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Commission launches effort to combat problem gambling

LYNN — For Scott Seely, hitting a $4,500 jackpot on a slot machine was a terrible stroke of bad luck.

That rush of winning sent Seely, now a recovering gambling addict, on “a ride I hope and pray I never have to take again,” he told the state gambling commission at a forum Monday on the issue of problem gambling.

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Seely, 53, and another recovering gambling addict, Jodie Nealley, addressed the commission to help the panel develop strategies for minimizing the damages caused by problem gambling. The half-day event at North Shore Community College was part of a series of public education forums organized by the fledgling commission, which is charged with guiding the development of the casino industry in Massachusetts. The commission on Monday also heard from researchers and casino regulators. The 2011 state law that legalized casino gambling requires the five-member panel to address problem gambling.

Through his descent into addiction, Seely, who said he is from Western Massachusetts, gambled away his life savings at one of the Connecticut casinos, ran up his credit cards, and sold off his possessions: an antique car, a motorcycle, a camper.

“I ended up in my backyard with a pistol at my head,” he said. If not for his reluctance to leave his children without a father, he said, he would have pulled the trigger.

Seely said the casino he frequented was aware he was in over his head, yet repeatedly plied him with perks, such as free rooms and event tickets. “They continued to make me comfortable,” he said.

He finally sought help through a recovery step program and hasn’t made a bet in about four years, he said.

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Nealley, 57, told the commission that her skid into destructive gambling began with a winning visit to a casino in Reno in 2005. She started gambling compulsively the next year and within a year lost about $500,000.

Much of her gambling was driven by an “irrational, insane, absolutely crazy desire to win back what I had lost,” she said. “I would feed into these slot machines $100 bills like they were pennies.”

When she had lost all her money, she started stealing from her employer, Tufts University. Her case was widely reported when she was caught and fired in 2007. Then, “I went to jail,” she said. “Fifty-three years old and sleeping on the top bunk.”

She served 602 days in prison. She said she was never more conscious of the passing of time.

She said casinos fawn over frequent players, feeding their egos. “We sort of like being treated like a big shot,” she said.

Steve Crosby, chairman of the panel formally known as the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, said the forum begins what will be an ongoing campaign to prevent, treat, and research problem gambling.

How exactly the panel will minimize problem gambling in Massachusetts is still to be decided. The commission discussed the possibility of launching widespread public education campaigns ahead of the opening of any casinos in an attempt to “inoculate” susceptible people before more gambling becomes available. It could also specifically reach out to high-risk groups, such as people who have other addictions.

“I’ve thought maybe we should have a director of problem gambling,” said Crosby.

Casino opposition groups have cited problem gambling among the reasons to defeat casino proposals at the ballot box.

One of those groups, No Eastie Casino, which organized to oppose casino plans at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, was scheduled on Monday night to host a community meeting for opponents, focused on volunteerism, said Celeste Myers, the group’s chair.

The group is preparing to shift to a strategy of reaching residents through more intimate forums during the summer vacation season, such as backyard barbecues, she said.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.

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