
Jeanne is not alone.
The behavior mushroomed to the point of a conviction for Terry LeBan, who was sentenced to six months in jail for embezzling funds from the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. LeBan, the former executive director, asked for leniency in court because a gambling addiction led her to take money from the tourism agency.
Jeanne grew up in a family with addictive behavior. Her parents handed her bingo cards at age 8 – and she won. As an adult, her favorite games were poker and blackjack.
Her longest gambling run lasted about 36 hours.
“I didn’t eat. I would drink sugar drinks to stay up,” she said. “For me, to give up food – my second compulsion – that’s a big thing.”
Her biggest loss in one sitting was about $3,000. In the grand scheme of things, that amount could be small change for some. But her addiction contributed significantly to jeopardizing her relationship with her husband of 43 years. She was shocked that sometimes the casinos would forgive her debts.
She theorized the addiction fed a need to be the center of attention. Sierra Recovery Center counselors have heard the same from others.
“What I hear from people is it’s the adrenaline rush they get from winning. They keep trying to get that back,” center Executive Director Betsy Fedor said, adding many people have multiple addictive behaviors. “Gambling and drinking go hand in hand.”
Fedor believes with more casinos opening up, the problem will worsen for a condition largely misunderstood.
The condition is getting the attention of the casinos. Casinos executives and gambling analysts gathered last week in Las Vegas to discuss the issue.
Bill Eadington, an economics professor at the University of Reno, Nevada, who studies gambling, said the casino awareness varies.
After attending the conference “Regulating Addiction: How Individuals, Groups and Institutions Manage Excessive Behaviors,” he ranked the industry’s awareness in stages beginning with denial to lip service with no programs.
“They’re now in the halfway house. Programs are a part of the business plans,” he said, adding the goal is full commitment. “They’re not there yet.”
He said that even though Harvard Medical School is on the track, better studies need to come out to gain a grip on the addiction.
“Problem gambling has been based on junk science up to this point. A policy that’s only symbolic is worse than no policy at all,” Eadington said.
With all the ideas being batted around, one consideration mentioned at the conference included the removal of ATM machines from the premises.
There’s also talk of gambling devices that would make it less attractive to gamble, with some posting warnings about the hazards of cigarette smoking.
At the conference, Park Place Entertainment announced the unveiling in January of a “Responsible Gaming List.” Caesars Tahoe’s parent company would bar problem gamblers signed up on a self-inclusion list from their properties.
Under the new program, the Las Vegas company will not market, mail, extend credit, cash checks or award complimentary services through player loyalty programs to anyone who has registered with a state self-exclusion list or the casino’s new initiative.
Robert Stewart, senior vice president of corporate communications, said the program involves much reliance on staff.
“Say you have a slot host who hears someone’s depressed or they may lose their car or house or they’ve thought about harming themselves – if any of our employees hear that, now they’re obligated to file a responsible gambling report,” Stewart said, outlining an important component of the program.
Harrah’s Entertainment has advanced the cause by implementing or assisting in six programs designed to help problem gamblers. Brochures with details on where to go for help litter the casino.
For example, the Las Vegas casino operator – like Caesars – will refuse to cash welfare or unemployment checks. Harrah’s also trains its employees to look for signs from problem gamblers.
It also helped fund the creation and start-up of the first national help line: 800-522-4700.
-Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at email@example.com