The flashing lights and pulsating music of 1,250 slot machines will beckon to them, along with the eternal promise of a jackpot. But patrons who enter Plainridge Park Casino, the state’s first legalized slot parlor, will also come face-to-face with innovative services aimed at alerting them to some of the more sobering aspects of gambling.
A cadre of counselors trained in the dangers of addictive gambling will staff a kiosk at peak hours near the entrance of the facility, which is set to open in Plainville next year. Patrons will be confronted with a checklist of problem gambling symptoms if they run out of money and ask to borrow from “the house.” Another innovation that could be implemented would reward patrons who set and stick to a limit on how much money they are willing to lose on that day.
Stephen P. Crosby, chairman of the state Gaming Commission, says these features amount to a groundbreaking approach to curb problem gambling. Combined with a multimillion-dollar commitment to ongoing scholarly study of problem gambling at the state’s casinos, the “Massachusetts model” of casino regulation has drawn worldwide attention from academics, regulators, casino operators, and others. What happens in Massachusetts very likely does not stay in Massachusetts.
“What happens here could have ramifications around the world,” Howard Shaffer, a Harvard professor of psychiatry and past editor of The Journal of Gambling Studies, said in an interview. “The eyes of the casino industry are on Massachusetts right now.”
Any measures deemed effective in tamping down the social effects of gambling may be adopted at some of the approximately 1,000 casinos that now dot the United States, as well as at casinos abroad, said Judith Glynn, a gambling specialist hired by the Gaming Commission to advise on strategies to curb problem gambling.
“Massachusetts is being viewed as taking the most progressive approach to gambling, by far, of any jurisdiction to legalize it,” Glynn said.
The Gaming Commission has accepted as policy an 18-page “responsible gaming framework” that includes the informational kiosks and credit-limiting measures. The policy also mandates some form of “play management,” the concept of giving gamblers tools to limit their losses.
Glynn and the gambling commission’s staff are recommending one of the most far-reaching measures: to require casinos to reward gamblers who set limits on their losses by granting them loyalty points that can be used for future betting if they stop when they hit their limit.
But casino operators are gearing up to fight that proposal. They are scheduled to appear before the commission this month to voice their opposition to the plan. Penn National, MGM, and Wynn Resorts, the three casino companies now licensed to operate in Massachusetts, all declined to comment for this article.
But the industry’s position is fleshed out in a March 21 letter to the commission from the American Gaming Association, a casino trade group. The association wrote that there is no scientifically tested research that shows gamblers would actually benefit by setting limits on how much they are willing to lose.
Instead, the association said, gamblers might respond to such incentives by setting unreasonably high limits so that they never hit them, the letter said. When an unreasonably high ceiling is set, “a gambler may feel empowered to chase his losses longer than he would without having established” a limit, the letter said.
Because unintended consequences of the self-set limit plan cannot be predicted, the state should instead design a limited experiment to collect data and guide future regulations, said Shaffer, the Harvard psychiatry professor.
“It’s an interesting proposal that is worth testing,” he said.
But another gambling specialist argues that the Gaming Commission is not going far enough to curb problem gambling. Natasha Dow Schull, an associate professor at MIT and the author of a book that argues slot machines are designed to be addictive, said setting limits on losses should be mandatory for all gamblers — and that when gamblers hit their limits, they should be shut off from additional betting for that day.
“This seems like a missed opportunity for Massachusetts to define itself by setting an example for gambling that really reduces harm,” she said. “The state should do something to protect people, especially when the state is making money on them.”
Gamblers interviewed last week in the parking lot of Twin Rivers, the massive Lincoln, R.I., slot emporium, were not in accord over how successful self-set limits would be.
“It won’t work,” said Robert McCarthy, 41, of West Warwick, R.I. “I’ll keep going, right past the limit. I don’t care. It would be more of an annoyance. I’m here to gamble. I know the risks. I know how it works. Leave me alone.”
Norma Baer, 71, of Holden, also bristled. “Nobody has the right to tell me what I am going to do,” she said. “I don’t want some politician in Boston telling me what I can and can’t do.”
But Antonio Andrade, 55, of West Warwick, R.I., said he liked the idea of self-set limits. “Gambling can be very dangerous,” he said. “You can lose a lot of things. Sometimes you need a little help controlling it.”