By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“The result is often a very lifelike, beepin’ and boppin’ machine sitting in front of a very zombielike, machinelike player,” Bernhard says. “On the one hand, gambling has become the great American pastime. Like it or not, this is now what we do in our leisure time and it’s here to stay. But it can also be a sickness. And yet, addicts are still more stigmatized than understood.”
Through its publicly funded university system, Nevada teaches just about every imaginable facet of gambling and casino management, including for-credit field trips to casinos. But, to the ongoing dismay of many, the state of Nevada doesn’t spend as much as a dollar on treating problem gamblers. It doesn’t fund a single treatment program or service. For the second year in a row, the Nevada Legislature refused to even consider a proposed bill, one lobbied for by Bernhard and others, which would have allocated at least a paltry $250,000 to gambling-addiction treatment. But, as they say, tough luck, buddy.
Bernhard tells me that as part of his Harvard research he began meeting some years ago with Dr. Robert Hunter, the dean of problem-gambling treatment in Vegas. “My first instinct was to want to go back to Vegas and provefrom my politically liberal perspective that problem gambling was, in fact, a myth. That it was one more invention of the right, one more moralistic attack on popular culture.”
“But then,” he says reflectively, then pauses. “But then, Dr. Hunter took me into that room one Thursday night, and that was it. I never stopped coming back. I saw many things in that room. I saw many truths in that room. I saw a friend in that room. I saw my work in that room. I went into that room and couldn’t ever leave again.”
“That room” he is talking about is a bare-walled, thinly carpeted, air-conditioned rectangle with about 20 chairs pushed against its four walls. Shuttered windows on one side of the room open onto a parking strip. This is the meeting room of the Problem Gambling Center, the PGC, the one and only nonprofit gambling-addiction treatment center in the entire state of Nevada, and Bernhard has brought me here because he knows that I will be as moved as he was the first time he’d been let in.
An otherwise unremarkable collection of small, fluorescent-lit offices, in a nondescript Vegas office park, the PGC gets about 90 percent of its anemic $170,000 annual budget from casino-industry contributions. The state contributes nothing. But with intensive peer counseling, classic behavioral therapy, focused self-evaluation and close cooperation with Gamblers Anonymous — which has a meeting somewhere in Las Vegas just about every hour of the week — the PGC treats around 140 clients a year and claims about a 70 percent rate of success.
Thursday nights are group self-evaluation meetings — intimate, soul-baring sessions into which outsiders are rarely allowed. Dr. Hunter, tall and fair-complexioned, wearing blue jeans, scuffed work boots and a faded polo shirt, emits the kind of crackling nervous energy that is, doubtless, a minimum prerequisite for keeping such a beleaguered and shoestring operation still humming.
Twenty or so years ago, both Bernhard and Dr. Hunter tell me, the profile of the average problem gambler was a cigar-chomping action gambler, a card player or dice shooter, relentlessly searching for the big wins and jackpots. “That’s a disappearing breed,” says Dr. Hunter, as we chat before the group session gets under way. “Today the problem gambler is likely to be a 34-year-old woman with two kids and two years of college. And a video-game addiction. We’re not seeing many of the dinosaur action gamblers who play to feel a rush. We’re seeing people who say they want to feel numb, want to blank out, want to lose track. It’s hard to imagine what an intoxicant it can be for them.”
As tonight’s group begins to drift in, Hunter introduces me to one of his clients who has just arrived. An attractive, highly educated professional in her late 30s, Sue is elegantly dressed, right down to her crocodile shoes. Diamonds and gold sparkle from her ears and fingers. Her blond hair is expertly and expensively coifed. Her Southern drawl is cultured and mannered. Her temper is upbeat and cheerful.
She’s been off the machines now for 22 days, and it is with surprising humor that Sue tells me of her descent into addiction:
“I moved here about five years ago when I got married. Before that I never played poker, I had no interest in gambling, nothing. One day, in 1998, just to fool around, I sat down and hit four aces on a video-poker machine and won $500. That was it? What do I get out of it? Oh, man, I get to disappear, it allows me to escape my world. It stimulates my mind. I become hyperfocused on patterns I think I’m detecting. It began to be a problem a year after I started playing. From my own professional work, I already knew a lot about addiction. I had lost maybe $100 a day playing blackjack for a couple of weeks. So I figured, how much could I possibly lose just playing video poker for quarters? Well, the answer turned out to be $200 to $800 a day — sometimes $1,800. In the middle of all this, I inherited some money, so I moved up from quarter machines to dollar machines. Toward the end, I was playing six or seven hours a day every Friday and every weekend. I knew it was getting worse when I felt all I wanted was more and more playing time. The first couple of times I hit a $4,000 jackpot, I’d go out and shop at Neiman-Marcus or buy a piece of art. But I knew I was in trouble when I’d hit one of those jackpots and say to myself, ‘Oh, good. Now I’ve got enough money to gamble through the weekend.’ I quit, really, because I felt I was going to kill myself. I’ve got 17 years of recovering from alcohol, and not once did drinking make me think about suicide, nor did it create the financial and marital chaos that gambling has. To be honest, I had to quit because I just couldn’t stand myself any longer. I figure in the last three years I lost more than $200,000 in the machines.”