Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Keep me out of here! Canada's megabucks "self-exclusion" lawsuit

Gambling is one vice that I cannot imagine I could ever get hooked on.

Sure, I buy lottery tickets every once in  a while, quick picks for MegaBucks and MegaMillions. I usually forget to check the numbers until I find the slips wadded up, a month later, in my wallet. I rarely get even a one number match, although I did win $75 once.

I've been to casinos a few times, but I'm only ever willing to play the slots and spring for one roll of quarters - one and done. One time in Reno, I won a couple of hundred bucks, and a by-stander was really shocked by how happily I walked away from the lucky machine.

"Are you kidding me," I said. "I just spent ten-bucks and made two-hundred. This will be the best investment I've ever made in my life."

I've been to the horse track a couple of times. I'm strictly a two-dollar window kind of gal, and pick my ponies based on their names and/or the color of the silks their jockeys are wearing.

I make "I'll bet I'm right" bets with my husband all the time. Unfortunately, although I mostly win, he never pays off. Maybe I'd have more luck if we made bets for less than a thousand dollars.

Although I will never be one, I do feel badly for compulsive gamblers, which in some ways has got to be worse than alcoholism or drug addiction.

So I was interested to learn of a Canadian law suit, in which Peter Dennis, an admitted gambling addict, is suing the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation for $3.5 billion because they failed to keep him the hell out of casinos after he'd signed up for a "self-exclusion" program authorizing casinos to prevent him from entering their premises. (Source:

Under the voluntary self-exclusion program begun in the mid-1990s, problem gamblers could sign a form authorizing the province's gambling facilities to use their "best efforts" to keep them out or remove them if they sneaked in anyway.

The proposed class action filed [by Dennis and his wife] in Ontario Superior Court and served on the gaming corporation this week suggests the program was a sham that profited from the most vulnerable gamblers.

Dennis supposedly signed up for self-exclusion in 2004 - after he'd blown about $350K on the slots. (Canadian or US, that's a lot of rolls of quarters.) Even after he signed up for self-exclusion, however, Dennis continued to frequent gambling facilities, and racked up another $200K in losses.

As a result, he lost his homes and his job. (He'd borrowed money from a client, which can never, ever be a good idea.)

Among other things, the suit alleges, the corporation was lax in allowing people on the list in, failing to train staff properly to enforce the program, and not implementing technology to detect those who sought entry anyway.

I had never heard of these self-exclusion programs - need to know basis, only, I guess - but apparently they're big in Canada, where 12,000 have signed up for it. There are few such state-run programs in the US, as well.

Well, unless you have sophisticated technology that can detect who's coming and going, I don't really see how a self-exclusion program could work. Would you have to bio-metric everyone trying to come into a casino? I don't see how that would fly with most people who want to do a bit of gambling?

And if someone were so addicted to begin with, I can imagine that they'd figure out some way to get around it  - like sneaking in, or taking up another form of gambling. Peter Dennis could easily have come across the border from Ontario and gambled his brains out at one of the casinos in upstate NY, for crying out loud.

The whole self-exclusion thing sounds sort of ridiculous to me - talk about the nanny state. It's easy to see how this sort of thinking could extend to all sorts of addictions: 'stop me before I eat-drink-shop again.' Sure, maybe it would help a teensy-weensy bit, but it seems to me that if you've got a major addiction, you need to be relying on more than a 'save me from myself' program.

I'll bet - but not all that much - that this case won't get very far - at least not as far as a $3.5B payout to the plaintiffs. I also bet - though, again, not all that much - that the self-exclusion programs will tighten up their "contract" so that those who sign up have to initial the "best efforts" wording, or explicitly sign something that says "I acknowledge that this is my problem and that you're just trying to help." Or maybe they should just do away with the programs entirely. Other than a step in the way of acknowledging that you have a problem, they just seem like a screwy idea to me.

On the other hand, I really can't fathom what it must be like to be addicted to gambling in the first place. Bad enough I've lost 20% of my IRA. I can't imagine how I could live with myself if I'd blown half a million feeding quarters into a one-armed bandit.

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