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updated: 8/26/2013 5:18 AM

New gambling machines bypass casino addiction safeguards

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  • Melynda Litchfield of Bartlett put herself on the state´s casino self-exclusion list after gambling addiction caused her to lose the nursing job she'd held for 27 years. Today, though, she and others like her face increasing temptation from the proliferation of video gambling machines in bars and restaurants.

       Melynda Litchfield of Bartlett put herself on the state´s casino self-exclusion list after gambling addiction caused her to lose the nursing job she'd held for 27 years. Today, though, she and others like her face increasing temptation from the proliferation of video gambling machines in bars and restaurants.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 

Gambling was a way for her to get away. Maybe win a few bucks. Try to have some fun. She said it's not an uncommon way for health care workers to try to relax.

"I think we seek out the escape," Melynda Litchfield, a Bartlett mother of three, said. "All we do is take care of people."

But then the registered nurse got hooked. Last spring, her addiction to gambling led to her losing the job she'd held for 27 years.

Litchfield sought help from a local support group and put herself on the state's casino self-exclusion list.

Once gamblers are on the list, they will be charged with trespassing if ever caught in an Illinois casino again.

"That closed that door," Litchfield said.

Then, in the fall, doors started opening all over the suburbs. Months after Litchfield got on the list, bars and restaurants across the suburbs and state started installing video gambling machines that anti-gambling advocates say are among the most habit-forming kind of wagering.

There is no self-exclusion program for those machines.

The absence of a self-exclusion list is something gambling regulators and addiction counselors see as an issue as the number of machines grows and their draw starts creating more addicts.

And there might not be an easy solution.

Next month marks a year since the first video gambling machines went online in Illinois.

"I barely had time to get a solid footing in recovery," said Litchfield, one of 10,179 who've signed up on the casino self-exclusion list since it began in 2002, according to the Illinois Gaming Board said.

For Litchfield, being on the list provided a strong deterrent to what she called a "visceral high" and immediate gratification she found in gambling. She gambled socially for years, but eventually found herself at the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin several times per week. Litchfield described the financial toll as "crippling" but declined to say how much she lost.

She says she's still digging out financially, but it would be easy if that was the hardest part.

"The financial piece is just a small part of it. You lose relationships," said Litchfield, who had already divorced but recalled friends she lost as she fought the addiction.

Litchfield said she wants to speak publicly about what's often a private battle because people might learn from her experience and get help.

"I would have given anything to have someone to reach out to, especially a woman," she said.

Illinois lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn in 2009 approved a program to pay for road and school construction with tax money from video gambling machines. Up to five could be installed anywhere in Illinois with a liquor license, from restaurants to bars to truck stops.

For the vast majority of gamblers, the machines can be a fun game with no dire consequences -- and a good moneymaker for the bar, the state and the town, which gets tax money, too.

When the video gambling machines were first installed in September 2012, the state had 61 operating machines statewide and gamblers lost about $90,000 that month.

Less than a year later, in July there were 8,830 machines statewide and gamblers lost about $25.5 million. Added together, the machines account for more monthly gambling revenue than any casino in Illinois except Rivers Casino in Des Plaines -- far more than the $17.1 million in gross revenues the Grand Victoria generated in July.

"It just gives us all more places to fail," Litchfield said.

Litchfield says she's already been tempted by an unexpected encounter with gambling machines. She stays out of places she knows have the new machines and says help from a support group strengthens her resolve.

Kathleen Rein, a gambling addiction counselor at The SHARE Program in Hoffman Estates, says she has gotten a call from someone who had been losing too much money at video gambling machines and was looking for help.

She suggests anyone that feels too pulled in by the machines should seek help quickly before they sink too deep financially. There are a lot of options for help, including Gamblers Anonymous, Gam-Anon Illinois, SHARE and other suburban addiction counselors.

"Most gamblers don't have anything by the time they get to us," Rein said.

As the gambling machines become more common, they're harder for people to avoid. Many bars and restaurants have signs outside advertising the machines, but there's no requirement for signs and no guarantee they'll be seen.

"Their concern is walking into a restaurant and seeing the machines there and wondering how they'll react to it," Rein said.

Regulators are aware of the issue, and Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe says he's asked staff to look at what they can do.

"It is a very serious social problem," Jaffe said. "And we'll have to tackle it at some point."

It could be tough. Bars don't have the resources to track problem gamblers like casinos do. The gambling palaces have omnipresent cameras, facial recognition software and access to the self-exclusion list. They offer cash rewards to staff members who find self-excluded gamblers and kick them out, said Gene O'Shea, who has run the list for the Illinois Gaming Board since it was created.

Staff break rooms at casinos often have computers with access to the list that workers can study in an effort to intercept excluded gamblers, O'Shea said. Patrons' IDs are often checked on the way into the casino.

"The casinos are a controlled environment," O'Shea said. "They're very good at finding those people. That's not going to translate to a tavern or a restaurant."

That casinos and the machines are so different is one reason some lawmakers aren't too concerned about the addiction.

State Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and key figure in gambling expansion pushes, said the video gambling machines aren't high-stakes like a craps or blackjack table at a casino can be.

"You'd have to sit there a very long time to really hurt yourself," he said.

Bars and restaurants face technological and privacy challenges in implementing a self-exclusion list. Regulators are wary of giving the secret list to bar and restaurant owners and expecting them to police the machines themselves.

One idea is having players slide their driver's licenses into the machines. It could check the name on the license against the self-exclusion list and lock down if there's a match.

But a gambler simply could borrow a friend's driver's license and access the machines. Plus, there are privacy concerns that come with asking everyone who wants to put a few bucks in a slot machine to give up the personal information on his or her driver's license.

In the suburbs, individual towns have been debating whether to allow gambling machines ever since the law passed, trying to weigh the possible addictive quality of the machines against the much-desired tax revenue that could result. A wave of suburbs outlawed them shortly after the 2009 law allowing the new machines was approved.

Naperville leaders, for example, wasted little time banning the machines, outlawing them in 2009. Addiction was their top concern. Councilman Robert Fieseler called the gambling machines "eye crack," and then-Councilman Kenn Miller voiced similar concerns.

"If you put in the law, you're admitting this will create gambling habits and it ought to control for those people who have this easy access," Miller said.

Lately, some suburban leaders have started to change their minds about gambling machines. The Lake County Board this month narrowly voted to allow them in unincorporated areas after voting in 2009 to ban them.

Supporters argued that places that ban the machines are at a competitive disadvantage with places that allow them.

"I think it's a fairness issue," board member Linda Petersen of Antioch said. "It doesn't have anything to do with whether you like it or not."

"I'm not happy that it's here, but it's here," she said after the vote.

O'Shea thinks strategies for excluding addicts could "evolve over time," as with casinos. The first Illinois casino opened in 1991, and the casino self-exclusion list was formed 11 years later after addiction concerns began to rise across the state.

But many hope something happens sooner.

Litchfield says she's already been tested. On a recent drive back home from downstate Champaign, she stopped at a restaurant that had video gambling machines.

She felt tempted but was able to call people from her local support group and avoid gambling. Plus, she said, all the machines were already being used.

She said being in close contact with supporters is part of her strategy against gambling again. But even that could get more difficult as gambling machines proliferate in more and more bars and restaurants.

"They're veiled by the fact that you're going in for a nice steak," she said.

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