The date is stamped onto Deborah Greenslit’s mind: May 19, 2010, her daughter’s 21st birthday. Greenslit went with a friend to Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., and played the slots. She spent $36, and the last time she pulled the lever she hit the jackpot: $752,000.
Greenslit knew just what she would do with the money: buy that beach cottage in Maine she had dreamed about for decades. But two years later she is “broke and broken,” as she puts it. The jackpot is long gone, much of it poured back into the slots at Mohegan Sun.
It’s not an uncommon story in the gambling world, where fortunes can be made and lost the same day. But in Greenslit’s case the irony is striking: She is a therapist and wellness expert who has spent her career helping people with anxiety disorders, personal growth issues, and addictions.
“I was paying attention to everyone else’s leaks in life, and I ended up with a gaping hole,” says Greenslit, 56.
Today, she rents an apartment in Kennebunk, Maine. She is trying to sell her home in the central Massachusetts community of Rutland, near her longtime counseling practice in Paxton. These days her main client is herself.
Mohegan Sun made Greenslit a member of its invitation-only Sachem Club for frequent players and big spenders. The offers were hard to resist.
“The addictive lure is believing that if you just play long enough you will win,” she says. “Often that will happen, but usually not until you have already put in 10 times more than what you won. Then you go for the chase to win your money back, only to dig yourself in deeper and deeper.”
Casinos are coming to Massachusetts, and Greenslit sees her story as a warning for others tempted by the chance of hitting that life-changing jackpot. She knows that many can gamble without developing a problem. But she also knows, firsthand, about the hard-to-resist temptations casinos offer to keep their regular customers coming back.
“My concern,” she says, “is for those who put everything at risk, including their morals, values, health, security.”
Legislation signed by Governor Deval Patrick last November authorized a slot machines parlor and three full-scale casinos across the state. Amid the enthusiasm for new jobs and a fresh stream of revenue for the state budget, some people worry about the human costs of casinos, the out-of-control gambling that can lead addicts to lose their savings, employment, home, and family, and even land them in prison.
The casino law also calls for the creation of a public health trust fund to fight addiction. The casinos will contribute $5 million in fees to the fund, which will also receive 5 percent of casino tax revenues, an estimated $20 million a year.
Marlene Warner — executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, a nonprofit that offers programs and education on problem gambling — says studies show that between 4 and 6 percent of adults who gamble will end up with a problem.
When casinos arrive here, she says, she will worry about those who are now in recovery. “How will those folks react? Will it still work for them?”
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which held a recent public forum on problem gambling, says it may hire a full-time staff member dedicated to the issue.
A familiar malady
Addictions run in Deborah Greenslit’s family. Her father, an alcoholic, gambled on horse and dog races. At 69, he went to Foxwoods to bet on the Preakness Stakes and died at the casino of an abdominal aneurism. For a time, her mother was a heavy drinker. Her oldest brother has been missing for five years; Greenslit says he had racked up serious gambling debts.
She herself has addictive tendencies, which she has channeled into healthier pursuits: earning academic degrees and running 30 marathons.
Greenslit was just 15 when she graduated from high school, and at 16 she enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At 17 she married a classmate, and at 19 their son was born; a daughter came 13 years later. She earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology at Assumption College in Worcester and finished much of her course work toward a doctorate in developmental and sports psychology at Boston University. She is also a registered nurse and has worked with students at UMass Medical School, trained for the Olympic trials, coached marathoners, and written a running and health column for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Mary Lammi, a longtime running companion, trained and competed with Greenslit. “She was avid; she hardly missed a day,” says Lammi, who works at the Center for Health and Fitness at UMass Medical School in Worcester.
Lammi has also been to the casino with Greenslit when she won at the slots. “You did get the sense she enjoyed it, and you knew that could be a problem,” Lammi says.
Greenslit’s first foray into a casino was nearly 30 years ago, when she visited her brothers in Lake Tahoe.
She still remembers that the hyperventilation of jogging at such a high altitude paled in comparison with the hyperventilation she felt once she hit Harrah’s.
Her take? A handful of nickels. But with the thrill of the win, Greenslit says, “I knew then that I would probably be in trouble if there were ever a casino near where I lived.”
When Greenslit was pregnant with their daughter, she and her husband went to Atlantic City. She played the slots at Foxwoods when they were installed in 1993. With a growing family, a counseling practice, and her running, she did not go often. “But once there, I would get just glued to the machines,” she says.
Greenslit’s life took a gradual downturn. Her mother and beloved godmother died. She was separated and then divorced (for reasons unrelated to her gambling). The national conferences where she spoke on wellness and cognitive therapy dried up when the economy tanked. Health issues kept her from running. She gained weight.
She began going to Mohegan Sun every month, then twice a month. In the back of her mind, the casino always lurked, like a bad boyfriend she kept returning to.
At 3 p.m. on the afternoon of May 19, 2010, Greenslit’s slot machine registered a row of ovals with the word “progressive” in them. Lights flashed off and on. Casino officials swarmed around and roped her off with the machine.
Greenslit was not sure what to think. A progressive jackpot is a percentage of all the money played into a series of linked machines. When Greenslit’s machine lined up the winning symbols, every linked machine had to be shut down before her win could be verified. It was not until 10 p.m. that officials congratulated her. “I was exhausted at that point and still in disbelief,” she says.
Winners have a choice, and Deborah Greenslit opted to take her payout in a smaller lump sum rather than over 20 years. Her take, before taxes, was $560,000, instead of the entire $752,000 parcelled out in annual $37,500 payments over two decades. She figured she would invest the money and come out ahead.
It did not work out that way. She says she helped out friends and family, paid off some debts, and contributed to her daughter’s wedding costs. But much of the jackpot — she isn’t sure exactly how much — went back into the slots. There would be no dream cottage. Greenslit had barely enough money to live on.
The perks of playing
Mohegan Sun, which presented Greenslit with a bottle of Dom Perignon when she hit, made her a member of its invitation-only Sachem Club for frequent players and big spenders. “Your Loyalty Has Its Rewards” is its slogan.
Jeff Hartmann, chief executive of Mohegan Sun, says the private club benefits, such as Sachem, are intended to encourage gamblers to come only to Mohegan instead of splitting their play among many area casinos.
Hartmann says he is aware of problem gambling and takes steps to reduce it. On its website, the casino has information on “responsible gaming” that includes tips such as “the odds are always against winning” and “gamble for entertainment, not a way to make money.”
Casino employees, he says, are trained in “problem gaming awareness,” and problem gamblers can sign a “self-
exclusion” contract that permanently bars them from the property — or the casino itself can exclude them.
“We take this very seriously,” Hartmann says. “We want people to be able to control their spending and their situation.” Mohegan Sun funds a help line in Connecticut, along with counseling staff, and has funded problem gambling projects in Boston’s Asian community and a problem gambling research clinic at Yale School of Medicine. There are warning pamphlets and signs about the issue in the casino.
But for Greenslit, Sachem Club offers were hard to resist. Free hotel rooms seven days a week; VIP check-ins, parking, and lounges; free food and drink; private events; big-name concerts; money to gamble with and money to spend at casino shops and restaurants. Each member is assigned a personal host who extends special offers, gets them front-row seats and backstage passes, and shepherds them through event lines.
“I was being treated like a queen,” says Greenslit. “They put you up in suites down there, give you limos, food, drinks. They sent me on a cruise and to New Orleans.”
She was allowed to take a friend on the cruise to the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, and she took friends and family to high-end events. Her daughter’s wedding shower was held, at no cost to her, in a $4,000-a-night hospitality suite that came with a butler.
There was also free slot play ranging from $200 to $500. Sometimes she would hit, anywhere between $5,000 and $45,000. She would often feed it right back into the slots.
There have been gifts including a television, vacuum cleaner, Tiffany jewelry, camcorders, and luggage. The catch: You have to pick up the stuff at the casino.
Greenslit soon found herself sucked into the casino lifestyle. She would intend to go to Mohegan Sun for one night, but would find herself there for several days. She met “other serious gamblers,” including doctors, lawyers, and chief executives. She met those who had a gaming budget and did not drink: the professionals. She met homeless people sleeping in cars because they had gambled their money away.
“You have this family, this community of people,” she says. “It’s very enabling.”
But she began to see more of the dark side: alcoholism, some prostitution, a lot of despondency and regret. She knew she needed to loosen the grip the casino has had on her: “I’ve lost almost everything I’ve ever worked for.”
A year and a half after she had won the $560,000 jackpot, it was all gone.
Steps to recovery
Greenslit’s recovery continues. She says that meditation, running, keeping a journal, and reading about human failings and strength has helped, along with her faith in God.
Her last visit to Mohegan Sun was June 9, when she took a friend to see Bonnie Raitt — free front-row seats — and was also given a hotel suite, $400 in free slot play, $250 that could be spent anywhere in the casino, and a $200 coupon. She used the free slot play but did not win.
Greenslit’s sister, Phyllis Hibbard, says Greenslit is determined to make changes and to use the lessons to help others. “She’s an extremely intelligent person, and she has a lot to give,” says Hibbard, a nurse and massage therapist who has been to the casino with her sister. “She just got caught up in this. She knows what she needs to do.”
Those Sachem Club coupons and offers keep arriving in Greenslit’s mailbox. She says she plans to have the mailings with those tempting freebies stopped.
Today she is working on a memoir with the working title, “Pennies From Heaven, Lessons From Hell.” She hopes to continue her professional work with addictions and was recently offered a part-time job as a life management therapist at a local inn and spa. She says she is more compassionate and empathetic now, having been humbled by her ordeal.
“I’m determined to find my way back,” she says. “The casino gave me the opportunity to have my dream come true, and they took it away.”