Gambling Addicts Seduced By Growing Casino Accessibility

Why millions of Americans are trapped in financial and emotional despair.

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Experts call this the "gambler's fallacy," meaning many gambling addicts assume a long-term slump will be corrected in the short term by a big win. Many times, this false belief is connected to "chasing," a practice by which compulsive gamblers see the casino as having stolen their money and they will do whatever it takes to get it back.

Today, chasing is made easier for a number of Americans due to the rapid expansion of gambling. Recently, several states along the East Coast legalized table games, such as blackjack and poker, in what politicians say is an effort to increase employment opportunities and help fund schools. Maryland, for example, was losing approximately $550 million to neighboring states before passing legislation last year to allow table games in casinos. Some state governments are also pushing for legalization of online gambling. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has already signed a bill permitting casinos in Atlantic City to host websites that take bets on games such as blackjack, slots and poker. Delaware and Nevada have also passed laws legalizing Internet betting.

Lefkowitz, however, thinks online gambling poses a serious threat since it makes gambling available 24/7, from one's house, and takes away the human judgment factor. "If people are gambling on the Internet, they don't have to look anyone in the eye if they were to lose a grand in a minute," he says.

The "dark side" of gambling legislation. Notwithstanding benefits for education and employment, gambling's proliferation will inherently spread the addiction—at rates some experts predict will devastate millions of Americans. "All this government backing makes gambling sound harmless," says Fong, "but there is a dark side that many state governments are downplaying."

When politicians champion gambling legalization, Skolnik says citizens don't typically hear about the programs that will need to be created to offer education and treatment for gambling addiction. "Some states are setting aside money for these programs. By laying out these programs, in essence, they're conceding they're creating new groups of addicts in their community," Skolnik says.

Moreover, some experts say treatment centers can only do so much, since a fraction of gambling addicts seek help. Fong says treatment is typically effective, but he believes there can be more shame associated with admitting a gambling addiction than coming to terms with a drug or alcohol addiction. "I think, for a lot of people, there's something more disgracing about losing your money while sober than you spending it on drugs," he says.

[Read: Confessions of Former Shopaholics.]

Additionally, unlike a substance addiction, no physical signs point to a gambling problem. As a result, some refer to problem gambling as a "silent addiction" because it's easy to hide. "You can't smell blackjack on somebody's breath," says gambling counselor Lefkowitz. Sometimes, people don't learn their spouse has a gambling addiction until their car is repossessed or their house is in foreclosure.

According to Jon Grant, professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, which houses a clinic for impulsive disorders, there are only a few visible signs of a gambling addiction, namely fatigue due to loss of sleep or irritability—two symptoms that can signal a number of other illnesses.

For people like Sandra Adell, though, their addiction surfaces when pushed to their limit. Adell's gambling inflamed her drinking and turned her into an alcoholic who couldn't leave her seat at the slot machine. One night, in May 2006, Adell drunkenly stumbled out of the casino and fell on the floor of the parking lot by her car. The security guards found her on the ground, her head bruised, lying next to a wad of cash she had dropped. That night—seeing her alcohol and gambling addictions collide—caused Adell to admit she had a problem: "I was losing my money, my self-respect—everything that I had built and saved for retirement, I was about to lose it all, and I couldn't stop myself."