How casino gambling nearly destroyed a family

Gail Spector, editor of the Newton Tab, has written a must-read column on how casino gambling nearly destroyed her family because of her late father’s gambling addiction. Always a problem, his addiction raged out of control once the Oneida Indian Nation’s Turning Stone Resort and Casino, in upstate New York, opened near the town where they lived.

Spector’s personal story is well-told and deeply moving, and I don’t want to spoil it by trying to excerpt it here. I will instead go with her conclusion:

Preying upon and purposefully aggravating the torment and destruction that gambling addictions cause families is cruel. Further justifying it as a means to create local aid for communities is devious and shameful.

Unfortunately, it appears that is precisely what the Massachusetts House is on the verge of doing — to be followed, you can be sure, by the Senate and Gov. Deval Patrick.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe’s Brian MacQuarrie is taken for a ride with some happy gamblers who took a bus from South Station to Foxwoods. Among the people whom MacQuarrie meets is Curtis Harris of Cambridge, “a self-described poker professional.”

Harris, 34, tells MacQuarrie he has a system that brings in $100 a day, and that he supports his two children with his gambling. “This outing went well,” MacQuarrie writes. “Harris, who played nonstop from 2 p.m. Friday until noon Sunday, left with $710.”

Call me a cynic, but I’m guessing there are some aspects to Harris’ story that he withheld from MacQuarrie. The reason they say the house always wins is because the house always wins. And I don’t think making it easier for Harris gamble on his children’s future is going to make things any better for his family — to say the least.

25 thoughts on “How casino gambling nearly destroyed a family

  1. L.K. Collins

    Another excursion to the hyperbole and scare well.

    I admire your consistency, but reserve the right to remind you of this type of spurious argument the next time you complain about others using the same technique…

    …which won’t be too long in coming, I am sure.

  2. ben starr

    And if Harris is being honest (which i highly doubt), that would spell bad news for MA ever hoping to make much money off the casino business.

  3. Mike Benedict

    The anecdotes — pro and con — are sure to fly fast and furious, but the data are overwhelmingly against gambling in any form.

    (Btw, how does one support a family of four in Boston on $100 a day — and that’s before taxes?)

  4. peter Sullivan

    A quick point. In casino Poker, you win the other gamblers money, the casino typically just takes a cut. Hence, the house always wins…..

  5. Len Stuart

    Ms. Spector’s touching piece is, I fear, but one small preview of the many heartbreaks to come as the deep-pocketed gambling lobby bum-rushes Massachusetts and New Hampshire into the casino business with false hopes of financial salvation.

    I’m pretty much laissez-faire regarding personal vices, but one weekend I was forced to spend in Detroit while working on a computer installation about a decade ago permanently changed my mind on casinos. It was just a few weeks after the opening of the Greektown casino on the fringes of the inner city, and the slot floor was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, with some people still in grease-stained work clothes feeding those yawping electronic maws from grocery bags of small change.

    Greektown had more nickel and quarter slots than I’d ever seen anywhere else, and it was pretty obvious what segment of the market this area was cynically designed for.

    Given the sites being eyed for casinos in our two states — Middleborough, Brockton or Salem, NH, among others — I don’t exactly see the high-rollers of Vegas or Foxwoods beating a path to the door. Thanks to proximity, local casinos will be far more likely to become a Mecca for the low end and the hopelessly addicted.

    Lawmakers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire need to take a much harder look at the long-term social and law-enforcement costs before succumbing to the quick-fix revenue that’s being waved under their noses.

  6. Rich Kenney

    I know guys like Harris. I am a horse racing fan, and I will always hear stories about “John’s nice hit” on a 20-1 shot, or something along those lines. I never hear about the losses. Never.

    That being said, I am for the slots. I feel badly for families ruined by a gambler’s addiction, but that’s not the fault of the slots. It’s the fault of the gambler. If we followed that chain of logic, then there should be no booze, tobacco, etc. Get rid of anything that someone might abuse, while denying it from those that might not abuse it. While we’re at it, I can’t think of anything good that might result from eating a Twinkie. Get rid of them.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Rich: If we follow your logic, then we either need to legalize heroin or outlaw beer. A mature consideration of policy involves making judgments and drawing lines, not aiming for mindless consistency.

  7. Renee Aste

    I know of two cases in which the person I knew wasted the amount he took out as equity for his home and used it ALL at Foxwoods. This was a time when many lower income families had the ability to cash out on relatively modest homes here in Lowell for amounts they never could of imagined.

    This is one issue it seems social conservatives and progressives do align themselves on. Dave Ramsey, a financial author, who is well know in Christian circles has this article on “How the Lottery Can Ruin Your Life Why you shouldn’t throw your money down the drain “

    “Decision Making finds that people who feel poor are more eager to spend money in an attempt to get rich (this is a good “duh” moment). One recent report found that families who make under $12,400 spend about $645 a year on lottery tickets.”

    The more financially stable you are, it seems that you are less desperate to part with what you have with a major risk to get more. If you can’t pay your bills anyways, one may feel taking a risk won’t hurt them because they already in the hole. While the article is specifically regarding the lottery, and not gambling, Ramsey’s writings are directed to those with moderately-low incomes.

  8. CCollins

    You play poker against other gamblers, not the house. Skill as well as luck is involved.

    The house only takes a tiny cut of each pot. So it is possible to win money consistently at poker, not by using a “system”, but by being the best player at the table.

  9. Bill Duncliffe

    Any addiction is going to destroy lives of those addicted as well as those around them. Are we going to go on the warpath against liquor stores as well?

    That being said I agree that relying on gambling income as a source of state revenue is a fools game. It merely avoids the harder task of looking at what is a reasonable level of overall taxation and in what areas is the state providing services that could be trimmed or eliminated.

    But responsible budget making has never been the provenance of elected officals.

  10. Chris Stevens

    “Call me a cynic, but I’m guessing there are some aspects to Harris’ story that he withheld from MacQuarrie. The reason they say the house always wins is because the house always wins.”

    This statement is either very imprecise or very ignorant. Harris describes himself as a poker player. Poker is a game played against other players, not against the house.

    “And I don’t think making it easier for Harris gamble on his children’s future is going to make things any better for his family”

    Although you have never met this person, you presume to know enough about him from reading a few paragraphs of copy to judge how he should raise his family. This is what makes so many gaming opponents so insuferable. No story is too thin for them to hang their hysteical moral scolding on.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Chris: What do you make of Harris’ claim that he played for 42 hours straight without a break. Do you believe him?

  11. L.K. Collins

    “Experts say,” “studies show,” “tales of woe,” “data overwhelmingly against.”

    Still hyperbole and scare.

  12. BP Myers

    @Rich says: I feel badly for families ruined by a gambler’s addiction, but that’s not the fault of the slots. It’s the fault of the gambler.

    Slot machines are designed by psychologists to seduce and addict people. The music is stimulating, repetitive and seductive. The speed of play introduces adrenaline into the body. The endorphins released from the excitement of playing is akin to a cocaine high.

    Yes, some people seem to be chemically wired more than others to resist addiction. But you gotta really hate people to blame “the gambler” and not the slot machine and those who purvey them.

  13. L.K. Collins

    But, Dan, when you end up advocating mindless inconsistency, you’re fair game for all sorts of questions.

  14. Michael Pahre

    There is absolutely no comparison to the story told by David D’Alessandro, former CEO of John Hancock, about gambling addiction and his father.

    To see that as a 9-year-old must have been truly frightening, and all caused by gambling.

    Will the Globe reprint D’Alessandro’s op-ed now, or are they in full-on push for legalizing gambling?

  15. LFNeilson

    Monday’s Globe had two interesting op-ed pieces: Leslie Bernal on Loser-friendly casinos, and James Carroll on the patriotism of paying taxes.
    Bernal writes that casinos really cater to losers, even employing persuaders to convince departing losers to come in and try again. Like vultures.
    Carroll writes that the Boston Tea Party was not so much about the tax as it was about the ability to control the government democratically. The key phrase is “no taxation without representation.”
    The ability to collect taxes has been key to the building of this country, Carroll asserts.

    So the quest for raising revenue without new taxes leads to the legislature considering legalizing casinos. To me, that’s as foolish as betting at one. No matter how much fun they make it, casinos are exploitative.

  16. James Harvey

    Nearly every tale of gambling woe I’ve heard has ended in the same place: bankruptcy court. Anti-gambling advocates frequently cite statistics that n% of cases in bankruptcy court result from gambling losses.

    And when I read these stories, I can’t help but think two things:

    1) There are worse fates than bankruptcy court. Though Ms. Spector says, “[G]ambling addiction didn’t kill my father, but it probably would have if he hadn’t been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor…” this clearly isn’t true. Unlike most addictions, gambling can’t actually physically hurt you. Losing all your money gambling can cause financial pain, and going behind loved ones backs and being a burden on them can cause emotional pain. And instead of a comfortable retirement you may need to live in a small apartment and work 2 jobs until the day you die. But no one has ever died from a gambling binge.

    2) The people in these stories of gambling woe, and 100% of the people in bankruptcy court, suffer not from the gambling itself, but from having debt they can’t pay back. If bankruptcy is a problem that is tearing society apart, we should make credit harder to come by. Some people wind up in bankruptcy court as a result of gambling, some people wind up there because they trade in their used car for a new one every year, some because they’ve financed outsized lifestyles on their credit cards, and some because a business, investment, or real estate opportunity went bust. Why should we single out gambling, when a much larger percentage of people in bankruptcy get there via credit cards?

    If we do wish to target just the gambling bankruptcies, and leave credit card and auto loan bankruptcies alone, then we should reform bankruptcy laws so that gambling debts are junior to all other creditors. That will get the casinos to stop extending reckless credit right quick.

    But I’m not convinced that casino credit is the right villain here. I’ve used casino credit before. Short of a mortgage, it’s one of the most involved credit application processes I’ve seen. Not only do they check your credit scores, they call your bank, inquire about both your current and lowest balances in the last 6 months, and use some fraction of that as your line of credit. It’s hard to use casino credit to lose more money than you have in the bank. At the same time, my credit card is offering me $25k cash advances, and my bank is offering me an unrestricted $50k lines of credit, relying on nothing but my payment history. Even today, general consumer credit is much easier to come by than casino credit. But instead of congress establishing a framework for more responsible borrowing and lending in general, congressmen (including congressmen I’ve held signs for) berate bankers for making credit too hard to get.

    Yes, there are some tales of gambling woe that won’t be solved by credit reform. Antoine Walker would still have lost nearly all of his money, even if he hadn’t been allowed to borrow a cent. If he didn’t gamble at all, he’d be playing golf every day with $100m in the bank; but since he lost everything gambling, now he has to work, like the rest of us. And like every professional athlete who played before 1980. He spent his money recklessly, too bad for him.

    I believe that gambling should be legal because consenting adults should be allowed to make bad decisions. Gambling should be legal for the same reason that boxing, hitchhiking, driving without a seatbelt, riding a motorcycle without a helmet (or, for that matter, riding a motorcycle at all), drinking, mountain climbing, sky diving, scuba diving, private aviation, paying $500 for a really good seat at a Red Sox game, and deep-fried snickers bars should be legal: because it’s a free country, and by default you should be allowed to do things that don’t hurt other people, even if they’re bad for you. (Yes, Dan, by that logic, heroin, polygamy, and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber should be legal, too. I’m ok with that.)

    (At this point, it’s pretty clear that I disagree with most of the people here. So this is where my big HOWEVER comes in.)

    HOWEVER, I don’t buy the argument that legalized casinos will solve our budget problems. I’m not convinced one way or the other that legalizing casinos will provide a net financial benefit to the state. At best, it’s a short-sighted grab for easy cash, a way to delay making any serious attempts to balance the state budget. We shouldn’t put a penny of taxpayer money, an acre of taxpayer land, or an hour of taxpayer time into actually realizing the plan. Like most big developments, it will make a select few rich and powerful people even more rich and powerful, and leave the rest of us basically the same.

  17. BP Myers

    @James said: “it’s a free country, and by default you should be allowed to do things that don’t hurt other people, even if they’re bad for you.”

    Given your argument about personal responsibility, I’m surprised you believe in the concept of “bankruptcy court” at all. If folks are truly to be held to account for their actions, what gives them the right to have any of their debts discharged?

    Should society provide medical care to those injured not wearing seatbelts or motorcycle helmets?

    And how can I get out of paying for all of that irresponsible behavior, through increased credit card costs to pay for those debts discharged, or higher taxes and insurance premiums to pay for all of that irresponsible behavior?

    Sounds like you are laying the cost of all of that irresponsible behavior you call “freedom” onto me.

  18. Mike Saunders

    James Harvey said:

    “…consenting adults should be allowed to make bad decisions. Gambling should be legal for the same reason that boxing, hitchhiking, driving without a seatbelt, riding a motorcycle without a helmet (or, for that matter, riding a motorcycle at all), drinking, mountain climbing, sky diving, scuba diving, private aviation, paying $500 for a really good seat at a Red Sox game, and deep-fried snickers bars should be legal: because it’s a free country, and by default you should be allowed to do things that don’t hurt other people, even if they’re bad for you.”

    THIS.

    If someone wants to ignore the obvious odds favoring the house and willingly empty their pockets, then so be it. Only littering laws stop someone from converting their entire savings into dollar bills and carpeting the Common with them.

    Stupidity isn’t illegal…yet.

  19. Mike Benedict

    @Mike Saunders wrote: “Stupidity isn’t illegal…yet.”

    If you think about it, stupidity is illegal. Laws protect people from themselves at every turn. It’s kind of the point of writing a law in the first place.

  20. Mike Saunders

    Mike, laws protect people from the acts of stupid people.

    Driving 95 mph in a 30 zone isn’t illegal because you might hurt yourself, it’s illegal because you might hurt someone else, or damage their property.

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