GAMBLING: Video poker pitfalls and perils

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Nathan Wilson | Reporter
The Natchitoches Parish Council will soon decide when to organize a referendum to allow video draw poker to return to Natchitoches Parish. Voters will then decide whether to allow businesses to operate video poker machines throughout the parish.

THIS ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN THE JUNE 16, 2022, PRINT EDITION. SUBSCRIBE BY CALLING 318-352-3618.

Cynthia Madison is an addiction specialist at Natchitoches Behavioral Health Clinic. She describes the risk of allowing video draw poker. “Gambling is just like any other addiction. It’s a compulsive behavior,” she says.
Madison describes what leads people to engage in compulsive gambling: “It’s just like a drug. They get something out of it if they win,” she says. “The impulse starts if they win a couple of times, whether it’s little or big.” She explains that gamblers can feel a sense of euphoria even as they lose. “Even if I’m not winning, it’s the anticipation of when I will.” she says. “The compulsiveness of the disease drives them to continue.“
The eventual winnings players earn are rarely enough to make up for their losses, but the success of casinos shows that this doesn’t matter to compulsive gamblers. For gambling addicts, even losses can evoke the rush of endorphins they crave, and their perception of their luck is manipulated by the design of the machines.
“They get attracted to the lights. They get attracted to the sound. It’s the compulsion that drives them to put the money in the machine because they’re looking for a self-gratification fix,” Madison explains. Players come to associate the distinctive animations and noises machines make when they win with success, even if they are losing. Gambling venues also rely on the public’s tendency to overestimate their likelihood of winning by obscuring the odds players face with a sense of control over the outcome. With electronic gambling, players respond to both “near misses” and “hot” machines by playing more. Video poker machines go further than slot machines because the choice of how to play a hand offers gamblers a greater sense of control, despite the outcome being decided by the device’s algorithms.
Executive Director of the Louisiana Association on Compulsive Gambling, Janet Miller, agrees that compulsive gambling is a serious problem. She contrasts gambling with other forms of entertainment. ”Gambling can become addictive to certain people, whereas most leisure and entertainment is not addictive.” She says. She also sees the constant availability of gambling as problematic. “You also can gamble 24/7, 365 (days) a year,” she says. “Most forms of entertainment have a beginning and end time.”
Some people exhibit warning signs indicating they are at higher risk of succumbing to gambling addiction. Miller lists some factors associated with a person being more likely to develop a compulsive gambling problem. “Some risks would be a familial history of problem gambling in their family or addiction to drugs or alcohol,” she reveals. She also identifies some questions she tries to answer about a person’s circumstances. “Do they become obsessed with gambling once they start?  Do they take risks in other areas of their life? Does their personality have a competitive nature to it?” she asks. “How much time, money and effort is put into gambling?  Do significant others have concerns about their gambling behaviors? 
Miller notes that it isn’t as easy to identify compulsive gamblers as it is for substance abusers. “Unfortunately, gambling addiction can be a ‘hidden or invisible’ addiction,” she says. “Most people identify their relationships are negatively affected by their gambling, and (their) personality changes; they admit to manipulation, lying, deceitfulness and secretiveness.“
Anyone can come to harm from compulsive gambling. In her abrupt resignation in April, Democratic State Senator Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans cited a decades-long struggle with gambling addiction and depression. While she had served in the state legislature since 1999, her troubled experience with gambling first surfaced when she was charged with a misdemeanor at L’Auberge Casino in 2019. Peterson received the charge because she had voluntarily joined the state’s self-exclusion list restricting her from accessing casino services throughout the state.
Individuals who sign the self-exclusion list ban themselves from gambling statewide for a minimum of five years with violators treated as trespassers. While Peterson remained a member of the Senate following the initial revelation of her gambling, she is now the subject of a federal investigation into her finances.
Madison offers a harsh assessment of compulsive gambling. “Gambling is no less dangerous than drugs,” she warns. “Gambling can cause you to become homeless quicker, not meet your essential needs, or cause children to have less because (their parents) can’t meet their needs.” She paints a grim portrait. “They become so compulsive (they think) ‘I’m only going to spend a little bit, but I end up spending it all, so I can’t meet my essential needs.’” she says. “I didn’t get anything, so let me put a little bit more in. Maybe I’m going to hit this time.”
Miller adds to the list of troubles people face when their gambling gets out of control. “We see first and foremost a financial strain or stress to a person with gambling disorder,” she says. “People identify abuses with forms of credit, loans, pawning items (and) theft to keep them playing.”
While the link between gambling and theft or other forms of crime is troubling, many compulsive gamblers become victims of their own disorder. The Nevada Council on Problem Gambling reports 17% of people treated for gambling disorders had attempted suicide and a survey of compulsive gamblers in the UK found one in 20 respondents had attempted suicide in the previous year. A 2017 study of the impact of gambling in Louisiana performed by the Louisiana Department of Health acknowledged higher rates of suicide and suicidal ideation among compulsive gamblers, but failed to measure the rate at the state level and indicated there are too few to compile by individual parish.
Madison indicates compulsive gambling also damages communities. “It leads them to needing community resources.” she says. “The resources that are there for people who are really poor and in need, they (gamblers) start utilizing those services.”
Miller also sees compulsive gambling as amplifying a range of societal ills. She lists the problems individuals, and ultimately communities, experience after gambling is established; “Chronic personal and societal debt, increased homelessness, dysfunctional or broken families, loss of productivity or educational pursuits, breakdown of direct communication to online or virtual forms of sharing, less intimacy and poor coping skills, increased crime, co-occurring disorders and addictions, and on and on,” she says.
Natchitoches Attorney Eddie Harrington helps Natchitoches residents through the bankruptcy process. He believes Natchitoches has been spared from bankruptcies arising from compulsive gambling. “It would be very, very rare. I can’t think of any (bankruptcies) I’ve had in the past decade that were caused by gambling debts,“ he says. He suggests that gambling could cause problems when a client is facing bankruptcy. “If they have a gambling addiction and they’re still doing it, it’s going to cause a slough of problems in a bankruptcy.”
Both Madison and Miller describe a long process of treating compulsive gamblers with cognitive behavioral therapy, and suggest recovery may require additional, ongoing help such as participation in a support group and financial oversight. Madison offers a glimpse of what recovery from gambling addiction may look like: “We try to train them for when these thoughts come, how to change their thought patterns.” she says. “With drugs you can go get treatment, but most of the time with gambling it’s the behavioral modification that you need.”
Louisiana offers free treatment services for gambling addiction, including a residential inpatient treatment at The Center of Recovery (CORE) in Shreveport. More information about treatment for gambling addiction is available from helpforgambling.org or by calling 877-770-7867.