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The Lure of Winning Big Leads to Addiction

The lure of winning big at the horse tracks, card rooms and casinos is turning some Californians into chronic gamblers. On Monday’s Full Focus, we’ll explore the alluring world of casino gaming.

The lure of winning big at horse tracks, card rooms, and casinos is turning some Californians into chronic gamblers. In fact, a new study shows that one in every 28 adults in the state has a gambling problem. With plans in the works to add more slot machines, that number could rise. Indian gaming operators say they're working hard to help habitual gamblers, but the responsibility doesn't lie only with them. Meanwhile, the National Council on Problem Gambling kicked off Gambling Awareness Week today. Full Focus Reporter Amita Sharma has the story. Four days a week, 69-year-old Jerry Berger drives 45 miles from his home in Carmel Valley to Viejas Casino to play poker.

Jerry Berger: I might come here with a couple of thousand dollars and if I want to, I'll write a check. I'm not the biggest player but I'm what they consider an elite player.

On most days, Berger says he doesn't win. But on the days that he does, the winnings cover his losses.


Jerry Berger: This is my budget for recreation. I don't play tennis. I don't go skiing. At my age the only other thing I do is go on cruises. This is part of my entertainment budget. There are days when I feel “jeez I've lost too much” and then I'll cut back.

But not every gambler is capable of showing such restraint. A new survey called the Gambling Prevalence Study found that the state has more than one million problem gamblers – or one in every 28 adults. And according to the California Research Bureau, gambling addiction costs the state about $1 billion a year. Contrast that with the fact that, only $3 million is spent each year on treating chronic gamblers.

Bobby Barrett : We agree with the study that there is a problem and we also agree with the study that more needs to be done in the area of problem gambling.

Bobby Barrett is chairman of the Viejas Tribe which runs the casino. He says Viejas Casino workers are trained to look for signs of problem gambling.

Barrett: If somebody is coming here early in the morning and they're here five or six days a week, we can pretty much identify that those people have a problem, have an issue.

Barrett says if loved ones of a problem gambler or employees themselves notice someone who's having trouble staying away, action is taken.

Barrett: Our manager pulls them off the floor, interviews them. Our manager makes sure that they are a problem and they are either self-excluded or we exclude them for a lifetime.

The signs of a problem gambler are numerous says psychotherapist David Peters.

David Peters: If it's costing your personal relationships, there's a problem. If you're spending money that you don't have and bills are stacking up, you're a problem gambler. If you're finding you're getting over depression or a slow boredom, you're getting out and gambling, that's an indication of a problem. Anytime it's becoming an interference in your life and you still go on, even though it's costing you, then you know there's a problem going on.

Berger says he doesn't fall into that category.

Berger: No, I haven't wondered if I have a gambling problem because I know why I'm coming. I can afford to come. The only thing that bothers me is that sometimes it's an easy trap when you don't know what to do. You know everybody is concerned that when they're retired, they're going to be bored.

Berger says age has curtailed how much he and his wife can get out to the tennis courts and do other physical activities, so the casino is quite a draw.

Berger: This is a nice place to be. It's always open. It's always comfortable. It's free entertainment. That's pretty seductive.

It's the social aspect that spurs 59-year-old Bonnie Moore to visit Viejas Casino three times a week, gambling about a total of $500.

Bonnie Moore: I'm retired and I'm a widow and like I said, I live in the back country and I like being surrounded by people. I've been in customer service all my life and rather than get another job, it's nice to come here and be surrounded by people and familiar faces.

But critics say some gaming operators exploit older people's loneliness by offering cheap bus rides and lunches at casinos to get seniors through their doors. And if a senior becomes a problem gambler, the shame can stop them from seeking help.

Peters: I tell my clients that shame is the fertilizer of the ground of addiction because the more shame you have, the more of a general depressed malaise you have in your mind and in your heart and when you go to the addictive behavior, you get a quick lift out of it. And so we really work on reducing the shame element that they experience in their life.

Peters says with plans in the works to add more than 22,000 slot machines in California – already home to the highest number of gambling outlets outside of Nevada – life will be even more difficult for those prone to addictions.

Peters: It's similar to if you have alcoholics in your neighborhood and someone opened a bar down the corner. The more opportunities you give someone to engage in addictive behavior, the more likely they are to indulge again and get addicted.

Meanwhile, Barrett won't concede that more slot machines equals more gambling addicts. Even so, he says the solution lies in cooperation.

Barrett: What we need to do is the tribes, the state, the card rooms and the racetracks need to get together and need to sit down and need to formulate a plan to combat problem gambling.

Psychotherapist Peters says limits on gaming are unlikely because government has its own problems when it comes to gambling.

Peters: The city itself or the county or the state can become addicted to the gambling money because if you're the politician …are you going to be the one to shut down the casino when the casinos are bringing in big money to the local charity, to the local homeless shelter? This is an addiction on an individual level but it also has implications on a political level. There's a political addiction to the gambling money.

Note: Due to our March television membership campaign, Full Focus will not be airing at 11 p.m.