The 50-year-old civil engineer is fighting through recovery just as the state embarks on a dramatic expansion of casino gambling. Addiction experts fear the growth could set off a wave of self-destruction among the estimated 150,000 compulsive gamblers in Maryland, a state that has been slow to prepare.
With four casinos open and two more coming, the ranks of addicts are almost certain to grow, said the head of the state’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration. One national study found that living within 10 miles of a casino increases a person’s odds of being a problem gambler by 90 percent.
Ray lives just two miles from Maryland Live Casino. When the Arundel Mills gambling hall added craps and other table games to its thousands of slots machines, he knew it would be a massive temptation.
“It’s a siren call,” said Ray, identified here by his middle name because he didn’t want to be publicly associated with the stigma of his disease.
Desperate to avoid being caught again in the grip of the game that ruined him, Ray drove to the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency headquarters in Baltimore one day in April, entered a third-floor conference room with privacy-protecting frosted windows and became one of more than 230 problem gamblers to register for Maryland’s Voluntary Exclusion Program.
Putting himself on the little-known self-exclusion list meant he could be arrested and prosecuted if he entered any of the state’s casinos. He welcomed the extra deterrent.
“I’m feeling better,” he said. “But I’m in a vulnerable state.”
Already, he had been taking detours to avoid driving past the casino. When he couldn’t find another route, he’d avert his eyes.
See no evil, play no evil.
The human fallout from Maryland’s gambling binge worries even the state’s top gambling regulator. “I am concerned for people who already had [gambling] as a stress point now that we’re bringing it that much closer,” said Stephen Martino, director of the gaming control agency, which administers the state’s self-exclusion list for casinos and just launched a similar program for the lottery.
Research suggests that the rate of severe gambling addiction may double within 50 miles of a casino. In Maryland, the number of people living beyond that 50-mile zone is shrinking rapidly.
By 2016, the Baltimore-Washington corridor will be one of the most concentrated casino markets in the country, with Maryland Live sitting between the Baltimore Horseshoe Casino (opening next year) and another massive casino in Prince George’s County now in the bidding process.
And that’s to say nothing of the commercial bingo halls, horse tracks, lottery retailers and other forms of gambling — legal and otherwise — around the state.
“I thought about moving when I heard about Maryland Live getting craps,” Ray said. “But where could I go?”
On most days, the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling is staffed by just four people — the same number of employees manning a single casino craps table.
The center’s driving force is Joanna Franklin, who has been working with problem gamblers in Maryland since 1979, when Johns Hopkins created the country’s first state-financed residential treatment program.
Funding for that groundbreaking program ended years ago. The state’s compulsive gambling problem did not.
So when Maryland voters approved five slots casinos in 2008 and then upped the ante with a sixth casino plus table games and 24-hour operations last November, state lawmakers mandated the creation of a problem gambling fund. Casino operators are required to pay $425 per slot machine and $500 per table game annually to the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration (ADAA).
So far, the casinos — which generated nearly $350 million in state and local revenue in the past year — have pumped about $5 million into the fund. The money has been used to begin offering residential treatment services, conduct prevalence surveys and launch the problem gambling center in Baltimore.
The center has fielded 1,300 calls to its confidential toll-free help line (800-522-4700), established a prevention program and trained more than 700 clinicians who have been told to expect a dramatic spike in gambling addicts.
“It’s coming,” declared Kathleen Rebbert-Franklin, the ADAA’s acting director.
Joanna Franklin described the state’s initiatives as a “good start” but also said they were a “long time coming.” Other states, including Pennsylvania and Delaware, do far more to publicize their gambling addiction services, including printing the number of their help lines on everything from billboards to lottery tickets to gas station receipts at pumps near the casinos.
Ray said he had no idea that state-financed treatment is available in Maryland. Franklin said there should be a push for more funding and public awareness efforts now that the state has added casinos to its ever-lengthening menu of gambling options.
That proliferation “is really frightening,” said Mike R., who lives just minutes from Baltimore’s planned Horseshoe Casino and has been in recovery for more than 30 years.
At his main Gamblers Anonymous meeting, he said, no more than 12 people, mostly men, used to attend. Now the group has swelled to 25 or 30 people, and a third of them are women.
The women are often escape gamblers, who zone out at slot machines for hours, like numbed-out narcotic addicts, according to Franklin. The men are usually more like cocaine addicts — action seekers who chase the instant gratification of fast-moving games like craps.
Ultimately, though, the differences don’t matter. “Any addiction counselor will tell you, whether you’re high on cocaine or high on sleeping pills, you’re still high,” Franklin said. “If you lose everything you have, and it takes two days versus seven, you still lose everything you have.”
Flight to Vegas
Ray’s final craps binge began in 2010, around the time his wife filed for divorce. He was gambling with staggering frequency during a spree that went on for months.
He documented the carnage on purchase order forms and scrap paper and in small notebooks that he shared with The Washington Post, though he requested that the dollar amounts be withheld.
“Guy had a nice roll but I did not leave soon enough,” Ray scrawled on Oct. 2, 2010, after a losing session at Showboat in Atlantic City. He played at four different casinos that day, jotting down losses at Harrah’s (“Dice slipped out of my hands; tired, angry, go eat”) and Resorts (“Cold table; a waste”).
The next day, he played some more before heading home. Along the way, he stopped at Delaware Park Casino. “Table turned cold and lost it all,” he wrote. “Self destruct.”
Two weeks later, he wrote in his diary: “STOP.”
The next day, he was on a plane to Las Vegas.
It was not the first time he’d gone off the rails. Several years earlier, he ditched his high-paying project engineering job and his wife and two young children to satisfy his craps craving.
After a week, his wife finally figured out he was in Atlantic City and dispatched her brother — a cop — to bring home her husband. But Ray fled to Vegas. By the time he crashed to reality, two weeks later, he had lost his job. His family would soon follow.
Now he is more than two years into recovery, but out of work, out of money and facing foreclosure on his house. He has been seeing a treatment counselor, although he can’t afford it: He doesn’t even have enough money to pay child support.
“My No. 1 priority has to be to not gamble,” he said.
Yet he keeps a door to his past in his garage. It is a sealed box filled with evidence of an addiction in full flower: ATM and cash advance receipts, gambling strategy books, casino valet parking receipts, letters to a dozen casinos asking to be removed from their marketing lists, an old newspaper clipping about compulsive gambling.
A note dated May 23, 2010, detailed how much cash he planned to bring to Atlantic City, how much he would advance on his credit cards, how much he would withdraw from an ATM.
Another plan, for the following week: Take almost everything out of his Chase account, scrape even more money out of some other accounts, then play until he hit his win target.
And if he lost? “Go home,” he wrote, adding a mantra he often repeated during his binges: “It will be all right.”
It would not, no matter how many times he wrote it.
Nuns, cops and teachers
The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that 3 to 4 percent of U.S. adults — more than 6 million people — are problem or pathological gamblers. Maryland’s most recent survey estimated that one in 30 adults in the state have a gambling problem, including about 66,000 pathological gamblers.
Once considered an impulse-control disorder similar to kleptomania, pathological gambling has been reclassified as an addiction disorder, comparable to alcoholism, in the new edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Men, people of color and those earning less than $15,000 a year are at greater risk of developing an addiction. But the disease strikes people from all backgrounds. Nuns, politicians, prosecutors, lobbyists, cops and volunteer fire chiefs have all succumbed. Among those destroying their lives in spectacular fashion:
A financial adviser for Thomas Jefferson High School who stole $279,000 from the Fairfax County magnet school to pay for her blackjack binges.
Two longtime Metro employees who stole $445,000 in fares, much of which they spent on lottery tickets.
A special education teacher on Maryland’s Eastern Shore who went to prison for stealing more than $433,000 from her union. Prosecutors said she spent close to $1 million playing slots in Delaware.
The collateral damage — to spouses, children, friends and co-workers — is impossible to calculate.
“It’s not just the gamblers who are impacted by this,” said Sam Skolnik, a journalist, poker addict and author of “High Stakes: The Rising Cost of America’s Gambling Addiction.” “It’s their families; it’s their employers; ultimately, it’s whole communities that pay these costs.”
A new addiction
The blinds inside Ray’s house were falling apart. There was clutter everywhere, and the carpet was so badly stained that it resembled a Jackson Pollock painting.
He’d been too busy trying to put his life back together, he said, to worry about cleaning up. Dee N., one of Ray’s closest friends from the Gamblers Anonymous fellowship, let herself in.
“How you doing?” Ray asked.
“I’m doing great,” Dee said. “You?”
“Okay, I guess,” Ray said unconvincingly as they hugged.
They met at a GA meeting in Laurel last year, after Dee’s family staged an intervention. Her slots habit had cost her and her husband dearly: Job, savings, house — gone.
“My gambling just destroyed us financially,” she said.
Ray nodded sympathetically, then placed a bowl of strawberries and a can of whipped cream in front of Dee. “My new addiction is sweets,” she said.
She’d become a recovery-meeting junkie. So had Ray, who is also a recovering alcoholic. “It makes me feel so good, like medication,” he said of the meetings.
He recited the locations of his regular GA gatherings as if they were concert dates on a tour itinerary: Arbutus on Saturday, Bethesda on Sunday, Annapolis on Monday, Mount Pleasant on Tuesday, Laurel on Wednesday.
He was trying to start a new chapter on Thursday nights near Maryland Live. On this Thursday evening, an unofficial GA meeting would be attended by just Ray and Dee. “It only takes two people,” he said.
As crowds of gamblers gathered around the craps tables barely two miles away, the two addicts read the definition of compulsive gambling in their yellow Gamblers Anonymous books: “an illness, progressive in its nature, which can never be cured, but can be arrested.”
They went through a list of questions that are asked of every newcomer: Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy? Did gambling affect your reputation? Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family?
Anybody who answers yes to at least seven of the 20 questions is probably a problem gambler. Ray and Dee answered yes to nearly all 20.
They discussed serenity and emotional reasoning.
“There’s been a big change in you,” Dee told Ray. He seemed calmer, she said, more confident, more present. He beamed.
Then, they stood up, held hands and prayed: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”