Beginner’s Luck?

It may not be a chemical addiction, but nothing hooks compulsive gamblers like that first big win.

It has been four years, two months and five days since Tamara Freeman* gambled. Last night, she learned that her daughter’s ovarian cancer has returned. As she rides the dawn bus to her job as a nursing director in Providence, Freeman remembers her daughter’s last bout with chemo and wonders if it will be worse this time. Then she spies him: Her boyfriend has just stepped off a bus across the street and his arm is braced around another woman. There’s no denying it’s the morning after.

The 54 bus brushes past en route to the courthouse half a block away; in fifteen minutes, she could be at Twin River. A $20 bill ripens in her pocket. Freeman thickens her scarf against winter’s breath and sprints to catch the 54. As the driver pulls onto Route 146, her throat is knotted with the knowledge of betrayal but slot dreams flood her with endorphins. When she steps inside the casino, Freeman knows she will leave addicted—she can already hear her lies. But the moment she feeds that $20 bill into the devil’s mouth, she can breathe again.

She often thinks about the synchronicity of that morning now that she’s four months behind on the mortgage. With a roll of the dice or the twitch of a button, you can become prince or pauper. It’s those winks of fate. If she’d been a minute later for work, if she’d walked instead of taking the bus and had never seen her boyfriend with another woman, would she have stayed clean?

Nine people are gathered downstairs at St. Matthew Trinity Lutheran Church in Pawtucket for a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. The basement backdrop suits their tales of descending deeper into the circles of hell. Like Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy, they’ve mapped the underworld’s geography. Some reached the ninth level and awoke from the ashes while others haven’t quit; they just watch their lives feed the flames.

You lie so much you start to believe the lies.

‘You’re a gambler,’ my wife said. ‘I didn’t know you were a gambler when I married you.
I don’t want to have a child with you!’

I get paid Friday. By Monday I’m broke.

Gambling was like a second job. Every day after work I’d think, ‘I gotta go to work again.’

After I’ve blown all my money, I get into my car and think, ‘I’m gonna smash this car into a pole.’

If I weren’t at these meetings, I’d be dead.

The third floor of perdition might be losing the funds set aside for your daughter’s college tuition or the money borrowed for your son’s appendicitis operation. In the fifth chamber, you cup heart shards after your wife leaves. The inferno is when you try to end your life. You might stop taking the insulin that keeps you alive. Or, like Freeman, you could jump in front of a bus. And when the bus lurches, brakes smoking, you could stare into the driver’s eyes and curse him for sparing you. He thinks it was an accident, but you no longer believe in chance.

 Most of us can’t imagine the gambler’s heart. We don’t know what it’s like to debate pumping $20 of regular into our car because that money could be spent on slot credits. We’ve never walked to the 7-Eleven with $10 for bread and milk for our kids and left empty-armed because we spent it all on scratch tickets. We haven’t felt the despair of winning $11,000 in one night only to drive home without two dollars for a cup of coffee. We haven’t been the woman with the million-dollar house in South County, the one who drives past it just to watch someone else live her dream.

And we don’t understand why they just can’t stop.


They call it the Cadillac walk, the gamblers’ swagger when they enter a casino. They pony up to a slot with jackpot eyes, but ten minutes later their gaze is glazed. Natasha Schull, an assistant professor at MIT, spent fifteen years researching Las Vegas gambling behaviors and technology.

“Regular and addicted machine gamblers are motivated less by a desire for excitement and entertainment than by a desire for escape into a state of continuous flow,” she says. “Winning becomes undesirable because it disrupts the flow of play.” Outcomes are determined by complicated mathematical algorithms rather than mathematical probability; the machines are not unlike loaded dice with game designers having a great deal of control over outcomes. She found that the software is engineered to get gamblers to play until their funds are depleted—or in industry terms, to “play to extinction.” Freeman says she doesn’t gamble to win. “I do it for that feeling of not feeling,” the fifty-five-year-old explains. “When I’m in front of a machine, I’m not thinking about what I owe the bank for my house. I’m not worrying about my kids. I’m not anxious about a patient.” She once sat in front of the slots at Twin River from 11 a.m. until closing time at one the next morning, interrupting the trance once, to go to the bathroom. That night, Freeman had $2,200 in winnings and fixed her mind on leaving with it. Yet more machines seduced on her walk to the exit and in less than an hour, she lost it all to the shredder, as she calls the machines. After winning thousands that night, she walked outside without $1.50 for bus fare home. “I asked two men, two strangers, for a ride,” she says. “I had lost everything, so I already felt like crap. I thought, ‘If these men do something, I deserve it.’ ”

Freeman, like most pathological gamblers, is always one bet away from winning back her debt. According to Dr. Bob Breen, director of the Rhode Island Gambling Treatment Program at Rhode Island Hospital, video lottery terminals (VLTs) are called “the crack cocaine of gambling” because they’re considered far more addictive than the traditional horse racing, sports and card games. Like drug addicts, problem gamblers generally have one poison that triggers their compulsion—they don’t start betting on everything from Keno to greyhounds. Breen and his colleagues found that on average it takes new VLT players about one year to become addicted. They lose control and can’t put time or financial limits on their gambling.

It preoccupies them; they use gambling as medication  or to escape from reality.

The starkest odds? Compared to other addicts, pathological gamblers have the highest rate of attempted suicide—one in five will try to end his life.

There are tiny tragedies before a gambler hits her nadir: that initial lie to a husband, the first time she hunts in a friend’s purse. One of Freeman’s sewer moments was asking her patients for money. “I just need enough for bus fare, I forgot my pass,” she’d claim. And then, last week, she stole $60 from her daughter’s skirt pocket.

Every gambler warns that no one is immune. If this could happen to them—the person no one would suspect—it can happen to anyone. And interventions are rare: Without track marks or sudden weight loss, their addiction is easily masked. Here’s how one gambling opponent chronicles a litany of victims:

He had developed a gambling habit over the past few months that began on a trip to Las Vegas. Police believe he was driving home from a casino when he died after hanging
himself from a tree.

The man attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head in a casino parking garage.

After a local police chief was found dead from a gunshot wound—an apparent suicide—in the basement of the police station, reports surfaced that he had been borrowing money from subordinates to pay gambling debts.

A thirty-eight-year-old woman drowned herself by wading in Connecticut’s Thames River after maxing out her credit cards at the casino. She left a husband and two small children.

A Massachusetts nurse was working double shifts to pay her husband’s gambling debts. When she restricted her husband’s access to money, he killed her. On his way home, after disposing of his wife’s car, he stopped to buy scratch tickets.


In May, state lawmakers overturned Governor Don Carcieri’s veto of a bill that allows Twin River and Newport Grand to remain open for twenty-four hours on Fridays, Saturdays and state and federal holidays; on other days, the facilities can stay open until 3 a.m.

The open-all-night idea was one response to a neighboring threat: Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to allow three casinos and ban Internet gambling in the state.

However, that bill was defeated by a 108-to-forty-six vote in March. House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi argued that the social costs of creating a casino culture would outweigh potential tax benefits and that there are much better ways to create jobs and increase revenue.

It’s estimated the Rhode Island government could collect an additional $14.8 million annually when Twin River and Newport Grand allow twenty-four-hour gambling on weekends and holidays. The facilities’ nearly 7,000 VLTs are projected to rake in $303 million for the state in 2009. Gambling income is the third-largest source of revenue for the state government, after personal income and sales tax. As politicos try to whittle next year’s projected deficit of $384 million, they’re quick to point out that extended gaming would even those odds.

The General Assembly set aside $149,625 this year for gambling treatment, which Carcieri’s proposed budget would halve to $74,813 next year. With its $1.8 billion a year gaming operation, Rhode Island has the highest per capita income from gambling, more than any other state in the union, yet it ranks as one of the lowest for funding gambling education and rehabilitation. The comparatively sized Delaware has three racetracks with VLTs and earmarks a million dollars of public funds for gambling treatment and education.

A 2007 study conducted by the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth estimates that 13,000 Rhode Island residents (1.6 percent of the adult population) have serious gambling problems. The social cost to the state? About $17 million per year in the form of lost productivity, social services, treatment, bankruptcy and divorce proceedings.

“The track record on responsible gambling in Rhode Island is pretty poor,” says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. Besides limited funds for treatment, lack of enforcement is an issue: “Are convenience store clerks selling lottery tickets to kids? Are minors sneaking into the casinos?” Since the state doesn’t have a comprehensive plan and isn’t doing enough [education, enforcement and treatment] for the gambling it already has, Whyte says the council is nervous about what will happen when more gambling is available.

There are ways to slash the price of gambling without closing the facilities. Casinos can install software programs that profile betting patterns to assess if someone is an addiction risk. Trained employees then speak to the individual about treatment resources. Rhode Island casinos offer self-exclusion programs that allow someone to ban him or herself from a casino and their photo is then posted on a security wall. “Exclusion is a fine idea but there’s no mechanism to make it enforceable because people don’t have identification cards they must swipe to be admitted to a casino,” says Dr. Breen. “Excluded people are supposed to be immediately escorted out but it rarely happens. Casinos will still cash checks for those people and pay them huge jackpots.”


Tamara Freeman is one of the moths who will be drawn to the flame at 2 a.m. She has walked seven miles from Lincoln to her Pawtucket home at one in the morning. “The state may make money if casinos are open all night,” Freeman says. “But there will be more people losing their jobs, more stealing, more suicides and more elderly people losing their last dollars and ending up on the streets.

“The ads glamorize gambling and make it look like everyone is winning,” she adds. “You hear about the twenty-one-year-old who won millions at Foxwoods and think, ‘This could be the day that happens to me.’” With names like Pay Dirt, Samurai Gold, Rich Little Piggies and Treasures of Troy, the slots at Twin River beckon gimlet-eyed gamblers with allusions to swollen jackpots.

Freeman knows the neurological pleasure centers stimulated during a cocaine high are also activated when a pathological gambler wins. Yet she refuses to believe that a machine can control her mind. “I think of drug addiction as physical and this as a mental addiction,” she says. “But gambling is harder to quit than any drug.”

You can be addicted without a substance, says Whyte. “That’s something legislators can’t understand. A lot of people, even gamblers, see problem gambling as a behavioral issue rather than a mental health issue. There is this stigma because people can’t understand the problem and gamblers don’t understand themselves.”

Lori Trahan exemplifies the social cost of gambling. A former bank teller manager, the sixty-five-year-old grandmother was convicted of embezzling nearly $70,000 from her employer of ten years. In 2003, she was sentenced to two years home confinement and will serve probation until restitution is paid to the bank. She now lives in subsidized housing in East Providence.

Trahan has multiple sclerosis and receives a monthly disability check from the federal government. She then pays a percentage of that income to the bank. The state government may have originally profited from her addiction; ironically, federal dollars now reimburse her employer. 

“If Twin River and Newport Grand are open twenty-four hours, it will cause more problems in families, more couples will split, there will be more people on welfare and more people breaking the law to support their addiction,” Trahan says. “Because they will become addicted if gambling is available all hours.

“Most people at the slots are not having fun,” she adds. “They have a look like ‘There goes the mortgage money’ or like they’re trying to make to make the mortgage money.” At her apartment complex for low-income handicapped and disabled people, twice a month a bus ferries the elderly residents to Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun. For the rest of the month, she says, they eat canned tuna.

Trahan won fistfuls of cash the first several times she went to Foxwoods with friends. “Winning big sets you up to lose even bigger,” she says. People chase the gambler’s ghost, that rush from a first jackpot. Soon she was going alone and in less than a year, she was hooked. At first, she went to Foxwoods because the track was “dirty.” But when she started losing big, Trahan frequented Twin River. Instead of castigating herself for an hour driving back from Foxwoods, she could chastise herself for twelve minutes. Trahan estimates she lost $284,000 in three years: On average, pathological gamblers are in debt the equivalent of double their yearly income.

“Gambling filled the time,” she says.

“I was divorced after being married for twenty-seven years and my kids were grown. The slots were an escape because you just press the buttons. You don’t even have to think.” She often drove to Twin River after work. Sometimes, she’d be on her way somewhere else and find herself steering toward Lincoln, as if on auto-pilot.

Trahan kept gambling after the bank fired her. While her case awaited criminal investigation, she spent the year on edge, wondering when the cops would rap at her door. She couldn’t embezzle anymore so she declared bankruptcy and supported her habit by eating less, cashing in her 401k and selling her condo. Then she heard the knock at the door. “My arrest was the best thing that could have happened to me,” she says. “It gave me my life back.”

She is five years clean and refuses to buy a raffle ticket or glance at a Coke bottlecap. Every morning she reminds herself of the emotional price of her gambling. The degrading strip search after her arrest; how she betrayed the colleagues who trusted her; the rituals she missed with her children and grandchildren because she was more interested in spending time with a machine.

Trahan knew her future before she was sentenced. Her plea bargain would mean two years of home confinement. On the eve of her court date, her final hours of freedom, the phone rang. It was a friend calling to ask if she needed anything.

Trahan didn’t have any money, but the friend had $20. Starry-eyed, they drove to Twin River.