ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — As lost weekends go, this one was a doozy.
The woman and her longtime boyfriend, regular Atlantic City gamblers, lost $100,000 in two days in early January. She lost her job, and they now owe $205,000 to five Atlantic City casinos, with no realistic prospects of paying it back.
She picked up the telephone and called her host, John Conklin, Resorts’ vice president of player development, whose job it is to keep gamblers happy — and coming back.
“This is more than I can handle,” she told him. “I’m in over my head. All of my real estate is underwater. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Conklin was concerned.
“She sounded desperate,” he recalled. “I could hear it in her voice.”
He gave her the phone number of Arnie Wexler, the former head of New Jersey’s Council on Compulsive Gambling and himself a former gambling addict. Wexler helped get the woman and her boyfriend into a program for gambling addicts, promised to help her work out some sort of arrangement with the casinos, and just let her know she was not alone, that there are thousands like her.
Wexler travels the country giving training sessions to casino employees on how to spot potential compulsive gamblers and what to do if they encounter any.
The casino industry’s efforts to spot problem gamblers and intervene with them range from intense, hands-on sessions like those Wexler gives, to much more passive efforts like having brochures about where to get help for a gambling addiction available on the casino floor, or handling out pens with the toll-free number of a help line printed on them.
While most casinos have adopted some form of responsible gambling policy, it can be a delicate balance in an industry whose very business model relies on gamblers risking and losing money. The casino industry has two main motivations in dealing with problem gamblers, said Alan Feldman, a vice president at MGM Resorts International, and chairman of the National Center for Responsible Gami ng.
“There is a strong belief among many of the casino executives that there is a moral obligation to do this,” he said. “But there’s also a strong business reason: Problem gamblers make for lousy customers. By their very nature, they will turn into bad debt.
“For them to hit bottom, they have to cause a lot of pain along the way, to themselves, their families and to companies,” he said. “It serves no purpose in any business to have customers who can’t pay their bills.”
The center developed a training program called Emerge, which has become the standard among casinos belonging to the American Gaming Association, the industry’s main trade group. Different casinos use it differently, but the aim is the same: to intervene when there is a problem, Feldman said.
Wexler’s advice to the dealers, hosts and player reps at resorts was simple, and borrowed from the homeland security slogan: If you see something, say something.
“You’re not clinicians, you’re not counselors,” he told the workers. “It’s not your job to run over to a customer and say, ‘Hey buddy, you’ve got a gambling problem.’ But you can kick it upstairs to an officer in your casino and they can intervene and take care of it. Let a supervisor know about it.”
There are a few signs dealers and other customer service workers can pick up on that may indicate a patron has a gambling problem, said Donald Weinbaum, the current executive director of New Jersey’s compulsive gambling council.
“If you have a regular patron and you see them making larger, crazy wagers, it might be that they’re trying to break even. It might be that they’re caught up in an addiction. If you see a patron going through mood swings, that could be another indication. Talk to the patron. Maybe suggest a brief timeout. Give them the 1-800-GAMBLER number and let them know there’s a place where they ca n get help.”
Of course, that can sometimes require diplomacy worthy of a Washington ambassador. For an employee to suggest that a customer stop gambling, even briefly, requires supportive bosses.
“We feel like we have a moral obligation,” said Aaron Gomes, executive vice president of operations at Resorts and the son of co-owner Dennis Gomes. “We’re in the business of entertaining customers. When it stops being entertaining, we want our workers to talk to them and see if there is a problem.”
An estimated 2 million to 5 million Americans have some sort of gambling problem. A 1999 study by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimated another 15 million are at risk for developing a gambling problem. There are 38 states with some form of casino gambling.
The scope of problem-gambling outreach varies widely across the country.
At least 12 states require casinos to adopt and carry out responsible gaming policies as a condition of getting licensed, according to Brian Lehman, a spokesman for the American Gaming Association, the main industry trade group. They include Nevada, Louisiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois and New York. New Jersey, however, has no such requirement.
Many states have so-called self-exclusion lists, where gamblers can sign up and require casinos to bar them from the premises either permanently, or for varying periods of time. Many states also assess a charge on casinos to help fund treatment programs for compulsive gamblers.
Michigan, which estimates it has 350,000 residents who are addicted to gambling, places ads for its problem-gambler hotline in church bulletins. The Seminole Indian casinos in Florida, like many others across the nation, put up signs letting customers know where to go for help with a gambling problem, and include that information on players club cards and casino advertising.
A problem gambling task force is being formed near Kansas City, Kan., where a casino opened Feb. 2, and authorities in Massachusetts are considering problem gambler prevention and treatment programs as casino gambling draws nearer there.
Arelia Taveras started out as an ambitious lawyer and TV commentator who got to know the staff in Atlantic City casinos, and soon limousines were whisking her to the resort for the high-roller treatment. But her gambling spun out of control: She said she would go days at a time at the tables, not eating or sleeping, brushing her teeth with disposable wipes so she didn’t have to leave the table. She sometimes passed out.
Her total losses amounted to nearly $1 million, and in 2008, she filed a $20 million racketeering lawsuit against six Atlantic City casinos, and one in Las Vegas, claiming they had a duty to notice her compulsive gambling problem and cut her off.
Such lawsuits rarely succeed, but they can be costly for casinos to defend, and damaging to their reputation. Taveras’ suit was dismissed, and Taveras served nearly 3 ½ years in prison for stealing clients’ money to finance her gambling. She wishes someone at any of the casinos she frequented — including Resorts — would have taken her aside and tried to talk some sense into her when it w as obvious she needed help.
“I’d stay three, four days at the table and have a Snickers bar,” she said. “There are people who pee on their seats because they don’t want to get up. You mean you don’t see that? Come on. They have a duty to us.”
In a single weekend in September 2005, she says, she lost $150,000 gambling at Resorts. She says the casino asked her to sign a waiver of liability if she wanted to continue gambling there, but she declined. Taveras realizes many people feel she is solely to blame for her own actions. But she gambling can be every bit as addictive as drugs or alcohol.
“Capitalism is capitalism; I get that,” she said. “My issue is that they need to take steps to weed out casualties.”