Gamblers banned from Maryland casinos risk arrest as well as money

Why was the slots player arrested after hitting a $1,200 jackpot?

In the early hours of April 1, a slots player at Hollywood Casino Perryville hit it big — a $1,200 jackpot.

But the gambler wasn't handed a stack of cash; rather, he received a citation for criminal trespass.

This was no April Fool's joke. The casino summoned Perryville police after a casino supervisor realized that the man was among 1,207 people who have agreed to ban themselves from Maryland casinos because they have admitted gambling problems.

Instead of joining the ranks of lucky winners, he was now a member of a different sort of club: a list of 219 gamblers — and growing — who signed up for the state's Voluntary Exclusion Program in the past five years and then were cited for showing up at a casino.

In casinos, "busting" usually means exceeding 21 in blackjack. For these players, being busted took on a different connotation.

The self-banned players — like the Perryville slots player — often bet thousands of dollars before being criminally charged at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, Maryland Live and other casinos, according to documents obtained through the Maryland Public Information Act. The names of gamblers were redacted for privacy reasons.

The gamblers were summoned to court and forfeited their winnings without getting their wagers back. They were escorted out of the casino, and any chips they were carrying were confiscated. All forfeited money, along with fees paid by the casinos, goes to a state fund to address problem gambling; that money totaled $4 million last year.

The growth of the program is a testament to the power of gambling addictions, experts say.

The planned opening late this year of Maryland's sixth casino — the $1.3 billion MGM National Harbor — presents a shiny new temptation for self-banned gamblers, according to counselors.

"With MGM opening up, gamblers have this fantasy: 'This will be my place,'" said Jeffrey Beck, a gambling and addictions counselor. "They want to get off the list so they can play at MGM."

Beck, himself a former problem gambler who bet at casinos, at racetracks and on professional and college sports, knows how hard it is — even for self-excluded players — to stay away from casinos.

"I've seen people go in disguises — wear a mustache, wear a hat," said Beck, 62.

Beck, a former New Jersey resident, signed up for that state's gambling exclusion program in 2001 and said he didn't return to a casino until attending a Bob Dylan concert at the Borgata in Atlantic City in 2008.

Once there, he experienced a familiar, heady rush.

"It was a combination of the senses that recaptured a feeling and an experience that transported me back in time to a gambling den," said Beck, who moved to Maryland in 2015 and is now clinical director of the Maryland Center for Excellence on Problem Gambling.

"It wasn't just the sights and sounds; it went beyond that. It was the re-creation of an atmosphere that I knew so well. Maybe the smell of the perfumed hostesses, the alcohol. It just created for me a cornucopia of sensation. I like to say the body remembers what the mind forgets."

Beck was permitted inside the New Jersey casino only because he wasn't on the floor and didn't gamble.

But many on Maryland's banned list do illegally partake, according to state records.

"I think a lot of people do it and don't get caught," said Michael Rosen, a counselor and associate of Beck's at the problem gambling center.

"The problem, of course, is that if you win a jackpot, then you're done if you go to collect," he said, noting that winning can trigger identification because tax forms must be filled out.

Among the dozens of known program offenders this year was a man who gambled for five hours at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore before being detected and escorted out by security, according to the report. Video surveillance showed he bought $4,055 in chips at various tables — including a roulette table — in 10 transactions.

The gambler told a supervisor he had excluded himself at Maryland Live, not Horseshoe. But that's not an acceptable defense, authorities say, because joining the program at one state casino also applies to the others.

In a second Horseshoe incident several months ago, a man on the excluded list obtained $1,800 in cash advances from a casino cashier before gambling. The cashier was reprimanded, state regulatory officials said, because she should have checked the excluded list before issuing the money.

Horseshoe said it does not comment on incidents involving patrons or employees.

"We invest heavily in processes and employee training to prevent problem gamblers from playing in our casinos," the casino said in a statement. "These initiatives have been very successful, and these incidents demonstrate why ongoing vigilance is essential."

Maryland's Voluntary Exclusion Program began in 2011, the year after the first casino — Hollywood Casino Perryville — opened in Cecil County.

Gamblers can ban themselves — either for two years or for life — at any casino or at the offices of the Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Agency in Baltimore. The two-year exclusions automatically renew unless participants apply to remove themselves from the program and the removal is approved by a licensed counselor.

Gamblers signing up at a casino typically are escorted to an office away from the flashing lights and sounds of the floor and presented with a lengthy application form.

The form includes questions about the gambler's physical characteristics, such as height and eye color. It asks applicants: "Do you understand that, by asking to be placed on the list of voluntary excluded persons, you are acknowledging that you are a problem gambler and that you are unable to gamble responsibly?"

Maryland Live, the state's largest casino, said it has surveillance and other "systems in place at different points of contact" to detect prohibited players. For example, if a patron wins a jackpot of $1,200 or more, depending on the game, the casino must use the gambler's identification to create a tax form called a W2-G.

The tax reporting system "is linked to our excluded patrons database, and it triggers an alert," the casino said in a statement.

Few, if any, of the violators serve jail time for trespassing, state officials said. The maximum penalty for a first offense is 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Mary Drexler, coordinator of the state's program on responsible gambling, said jail is not the goal but rather "getting them the help they need."

Some offenders are sentenced to community service, "which takes up some of their time so they're not as apt to want to go to the casino," Drexler said. "In recent months, more of the state's attorneys are recommending that they go for a problem gambling assessment."

Being arrested inside a casino — no matter the outcome — can be stigmatizing. But problem gamblers need to know the program has "teeth so people know that they have to honor it," said Rob Norton, president of Maryland Live.

"They've said they have a problem. You have to make sure that they understand there are consequences to coming back," Norton said. At the same time, he said, offenders need to be presented "with the proper mental health opportunities if they really are suffering from a problem."

In 2011, a state-mandated study by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County estimated that about 150,000 Maryland adults — 3.4 percent of those who had ever gambled — experienced moderate to severe difficulties stemming from their gambling. The number of gamblers considered at risk for developing a problem was 397,900, or about 9 percent.

The problem gambling center plans to conduct a new survey next year to update the 2011 figures.

As casinos have proliferated, a number of states have instituted voluntary exclusion programs offering prohibitions of varying periods. Maryland's market is particularly saturated and competitive. Its five casinos have combined in recent months to generate record revenues, topping $100 million a month this spring for the first time.

The demographics of the self-barred list "are all over the place," Drexler said. "We have people who have very good jobs. We have some people who may be of lower income, but in general it's young to over 65. It goes across the gamut."

The list contains about twice as many men as women. It includes mostly Marylanders but also some residents of Virginia, Pennsylvania and other states.

Each year, more gamblers join the list. New enrollees topped 100 for the first time in 2013 at 185. They grew to 310 in 2014 and 379 last year.

The list includes a Baltimore woman who said she signed up in 2012 because "it was the only way to get a grip on myself."

The woman, who described herself as a children's entertainer, said gambling provides "an adrenaline high. I've always been a risk taker."

She agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, saying that people "may see somebody who has a compulsive gambling problem as a thief and a liar" even if that person has taken steps to control his or her behavior.

She used to play in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J., to satisfy her cravings. Playing in Atlantic City in about 2008, she won $7,200 on slots.

"I went to Harrah's the next day and lost half of it," she said. "I left with half only because I knew I had to pay taxes on it."

But the walls started closing in on her when Maryland Live opened in 2012, with Horseshoe coming two years later. While Atlantic City's casinos are 150 miles away and Las Vegas is across the country, both Maryland Live, in Anne Arundel County, and Horseshoe are within 20 minutes of her home.

"I knew when I used to go to Vegas that I loved gambling and I could never live in Vegas," she said of her affection for blackjack, slot machines and other casino games. "And now Vegas was coming to me."

Several months after Maryland Live opened, she found herself seated next to two men playing an electronic blackjack game.

"One told me he was down like $275,000 since the casino opened, and the other said he had lost $175,000," she said. "I was thinking, 'What's wrong with this picture?'"

So she signed up for the exclusion program and said she hasn't broken her pledge.

But others have. As more casinos have opened, the numbers of annual self-exclusion violations have increased. After beginning in single digits, the count was 13 in 2013, 58 in 2014 and 80 last year.

"Motivation changes," Beck said of such lapses. "At the time you sign up, you might really want to stop gambling. A month later you've lost that insight. Maybe your spouse got angry with you: 'I'm going to leave you unless you stop gambling.' A month later that commitment is gone."

Despite the number of violations, Drexler said the program is meeting its objective of providing a barrier to temptation.

Beck, who said Gamblers Anonymous "saved my life" years ago, also considers self-exclusion a valuable tool.

"You're saying to the casino, 'If I come, you have the right to evict me. If I win, you don't have to pay me and you can throw me out,'" he said. "We find it does have a therapeutic effect, but it's not a cure. There is no cure, unfortunately."

jebarker@baltsun.com

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