Foxwoods didn’t stop gambling addict who asked to be banned — until he won
MASHANTUCKET, Conn. — On the edge of a vast casino, David Schreiber played video poker at a frenetic pace — fast enough to place almost 50 bets a minute. Beat, pause, beat-beat, pause. Over and over again.
An admitted compulsive gambler, Schreiber was not supposed to be here on the gambling floor at Foxwoods Resort Casino. Three years ago, distraught over his gambling losses, he asked the Indian-owned casino to ban him for life, a desperate step he hoped would save him from himself.
Foxwoods, like most casinos, keeps a “voluntary self-exclusion” list of compulsive gamblers who sign an agreement that they would be denied entry or ejected from the premises, and denied rights to winnings. Casinos, responding to critics, point to the program as evidence that they are responsible institutions.
But in Schreiber’s case, at least, neither part of the equation has worked: He keeps gambling and, he says, Foxwoods does not stop him.
“I’ve been back to Foxwoods a hundred times since I got on the list,” Schreiber, 59, of Danielson, Conn., said after a betting session on the Game King poker machine. “They don’t enforce it. It’s a joke.”
Schreiber said he has been detected only once, when he won a $1,250 jackpot, large enough to trigger the requirement that he deposit a portion of his winnings into a tax withholding account. As it turned out, he didn’t get to keep a cent, he said.
“They took me to an office and wouldn’t let me keep the money,” he said. “After that, they said they were going to keep a real close eye on me. But they didn’t.”
In vivid terms, Schreiber described the mind games of his addiction — the crazy euphoria of winning, the almost manic drive to win back losses, the resolve to quit that quickly crumbles.
Foxwoods officials declined to comment on Schreiber’s complaint, saying they could not violate a patron’s privacy. In a statement, casino officials said, “We’ve supported responsible gaming at Foxwoods from day one,” such as funding prevention programs for problem and underage gambling.
“To further help out those who opt for exclusion, we take additional cautionary measures such as freezing their rewards accounts, which eliminates the ability for them to accumulate points or access complimentary offerings, and removing them from our marketing list so they no longer receive gaming offers and announcements,” officials said. “We also flag them in our systems so that we can intervene if they attempt to collect jackpot winnings.”
Foxwoods said more than 2,000 people have signed exclusion agreements since the casino opened in the early 1990s, though some may have moved away or died.
But those who work with compulsive gamblers say exclusion agreements, while well-intentioned, are largely symbolic gestures that offer little deterrence.
As a practical matter, many casinos are too large and crowded to single out a small number of people.
“People get on the list and think, ‘Well, the casino will keep me out now.’ But in most cases, that’s not what happens,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “There are no turnstiles at casinos, no requirement to show identification. If they’ve got 1,000 pictures of problem gamblers in a binder book, is security really supposed to spot them?”
Facial recognition technology exists, but few casinos have gone to the trouble — and expense — to implement it on a broad basis, he said.
Among advocates for problem gamblers, there is also “considerable skepticism” that casinos are especially motivated to enforce the bans. “Casinos enforce it only when they’re about to lose money,” said Whyte. “It’s ripe for abuse.”
Jeff Marotta, a psychologist in Portland, Ore., and consultant on problem gambling, said research on self-exclusion programs shows that “it is common for breaches to occur.”
“There are few systematic procedures in place to counter this,” he said, citing the research.
Despite their shortcomings, self-exclusion programs do help reduce problem gambling by forcing people to confront their addiction, specialists said.
People who ask to be banned “are admitting out loud that they can’t control their gambling, which may lead them to taking other steps to curb their gambling,” Marotta said.
Mark Vander Linden, who heads the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s effort to reduce the harm caused by gambling addiction, said self-exclusion policies at Plainridge Park Casino, the state’s first casino, are stricter than most.
Personnel trained in problem gambling, and paid by the state, survey the casino floor for people showing signs of problem gambling, he said. When gamblers sign the exclusion agreement, staff members present treatment options in a low-key, supportive manner, he said.
“The goal is to get them connected to counseling or some other therapy, not to punish them,” he said.
There are currently 160 people on the slot parlor’s self-exclusion list, he said.
Vander Linden said there have been a few instances when barred gamblers have eluded the casino’s video surveillance long enough to win a jackpot. But under state regulations, Plainridge must turn that money over to the state, he said.
In its first 18 months of operation, about 40 barred gamblers have been escorted from the casino after being spotted, according to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.
But critics say such efforts are largely for show.
“It’s a sham,” Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, which opposes government-sanctioned gambling. “It’s public relations, at best. The casinos say they are taking steps to protect consumers, but they get their profits from problem gamblers every day.”
At Foxwoods, Schreiber — who initially contacted the Globe to complain about what he described as Foxwood’s lax enforcement — darted from one machine to another, and rocked rhythmically as he played. Wearing jeans, an unzipped canvas jacket, and a baseball cap, he drew relatively little notice, but went out of his way to chat up Foxwoods staffers, from cashiers to security.
“They just want my money,” he said. “They make a lot of money from people like me.”
Schreiber, who is on a modest, fixed income, won’t say how much he has lost gambling over the years, but said it has cost him dearly.
On his recent trip, he lost the $40 he had brought with him within 30 minutes, then hunted up and down the aisles for discarded cashout vouchers, usually worth less than a dollar. He scavenged a few dollars in credits, enough to gamble a little bit more.