Shawn reached under his bed and pulled out an orange Nike shoebox with excitement. He opened the box to find the stack of crisp green $20 dollar bills that he pulled from an envelope inside. He counted with confidence as he totaled the amount to $340.
He slid the money into his beat up leather wallet and said, “I’m feeling lucky.”
Shawn, who would not allow his last name to be used for this story, hopped into his car and headed off to his favorite Saturday destination, Maryland Live Casino in Arundel Mills.
He loaded the CD deck with his pregame ritual and concentrated before he attempted to turn his stack of 20s into stacks of 100s.
“I need to win today,” he said. “If I play the way I want to play, I’ll win.”
The number of gambling addicts has increased since more casinos have developed in Maryland. Shawn is among about 60,000 gambling addicts in the state.
With a swagger in his step, Shawn approached the bright red fluorescent sign and enters the bustling casino.
Shawn began to scope out the casino floor in a methodical way. He spotted the table of choice, Blackjack.
“$100 cash-in” Shawn said confidently.
“Yes sir, good luck and let’s play,” the dealer said.
For the first few hands, Shawn controlled his minimum bet of $10.
As his cards began to heat up, the bets heated up. Shawn clenched his fist in victory, and stared deeply into his pile of chips.
The tides turned, and Shawn began to watch the pile of chips he had doubled diminish.
After a 15-minute stint at the blackjack table, he left empty handed. Frustrated, he moved on to roulette.
“$120 cash-in, $25 chips and $5 chips” Shawn said.
He swung alongside of the table. As the wheel slowed, the white pebble-like ball rattled side to side. Shawn focused on the ball. His thoughts were red, as well as his quick $100 dollar bet.
“Nine!” the dealer said.
Shawn quickly threw down his remaining $20 on the 1 to 18 where he lost again.
As he contemplated his next move, he fed the hungry slot machine with a $20 bill. With the push of a button, his shoulders slumped.
His sites abruptly turned to the shouts coming from the winnings of a blackjack table.
The sound eventually became a false promise that would result in the loss of another $100 dollars at the blackjack table he was so attracted to.
“I’ve gotta come out of here with something man,” Shawn said.
He pulled at the brown beat up wallet, pulled out the magic plastic card, withdrew another $200 and was off to the roulette table. He attempted again at the cycle of a gambling problem.
* * *
Maryland casinos have become popular after lawmakers expanded their gaming regulations to allow for live gaming. The Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills Mall recently reported that over the last calendar year, they have averaged a $50 million revenue line.
Maryland Live is one of six casinos that have been recently built or under construction since the new regulations were approved. With the increasing number of casinos, Maryland has seen an increase in gambling addictions.
Those between the ages of 18 and 29 are most at risk of developing a gambling addiction according to Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. A study of 5,975 adults in Maryland done by The University of Maryland and University of Baltimore found that 3.4 percent of adults were likely to report being pathological or problem gamblers. The study was one of the requirements following the legislation passed in 2007 that allowed for the expansion of the live gaming regulations in the state of Maryland.
According to Matthew Macpherson, a drug and alcohol counselor who specializes in gambling addiction, the amount of people seeking help for gambling addiction is increasing, while resources are limited.
“The amount of drug and alcohol addicts that ask for my help seem to stay the same year-to-year. The number of those who reach out for my help with a gambling problem have increased,” Macpherson said. “The increasing amount of casinos just raises the increase of temptations for the gamblers who can’t control themselves.”
There are two types of gambling addictions: pathological and problem gambling. Pathological gambling, a mental disorder recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, is the inability to resist the impulse of gambling. Problem gambling, which is less severe, is the urge to continuously gamble despite negative financial troubles and social issues.
“Gambling gives people this emotional feeling that can only be achieved when gambling,” Macpherson said. “Anyone who gambles can have a gambling problem. Most of these people are not aware of the risks involved.”
The gamblers interviewed for this story see gambling addiction as a growing social problem in Maryland, but feared repercussions from sharing their last names. For the purposes of this story, sources were identified by their first names only.
Seventeen years ago, Jonathan would have driven miles in feet of snow to go to a racetrack or to a casino. Today, he attended a Gamblers Anonymous meeting despite an impending snowstorm. About 10 other compulsive gamblers showed the same commitment to the group.
Jonathan wore a black beret with tuffs of grey hair poking out of the sides. His light blue eyes looked right into other members’ eyes as he spoke. Jonathan was skeptical about letting an observer attend a closed meeting.
“We’re really strict about our rules,” he said. “What we say in here stays in here unless everyone agrees to let you stay. Everyone’s gotta agree to let you stay.”
Other members were less concerned.
“I think it would be great for her to stay,” one white-haired woman said, clutching a green notebook with hearts all over it. “Anything to get our stories out.”
As members trudged in covered in white flakes of snow, each one was warm and welcoming.
“How are you feeling?” Bernie asked Jonathan, limping in with a green lollipop hanging out of the side of his mouth.
“Ready for this winter weather to end,” Jonathan responded.
Although many members were absent due to the snow, the meeting went on. Members stated their names and the last time they had gambled. Jonathan hadn’t gambled in 17 years.
“Seventeen years ago, I tried to kill myself,” he said. “I hated looking at myself in the mirror. I was losing money. I was conning people. I was stealing.”
Jonathan was particularly compelled to help one compulsive gambler who was attending his first meeting. CJ, a tan 30-ish year old muscular man, sat on the side of the chair, ready to get up and leave. He said that his girlfriend and parents pushed him to attend the meeting after he lost his job and began gambling more.
“I’m kind of a jerk when it comes to gambling, I guess,” he said.
The other members assured him he was in the right place. They all started out feeling like he did. They were not compulsive gamblers. Yet.
“Yet,” Jonathan said. “That’s the key word. You will eventually get to those bad places if you don’t get help.”
People who struggle with gambling addictions in Maryland are not left completely in the dark. With the increase in gambling addictions has come an increase in places to receive help.
According to estimates by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, $113,090,000 had been spent by society on assisting people with gambling addictions in Maryland in 2009.
The Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, which has been around since 1977, was given a $5 million grant in 2012 from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as casinos were being built at a rapid pace in Maryland.
Groups such as The Maryland Center of Excellence have seen an increase in people coming to them for help. According to Carl Robertson, the prevention manager at the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, the severity of people receiving help varies.
Robertson said that the Center has seen an increase in people receiving help for both problem and pathological gambling in the past year.
“[The increase in people getting help] is a normal occurrence in any jurisdiction. A typical pattern may be that various problems start to manifest themselves in the community within the first year to three years after a casino has been operating,” he said. “The Center has seen both an increase in the number of helpline calls but also requests from counselors to provide them information on how to treat problem gamblers.”
Robertson said that the State decided that there would be certain resources given by the Center when they provided funding. These resources include 24/7 helpline services, training for professionals who would be assessing and treating problem gamblers, public outreach and awareness resources, prevention services for youth, and research concerning how addictions affect peoples’ families.
Gamblers Anonymous meetings are offered in Maryland as well for people seeking help. Robertson advocates that people should get help for gambling issues, but feels strongly about how gambling has affected individuals in Maryland.
“The increase in gambling casinos again follows a pattern across the U.S. Legislators see casinos and lottery as a way to raise tax revenue without it appearing that any taxes have increased,” he said. “Personally, I think that the group of people most “addicted” to gambling is the state legislators who see this as an easy way to raise revenue without a sound understanding about the public health impact on their states and local communities.”
Shawn does not believe that he needs help. He gambles for fun with his friends, and does not believe that his addiction is serious.
CJ didn’t think he needed help either, but he made the first step in helping his addiction. His girlfriend pushed him to attend the meeting, just as Jonathan’s wife pushed him to attend a Gamblers Anonymous meeting 17 years ago.
And that one meeting saved Jonathan’s life.
As many people at the Gamblers Anonymous meeting said, most people do not believe that their addiction is serious at the first meeting.
“You might not answer all of the questions in the book [that determine if you are a compulsive gambler] positively right now,” Jonathan said. “But if you don’t get help, you will eventually answer all of them with yes.”
Shawn is not alone. The people attending the meeting agreed that the proximity of the casinos makes their addictions even worse.
The first step is getting help.
As the group held hands and recited the gambler’s prayer, the connection was strong.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” the members chanted in unison.
People cannot change the fact that casinos are being built all over Maryland. The best thing to do, Jonathan said, is for compulsive gamblers to distance themselves from the casinos.
“These casinos keep cropping up everywhere in Maryland,” Jonathan said. “It’s like putting a Hershey’s factory in front of a candy addict.”
Shawn continues to struggle with the realization of a problem. As money becomes sparser in the orange Nike box, his problem becomes more evident.
“Right now, I don’t need help,” Shawn said. “I’m beginning to run out of money though and I’m beginning to realize that I may have to reach out to someone now.”