At the height of his gambling addiction, “Gus” was going to the casino seven days a week. His wife had left him because of his gambling, he had lost his job, drained his bank accounts and he was suicidal.
A Langley resident, Gus (not his real name) had hit rock bottom.
This was in 2000 before the BC Lottery Corporation started funding counselling for problem gamblers and putting up yellow stickers and signage advertising their Problem Gambling Help Line.
So in his darkest hour, after four years of uncontrollable gambling, during which he lost more than $100,000 to the casinos, 40-year-old Gus went to Gamblers Anonymous and to his family doctor for help. More than a year later, in 2001, the government began its free counselling services for gambling addicts.
“I was one of their first clients,” said Gus. He credits his counsellors for helping him to stay away from gambling for 13 years. Despite the length of time, he still fights the urge to gamble every day.
He was able to access free one-on-one and couples counselling. His marriage ended anyway.
And instead of relapsing, when the urge was too great, he has since called the help line again to get him back into sessions, he said.
Gus is speaking about his experience as part of BCLC’s Responsible Gambling awareness campaign which took place two weeks ago in Langley, with info kiosks set up at Willowbrook Shopping Centre and other locations. He volunteered to speak to people about the dangers of gambling.
For Gus, it started with a visit to a King George Highway casino with friends.
It was all for fun then.
“It got more serious. I didn’t want to go with friends anymore. I won in the beginning and it was the thrill of it. It has never been about the money,” he said. Soon, the first thing he thought about in the morning was getting to the casino.
He remembers using the bank machine at 11:30 p.m. and then again at midnight, because then it was a new day and he could get more money.
He said it’s pretty easy to spot problem gamblers. Addicts will sit at a table for a long time, and they don’t socialize. He said he would mostly sit at the $25 tables just so he could avoid the casual players. He would take as many as four to six squares at a time.
One time, he was caught stealing with $5,000 cash in his pocket. All of it was going back to the blackjack table where he was convinced he could make that big win.
Gus’ addiction has ruined him financially. At his worst, he had maxed out all his credit cards, cheated people out of money, cashed in his RRSPs and spent his pension. The credit card companies extended his limits and then came to collect.
“For me it won’t be Freedom 55, it will be Freedom 99,” he said.
It’s an ugly addiction that is hurting a lot of British Columbians, he said.
For that reason, Gus has a message for the government.
“The government is more addicted to gambling than the gamblers,” he said.
GOVERNMENT ADDICTED TO GAMBLING?
Under the Liberals, the provincial government has approved the opening of more casinos in the past 15 years than ever before, with the allowable number of tables expanded, and slots installed at Fraser Downs racetrack and at several bingo halls. In fact, the increase in gaming is around 210 per cent in a decade, according to a provincial health report put out in 2013.
A new casino just opened in Maple Ridge and a very large one is being proposed for Vancouver.
The windfall for the government is around $2 billion a year. Since the opening of the Cascades Casino in 2005, Langley City (which gets 10 per cent of the net profits) has made $53 million in revenue.
The number of severely addicted gamblers in B.C. has more than doubled, said provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall in October. After reviewing data from 2002 to 2007, he said the number of gamblers has skyrocketed from around 13,000 to 31,000.
A Langley woman, Joyce Ross, is currently suing the BC Lottery Corporation and Cascades Casino in connection with her gambling addiction. Her notice of claim says that she lost $331,000 at Cascades and Fraser Downs after she signed a three-year contract essentially banning her from all casinos through BCLC’s self-exclusion program. She claims no one stopped her from gambling after the exclusion.
In 2008, a Langley woman embezzled more than $500,000 from her employer, the Langley Envision Credit Union, to foster her gambling addiction. Angela Keatley was fired and convicted criminally.
Gus suggests that for every time the government shows a Lotto 6/49 commercial or casino commercial, they show two commercials showing the dangers of gambling.
There are no easy answers though, when someone is in the grip of their addiction, he said.
“You have to want to stop. You can’t force someone to get help,” he said.
But unlike at a bar, where a bartender can cut you off, no staff at a casino will stop a gambler from playing.
“On a Wednesday morning at the end of the month, go and watch, there are all the seniors and those on social assistance who give all they have to a casino.
“It’s sad,” he said.
Kuldip Gill, a prevention specialist and clinical counsellor who works with gamblers who call the help line, said the number of “pathological” gamblers is low, but for those people, the addiction has an intense grip and they find themselves in a desperate place.
She was recently in Langley doing some awareness campaigns about gambling.
She tries to speak everywhere that will have her, and do some myth busting.
“Especially young people who have watched movies about counting cards and really believe there are certain strategies to winning. There aren’t,” she said.
She has been working with gamblers since 2007. She admits that they hope to reach more clients than are calling for help.
It’s pretty amazing that the services offered to problem gamblers are free and without a wait list, she adds. Once someone has called the help line, they are put in touch with a counsellor in their area. They can also access support groups and day treatments.
Gill said less than five per cent of the population develops a gambling addiction. Gus said that may be so, but he believes at least 50 per cent of those inside a casino have a high risk to be addicted.
• Certain slot machines pay out better than others
• Lucky numbers work or that luck exists
• Strategies on how to play a game will better my chances
• Card counting works
Responsible Gambling kiosks will be set up throughout Richmond from Feb. 16 to 22. The B.C. Problem Gambling Help Line (1-888-795-6111) is available 24/7 for free, confidential advice and support for all British Columbians.