Bay State confronts problem gambling in ways CT does not

FILE -- In this Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018 file photo the MGM Springfield casino's logo decorates the front facade on Main Street in Springfield, Mass. The opening of the casino in August was among the top stories in Massachusetts in 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

FILE -- In this Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018 file photo the MGM Springfield casino's logo decorates the front facade on Main Street in Springfield, Mass. The opening of the casino in August was among the top stories in Massachusetts in 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Charles Krupa / Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD — Late-afternoon gamblers strolling past the baccarat table ignored its sole player, a brooding dark-haired man whose gaze rarely left the table. He wore a white N95 mask, purple nitrile gloves and a lightweight hoodie the color of his chips, a bluish gray.

On her rounds at MGM Springfield, Amy Gabrila noticed him right away. The golden RESERVED placard on the table marked him as a high roller, as did the color and quantity of his chips. Grays are the color of money in Massachusetts casinos, each worth $5,000.

“He’s got about $210,000 in chips in front of him,” said Gabrila, a former casino dealer. She spoke in the low voice of a golf commentator.

A thin young man in a pale yellow shirt and matching baseball cap discreetly stood to the side, a wide-eyed audience of one. He whispered to Gabrila he once saw the same player win and lose $1 million in a sitting.

But Gabrila was less interested in the high roller than the young man, a gambler who lives with his mother. A novice when MGM opened in August 2018, he’s now a regular at the blackjack tables. They talked, their conversation heard only by them.

“He lost $2,000 today,” she said later. “He’s miserable.”

Gabrila is a GameSense adviser employed by the recently rebranded Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health, founded in 1983 as the Council on Compulsive Gambling. They educate gamblers about myths associated with gambling, odds on the games they play, the importance of setting limits, and the help available to those who want to stop.

That can mean conversations over time with a gambler headed for trouble, like the young blackjack player in the yellow cap. A high roller playing alone at a reserved baccarat table, making eye contact with no one but the dealer, is left alone. The advisers talk to people willing to talk.

To an older man sitting quietly at a craps table, just staring, the garrulous Gabrila teased, “No one wants to play with you?” It was a gambit, an invitation to a conversation. The man said nothing. Gabrila moved on.

“We don’t pressure people,” Gabrila said. “We kind of let things happen organically.”

At the suggestion of a slots attendant, she’ll try to engage someone who hasn’t strayed from a machine for hours, captive to the magical thinking that jackpots gestate in machines that become due over an uncertain time, rewarding those with sufficient faith and coin. The reality is each play is random, with no connection to previous spins.

“This industry is riddled with misinformation,” Gabrila said. “I’m going to tell you what the truth is. And I hope that makes you more able to make an informed choice. I’m not telling you, ‘Get up from the slot machine.’ But don’t stay there because you haven’t won yet, and you think something’s gonna happen soon, and you don’t want to miss out on it. Casinos are very good, gambling is very good, at tapping into that psychology.“

Casino as a laboratory, gamblers as subjects

GameSense is a program developed by the British Columbia Lottery Corporation in 2009 and licensed to casinos across Canada and a few lotteries, of which the CT Lottery is the first in the U.S. It is not offered in Connecticut’s tribal casinos, Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun, though both publicize problem-gambling services and offer patrons self-exclusion, temporary or permanent bans.

In most places, GameSense is a curriculum, a source of information about wagering and problem gambling intended to be an integral element of marketing by lotteries and a few casino companies, most notably MGM in the U.S. Massachusetts requires it at its three casinos, MGM Springfield, Encore Boston Harbor and Plainridge Park.

Massachusetts has become a proving ground. It is the only state with GameSense information desks at all casinos, staffed 16 hours a day by industry veterans like Gabrila, a former dealer at Mohegan Sun, among other casinos. The Bay State also is home to long-running, state-mandated studies on gambling.

No comparable research was commissioned or seriously contemplated by the state of Connecticut — not in the 1990s, when its two tribal casinos were a new phenomena, or now, as the state weighs a significant expansion.

At the urging of Gov. Ned Lamont, the Connecticut General Assembly is about to vote on legalizing sports betting and online casino games, but the governor’s bill is silent on what safeguards, if any, might be imposed on gambling that would be available 24/7 on any smartphone, tablet or laptop. It refers generally to promoting responsible gambling.

Diana Goode, the executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, a non-profit funded by the tribal casinos, the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the CT Lottery, said neither the legislature nor the Lamont administration have engaged the council in how to regulate an industry wishing to make every digital device a potential portal to gambling.

Paul Mounds, the governor’s chief of staff, said the administration negotiated with the tribal casinos over increased contributions to funding for problem-gambling programs, but he acknowledged the talks did not touch on requirements for betting limits, prompts for live chats with counselors, or other safeguards.

Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, the co-chair of the Public Safety and Security Committee, which has jurisdiction over gambling legislation, said consumer protections for sports betting have been proposed in a separate bill, House Bill 6512, but she hoped at least some will be merged into the governor’s proposal, House Bill 6451. A vote could come this week.

Buttoned-down Connecticut was the region’s surprising casino pioneer, an example envied and now imitated. Its two tribal casinos have produced more than $8 billion in direct revenue to the state’s treasury, the annual proceeds shrinking in the face of competition. Every New England state except Vermont now competes for those dollars with its own casinos.

Connecticut, whose two casinos are controlled by tribal sovereign nations under the terms of compacts negotiated with the state, has no gaming commission. Casino gambling is regulated by one of the seven divisions in the Department of Consumer Protection. The Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling has a budget of about $700,000, about one-fourth of its Massachusetts counterpart. Its major income is a monthly contribution of $23,000 from the Mohegan Sun and $18,000 from Foxwoods, which cut its contribution by 10% two years ago.

“The current system is woefully inadequate,” said Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, long a skeptic about the state’s ability to address the societal impacts of gambling.

When Massachusetts passed legislation authorizing casinos in 2011, it also required its gaming commission to establish a schedule of periodic studies of the social and economic impacts of gambling. The research began with a baseline survey of adults before the opening in 2015 of the first casino, the relatively modest slots parlor, Plainridge Park.

Typically drawn from regional studies, estimates vary on the prevalence of “disordered gambling,” the phrase researchers and mental-health professionals prefer for what used to be referred to as compulsive gambling. Studies in Canada, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand found between 1% and 3.6% of the adults surveyed were problem gamblers.

One of the field’s relatively few researchers, Rachel Volberg, already was based at UMass-Amherst, and the Bay State has become a convenient laboratory. Funded by the gaming commission, Volberg and her colleagues have been running a ground-breaking longitudinal study for more than six years, tracking the gambling habits and attitudes of the same 3,139 adults.

The baseline survey in Massachusetts found that one quarter of the state never gambled, but 34.6% did so yearly, 20.4% monthly and 18.1% weekly. Six in 10 played the lottery. A little more than one in five had gambled in a casino in the previous year, the majority of them in Connecticut.

Two percent of all adults, not just the regular gamblers, met the criteria for problem gambling and another 8% to 10% were at risk for problem gambling. Researchers see a continuum of gamblers: recreational, at-risk and problem.

The recreational cohort is stable; the at-risk cohort is not. Over the course of the study, a significant minority became problem gamblers, while a larger segment develop the healthier habits of recreational gamblers. A survey conducted one year after MGM Springfield opened found no increase in the percentage of problem gamblers in the adult population.

The biggest research competitor to Volberg and her colleagues is the industry itself. No one studies gamblers like the casinos that want to keep them coming. As the industry goes online, the data available to the casinos and sports books will increase exponentially. One issue that Connecticut has not addressed is who will get access to that data.

“We’ve known for a long time that gambling operators can track people’s play through their loyalty cards,” Volberg said. “And then once you migrate to online, of course, it’s much easier. It’s possible to track every sort of button that people push, every decision that they make, how long they’re gambling, how much they’re gambling, what they’re gambling on, how they’re betting. So all of that information is available to the operators.”

The data could be used to entice gamblers to wager more and play longer — or warn them if they are gambling too much and playing too long.

“As a researcher, frankly, my feeling is that all that data that those operators collect should be turned over to the regulators and made available to researchers to try and figure out what kinds of tools could be developed to help people who are getting into trouble,” Volberg said. “It’s required in the statute in Massachusetts. It hasn’t happened yet.”

Phil Sherwood, the director of communications and marketing at the Council on Gaming and Health, said any state legalizing online gambling should require consumer protections.

“The opportunity for these places to act in a predatory manner and really harm public health is just greater, and circuit breakers do need to be built in, whether that be spending limits or whatnot.” Sherwood said. “They have every type of person broken down psychologically — what will make them more inclined to gamble more.”

To Gabrila, he asked, “If you could look out on the floor right now and see money signs above everyone’s head as to how much they spent, how many trips they took to the ATM, that would affect your jobs on a nightly basis?”

“Oh, absolutely,” she replied. “I would know where to go.”

With online gambling, those metaphorical dollar signs over every player can be real. The question is who will get to see them.

‘I knew I just took her Social Security money.’

On a recent Friday, Gabrila worked with Aisha Shambley at the GameSense information center, occupying prime real-estate at the entrance to MGM Springfield. The regular patrons were easy to spot: Each lowered their COVID-19 face masks as they approached, knowing it was required. Newbies had to be told. There is a video record of everyone entering the casino.

Shambley used to deal cards at high-stakes tables at Foxwoods. Like every casino, Foxwoods offers lines of credit. When the limit was reached, she said, gamblers would turn to another player for a loan rather than walk away.

“It’s just sad, you know?” Shambley said. “You just want to be like, ‘Hey, maybe today is not your day.’ But you can’t really say that as dealer.”

As a GameSense adviser at MGM, she can. The previous night, she placed a woman on the voluntary self-exclusion, or VSE. The self-bans can last a year, three years, five years or a lifetime. They can be extended, but not shortened. To be reinstated after a ban’s expiration, the gambler must attend a counseling session.

“It was her second time,” Shambley said. “She’s had a lot of loss in her life. And it just affected her immensely. And she doesn’t really have anything else to do. The casino’s not far away. So, last night, she was like, ‘Yeah, I have to be a VSE again. I’m spending way too much money.’ ”

Gabrila, who worked in casinos for 21 years before becoming a GameSense adviser, said most of her customers enjoyed gambling and did so responsibly. But the ones who didn’t tended to be the most memorable. She has a vivid memory from her first week, dealing blackjack to a pleasant woman in her mid-70s.

“She did not win a hand. I took all her money in a matter of 10 minutes,” Gabrila said. “And again, a very sweet lady, never said anything to me, yelled at me, you know, like some people can. You could see the pain in her face. I knew I just took her Social Security money. I knew that that’s what just happened.”

Not all gambling is about chasing money. The lure can be the thrill of expectation. What’s coming from the next card, the next play of the slots machine? Dopamine, the brain chemical associated with pleasure, is released during gambling. It can be addictive.

One night at the Mohegan Sun, a man sat down at Gabrila’s table with a single $500 chip, the table minimum. The cards fell his way, again and again. He had $85,500 when the cards turned. He still had $50,000 when she quietly urged him to quit. Even a supervisor suggested the man stretch his legs, maybe get a drink, anything to break the spell.

“It’s that reset,” Gabrila said.

Sometimes, that’s all it takes. But the man shook his head. So Gabrila dealt the cards. The player left with nothing, not even the $500 chip that started his run.

Gabrila told that story while watching the baccarat player in the bluish-gray hoodie. The man was betting $15,000 a hand, winning some, losing more. When the $210,00 stack of chips shrank to $150,000, he banged the table and rocked back.

He got up and stretched. He wasn’t done. He wanted fresh cards. The dealer complied. Ten or 15 minutes later, he was left with $20,000. He kept playing, and Amy Gabrila continued her tour of the casino, available to anyone who wanted to talk.

IF YOU NEED HELP

In Connecticut, Call (888) 789-7777 or Text “CTGAMB” to 53342

New England Gamblers Anonymous Hotline Numbers: (888) 830-2217 - Hotline for all New England States

(718) 352-1671 - Gam-Anon for Family and Friends Support

(855) 222-5542 - Gambler’s Anonymous International Hotline