Published On Wed Jan 5 2011
Dan Robson Staff Reporter
Jordan Kelman, 28, is living with an addiction to gambling. Kelman says he’s lost $250,000 and has “excluded” himself from Ontario casinos but still manages to get cash advances from some area casinos.
Jordan Kelman slips a $100 bill into a slot machine at the Woodbine Racetrack casino — just as he has “close to a hundred times” since being voluntarily banned from Ontario casinos in 2008.
The 28-year-old gambling addict pulls the silver arm three times. He’s risking borrowed money.
“I’m down 50 bucks,” he says, yanking it again. Four sevens. A bell rings.
“There,” he says. “I hit big there. We just won a lot of money.”
It’s a $650 victory. A week ago, Kelman blew $2,300 while sitting on the exact same chair, next to the exact same middle-aged man in a red sweater who appears catatonic as he tugs on the lever.
Since Kelman put his name on the OLG’s “self-exclusion” list — supposedly banning him from all 27 of the province’s gambling facilities — he says he’s lost close to $60,000 in those facilities.
“I’ve never been denied access,” he says. “Not once.”
He’s just one of 15,000 people in the province on the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s “self-exclusion” list.
The OLG took in about $1.9 billion last year in gambling revenue. Some experts say that about 30 per cent of that revenue was generated by problem gamblers. Of that, the OLG gives $40 million to the province each year specifically to support programs for responsible gambling and to help fight gambling addiction, programs such as the self-exclusion list.
“All we can do is support their effort to help themselves,” says Paul Pellizzari, director of policy and social responsibility for the OLG.
Kelman suffers from depression and an anxiety disorder, which is not uncommon with problem gamblers. He’s been in and out of hospital for a decade and went on long-term disability from his job at a local hotel a year and a half ago.
Recently, Kelman enrolled in a day program at North York General Hospital, where he is being counselled for gambling addiction.
Still, he finds his way to the casino, gambling money given to him by his brother and parents who are trying to help him make ends meet while he deals with his problems.
The OLG says self-exclusion is a “voluntary self-help tool” which allows problem gamblers to ban themselves from all Ontario gaming sites for six months, one year, or indefinitely.
If found on the premises of an OLG site during the term of their exclusion, they can be charged with trespassing. Those who sign up are also given referrals to gambling counselling.
Participants have their photo taken and sign a release which says, in sum, that they will not sue if the OLG fails to keep them from gambling.
Currently, security guards are relied on to recognize the faces of self-excluders. Cage desk employees, who redeem chips for cash, have access to the self-exclusion database. Slot machines also detect “loyalty cards” that belong to self-excluders. (Loyalty cards are used to reward regular casino users with special points, similar to Air Miles.)
“The most significant thing about self-exclusion is that somebody takes responsibility for their own actions,” says Pellizzari. “They step forward and say,
‘I’ve got a problem, I want to do something about it’ . . . what we commit to is to support people in that commitment they make to themselves.”
But Kelman says he’s never seen that commitment.
Since joining the program, Kelman says he has never been questioned about being at an Ontario casino. That despite spending up to three days straight gambling in a casino on more than one occasion. Often he spends more than 24 hours there.
“You don’t really realize. You’re in an environment where there are no windows,” he says. “You don’t really see the day going by.”
“The OLG system essentially has no teeth,” says Robert Williams a coordinator with the Alberta Gaming Research Institute and a professor of health science at the University of Lethbridge. He claims that approximately one-third of OLG’s revenues are generated by problem gamblers, and believes it’s not actually in the OLG’s interest to enforce the list because they make a profit from “preying . . . on a vulnerable segment of the population.”
Pellizzari takes issue with the idea that it’s “in our interest to take money from problem gamblers,” noting that a broad base of players using discretionary money is their ideal business model.
Last month Kelman broke away from friends celebrating an engagement in Niagara Falls, drunk and depressed. He had given a friend his cash and debit card, knowing he might end up gambling.
At 3 a.m. he took a cab to the Fallsview Casino.
He doesn’t remember what happened there. In his pocket the next day he found three receipts for three cash advances taken off his VISA by a casino teller — nothing else remained of the $950, $1,000, and $1,000 transactions he made at 5:30 a.m., 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. that morning.
When he asked why the casino gave him money, despite being on the self-excluded list and very drunk, he was told there was nothing they could do.
“Denying access to people is a lot more challenging than sometimes people think,” says Pellizzari, noting that about 1,000 self-excluded people are caught trying to enter casinos each year.
Other gamblers on the self-exclusion list have launched lawsuits against the OLG, insisting it could have done more. So far all of those lawsuits have been settled out of court, with the exception of a large class-action suit that was dismissed in March.
This spring the OLG will unveil a state-of-the-art facial recognition system designed to identify self-excluded gamblers. It will cost between $3 million
and $5 million to outfit all of Ontario’s gaming centres, Pellizzari says.
The OLG is also lobbying the Ontario government for a regulatory change that will allow it to take back money from gamblers who win while on the self-exclusion list.
“It’s a disincentive,” Pellizzari explains, of the policy. “We want to put a stop sign in the head of the self-excluder so that they don’t come back.”
As the province prepares to launch into online gambling, the OLG is also developing tools for online gamblers to set time and money limits to help players develop “safe play habits,” he says.
But critics, including Williams, say there are better ways to control problem gamblers.
European casinos, he says, require identification for entrance — which can be easily scanned in a database of problem gamblers. And it’s not a difficult
system to implement, he argues.
You need ID “to cash a cheque, to get on a plane, to rent a video at Blockbuster,” he says.
Walking out of Woodbine with his winnings, Kelman walks up to the gift shop desk and requests a cash advance on his VISA. It takes about a minute.
“As easy as 1, 2, 3,” he says, holding $500 in his hand.
How big a problem?
A problem gambler is someone who “spends way too much time gambling, to the detriment of other activities and other relationships in their life,” according to Robert Murray, manager of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Problem Gambling Project.
It’s hard for people to understand the problem, Murray says. “How can you have a problem with Bingo? Why can’t you just walk away from that slot machine? What is it with Black Jack?”
As result, gambling addicts often feel a sense of shame.
“Although they do face a stigma, they are by no means alone,” says Murray, who notes there are 52 agencies in the province that are funded to treated problem gambling.
In Ontario alone, more than 300,000 people exhibit some signs of problem gambling, whether it’s moderate to severe, according to CAMH.
Many problem gamblers suffer from depression and anxiety disorders — and they have the highest suicide rate of any population.
“If it’s a severe gambling problem, rarely is it just a gambling problem,” Murray says.
It’s a vicious cycle, filled with ups and downs, rarely ending with a win.
More than 70 per cent of people in Ontario gamble in one form or another. And it’s easy to access — 90 per cent of people in southern Ontario live within
an hour of a facility operated by the OLG.
Gambling is also a common among the provinces adolescents. Of the approximately 9,000 students in grades 7 to 12 surveyed in the Ontario Youth Gambling Report, 43 per cent reported participating in at least some form of gambling. Nearly 3 per cent of those students had a gambling problem. The results, according to CAMH, suggest there are approximately 29,000 students across the province who are problem gamblers.
“When you think about the promotion that goes on — the billboards, the radio ads, the TV ads — you can’t go far without seeing something related to gambling,” he says.