Gambling addiction: An Achilles heel for localsPOSTED: 07/26/12 12:44 PM
St. Maarten / By Torana Granston - Gambling is one of the most popular entertainment activities on St. Maarten with a dozen casinos (stand alone and hotel based) on the Dutch side of the island. But there is a thin line between entertainment and addiction, with the latter having multiple economic and social implications, if left unchecked.
Casinos were introduced to the island to bring a unique form of entertainment to tourists most of whom hail from North America where casinos were banned in several states. This freedom of choice to have fun your way was what St. Maarten sold internationally.
The flashing neon lights, beautiful women, buffet spreads, persuasive dealers and the occasional shriek of excitement by a winner are indeed hard to resist. But, it’s not all fun and games. Casinos have been put in place for a reason and like any other business, it is to earn more than it spends; simply put to make money.
Globally the gaming industry continues to be riddled with money laundering allegations and like the forbidden fruit almost everyone wants a bite of the wealth casinos are said to contain. With a laugh, Tropicana Casino employee Fran* says that residents obviously cannot control their gambling habits.
“The people that you see inside there are the same people every day. They are mostly locals. From the time the casino opens at 2:00 pm until 4:00 a.m. they are there. Sometimes they complain that they are not winning but they are still there. I cannot believe that they do not understand that the odds are against them. We do have controllers but no one stops or checks anyone. Some of them enter the casino and then leave after sitting at slot machines for hours. Then they go home, change their clothes and come back at 8:30 p.m. for bingo games. They drink a lot, and every five minutes it’s the same people stopping the waiters for drinks. If you don’t give them alcohol they get very aggressive. But we always monitor them to see if they are actually playing in the casino. Many people have been known to come into the casino just to see if they can get food or drinks and only spend $5.00 or so.”
Fran noted a predictable pattern that people often try to make back what they lose. She specifically identified the low to middle income earning population and explained that tourists and those who can afford it use their disposable income or vacation dollars on a game of Texas Hold Em or Blackjack, without regrets.
“When our people lose their money, they stick around the area looking to see if there is someone that they know. Then they ask to borrow $10.00 or $20.00 so that they can continue playing. Sometimes, they even ask us the employees for money.”
Because there are no legal gaming facilities on the French side of the island, French nationals, old and young, also cross the border to wager on games like baccarat and poker.
On Christmas Eve night, the casino employee recounted how a physical altercation ensued between two women that had just exited the casino. While in the parking lot, one of the women hit the other with a champagne bottle in the head because she did not win a raffle competition.
Forty five year old Ronald* was the operations manager of Ambassador Casino in Paramaribo, Suriname. He said that as a family man who valued his money he preferred to spend it wisely.
“I rather put food on the table than lose it in a casino.”
Ronald had quite a few stories to share with us about the highs and lows that patrons experienced in his establishment. There was the thrill and psychology involved in an exciting game of poker and there was the sixty five year old grandmother, who mindlessly fed slot machines with a hefty dose of coins. Big paydays are few and far between.
“A woman came to me and asked if I can help her. She was supposed to buy a washing machine for her home but she gambled the money away. So at the end of the night she came to me asking if she could get the money back. I couldn’t do anything for her. It’s the choice she made, so she had to live with the consequences.”
Since that experience in 2002, Ronald migrated to St. Maarten and joined a different profession. But being exposed to the lure of the casino, he learnt many lessons.
“When my friends come here and they want to visit casinos, I always accompany them. But I never invest my money. I have seen too much happen to people. I visited Beach Plaza Casino twice and on both occasions, months apart, I saw the same faces there. It could be coincidence but based on my experience, I do not think so. I don’t know if they are winning or losing but I do know that it is much more difficult to win than lose. When they are addicted it is hard to let go.”
Ronald said that many of the patrons who frequented the Ambassador Casino were known to him in the community. When not on the job, he would speak to them privately about their gambling habits; especially those who could ill afford a spending habit of 1500 Surinamese dollars (SRD) a day.
“When they see us with a suit on and you greet them and encourage them to play big, they think we are their best friends. But if they are winning we are not their best friends,” Ronald coyly remarked.
Black jack player, Ashley*, has visited all 12 casinos (stand alone and hotel based) on the island in search of a repeat of her beginner’s luck. The honeymoon period is far from over for Ashley*, who said that even while studying in Holland, she never entered a casino but upon being introduced to it 2 months ago by friends, she learnt the meaning of all or nothing.
“At the black jack table people put their whole salary on the line and lose it. But for now I am keeping my bet to $20.00.”
To maintain the confidentiality of his congregation, Pastor Thomas* asked not to be identified. He has counseled many people with compulsive gambling disorders. He concedes that the addiction is a combined cycle of spiritual, emotional and socio-economic factors.
“One of the most consistent reasons that people give for returning to the casino are that the bills they have are more than their earnings. So they try to take a chance in the casino, especially single parents. I passed on Front Street last week and observed that there are more women than men in the casinos now. People are getting desperate and end up being trapped.”
Medical author Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards sees gambling addiction as a mental-health problem in any society. In the WebMD newsletter, Dr. Dryden-Edwards posits that compulsive gambling is to be understood as one of many kinds of impulse-control problems a person may suffer from.
“The types of gambling that people with this disorder might engage in are as variable as the games available. Betting on sports, buying lotto tickets, playing poker, slot machines, or roulette are only a few of the activities in which compulsive gamblers engage. The venue of choice for individuals with gambling addiction varies as well. While many prefer gambling in a casino, the rate of online/internet gambling addiction continues to increase with increased use of the internet. Gambling addiction is also called compulsive gambling or pathological gambling.”
A regular at Casino Rouge et Noir, thirty six year old mother of two, Lucy* was introduced to the casino by her mother.
“My mother lives in there. When I was young and we needed her, it was in there we had to go to find her. Sometimes we would go and assist her in gambling. So we got acquainted with it.”
Lucy won a conciliation prize of $450.00 in a bingo competition. That was four years ago and she has been trying to trace her luck ever since.
“If bingo was playing somewhere else I wouldn’t go to a casino. But the casino money pays my bills and helps me with my kids.”
Lucy admits though that it is not worth it when she reflects on how much she loses. Originally from St. Kitts, she was cultured to embrace a family routine where everyone headed to a bingo game on Sundays. But with the advent of casinos in their adopted country, St. Maarten, gambling activities became magnified by ten.
“Every day after my mother finished working, she would be in the casino from after 5:00 pm to around 10:00 pm. That was on weekdays but on weekends it would go up to 1:00 a.m. because there would be bigger games then.”
Lucy is employed at a salon and for ten years has frequented casinos.
“When it is not busy and I am not making money at the salon, I go into the casino to see if I can win anything.”
This is a huge risk, the woman takes knowing that she is investing into a scheme that may never yield a profit.
“I am a one man crew, I go by myself I don’t go with friends so that I can really focus. But I don’t plan to introduce my children to the casino. I want them to come up good and right.”
It may seem delusional to some but Lucy confidently says, “It is not hard for me to stop. All I have to do is make up my mind and I will. I always say I am not going to go to the casino today but then when I see the time, a voice in my head just starts to say, you’re going to win. And then I run and go but I never win.”
Lucy added that she has a few supporters in her district of Belvedere who encourage her to leave the casino gambling life behind.
“I usually tell them, pray harder. Some people when they lose all their money in the casino, they have no money to pay a gypsy taxi. So what they do is wait until the driver is near to their home and ask him to stop a few streets ahead. Then they run out of the car without paying and disappear.”
In May 2011, the government amended the Casino Policy which relied heavily on a fifteen year old study conducted by Coopers and Lybrand. The researchers handed in their results on October 29, 1996 to the then Executive Council.
As the Today Newspaper reported last year, “the old casino policy was designed to limit casino-visits by locals, but the system that was put in place to keep a grip on this development failed hopelessly. At the time of the survey there were 31 casino controllers on the government’s payroll, and a couple of years ago their numbers had swelled to 47.”
But most of the time, the station where a casino controller is supposed to sit, is deserted.
The amended Casino Policy now states “in recent years it has become evident that neither the legislation nor the casino control function is effectively limiting resident play. The situation begs the question whether government should even attempt to legislate behavior or morals as it relates to gaming and residents?”
“We have no rules, all they say is make sure you have on clothes and proper shoes. In the day if you have cruise ships, I see tourists in the casino. But in the night it is mostly locals,” Lucy disclosed.
Dr. Dryden-Edwards has documented the harmful effects compulsive gambling can have on the individual, the family and the society. These include financial problems ranging from high debt, bankruptcy or poverty, to legal problems resulting from theft to prostitution, to wanting, attempting or completing suicide.
“Gambling addiction can have a multitude of negative effects on the family. Statistics indicate that families of people with compulsive gambling are more likely to experience domestic violence and child abuse. Children of problem gamblers are at significantly higher risk of suffering from depression, behavior problems and substance abuse. One of the challenges of treatment of compulsive gambling is that as many as two-thirds of people who begin treatment for this disorder discontinue treatment prematurely, whether treatment involves medication, therapy or both.”
No statistics are readily available on the effects of gambling on St. Maarten. The St. Maarten Anti- Poverty Platform is busy conducting its own research into the many causes of poverty on the island.
As much as $5 billion is spent on gambling in the United States every year, with people who are addicted to gambling accruing tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. The figure is unknown closer to home,.
But for the consummate gambler like Lucy who spends a minimum of $20.00 a day in the casino, the numbers start to add up. At the end of the month that is an expensive $600.00 habit for someone who earns an average monthly income of $850.00 out of which must come food, rent, school and clothing fees.
“It’s all luck and chance. I don’t like being broke,” Lucy says.
* Names have been changed for privacy reasons.