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Plainridge Casino agrees to cut odds on problem gambling

Plainridge Park Casino’s gaming floor.
Plainridge Park Casino’s gaming floor.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

PLAINVILLE — Amid a sea of gamblers at Plainridge Park Casino Thursday, Mark Vander Linden hit the spin button on a brightly colored slot machine. Then, something unusual flashed across his screen.

Not a huge jackpot with a burst of flashing lights, but the word “Reminder.” Beneath it, in small, discreet lettering, a cautionary message.

“You have reached the budget you set,” it read.

Vander Linden, who heads the state Gaming Commission’s efforts to promote responsible gambling, was demonstrating the slot parlor’s new “play management” system to help players keep their losses under control.

The program, billed as the first of its kind in the country, asks gamblers with rewards cards to punch in a spending limit, then lets them know when they have exceeded it.

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After about two dozen bets, Vander Linder had reached his $30 loss limit, and was given a choice: He could remove his rewards card and call it quits, or continue playing by selecting a green-and-purple box with a big X through it.

“It forces you to make a decision,” Vander Linden said, and gives players a moment to think about whether they can afford to keep betting.

But Vander Linden dismissed the idea the state is telling gamblers what to do.

“Our goal is to make resources available so people can make informed choices,” he said. “It’s not to proscribe.”

The system, which debuted Thursday, is only available to players who use loyalty cards, which allow players to accrue rewards points the more they play.

Vander Linden said research suggests that the vast majority of gamblers go to casinos purely for recreation, and that the tools are meant to discourage them from losing more than they can afford.

The program could help some of the 7.5 percent of adults in Massachusetts that surveys show are at risk for problem gaming, he said. But he acknowledged it will likely have little impact on the 2 percent of adults who are deemed to be problem gamblers.

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The commission approved the system in 2014, and the Globe reported in March that Plainridge, the state's first casino, had yet to adopt it, a delay that drew criticism from advocates against problem gambling.

The commission initially considered a more aggressive system, in which slot machines would actually shut down when gamblers exceeded their budget to give them “a cooling-off period.” The panel also discussed rewarding players who abided by their limits with free credits and other incentives.

But casinos balked at the measures, and the current system was agreed to as a compromise. Still, a casino gambling trade group has called the system “disproportionate to the scope of problem gambling in Massachusetts.”

Vander Linden said Penn National, the company that owns Plainridge Park Casino, agreed to the program.

Massachusetts has a direct interest in Plainridge’s ability to compete in an increasingly crowded gambling market. The state taxes Plainridge’s gambling revenue at 49 percent, most of which goes to cities and towns.

Play management systems have been tried in other countries, including Australia and Canada, but are too new to yield meaningful conclusions on how they affect behavior, Vander Linden said.

It will take at least a year to judge whether Plainridge’s play management system is working, he said.

On the program’s first day, about 200 gamblers signed up, Vander Linden said.

Walter Morgan, a retired teacher from Warwick, R.I., said he plans to sign up.

“There’s a lot of people who really don’t think about how much money they’re losing,” he said. “It would be nice to get a reminder that ‘OK, maybe I should give up and go home before it’s too late.’ ”

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Nick Leo, a regular gambler from Weymouth, dismissed the system as putting “a Band-Aid” on a gaping wound.

“The state is saying to the public, ‘We can control this,’ when really, they can’t,” he said. “It’s the nature of gambling. When you get into the feeding frenzy, the hardest thing to do is leave the casino with any cash.”

But another patron, a woman from Rhode Island, insisted she could stick to a budget.

“After $200, that’s it, I’m gone,” she said.


Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.