Keno players risk swift addiction 'Out of control within 2 to 3 weeks'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Keno arrived in Maryland bars, restaurants and bowling alley Jan. 4. Nine days later, somebody was already hooked.

The first panicked call to the hot line at the National Center for Pathological Gambling in Baltimore came Jan. 13 from a city man who said his 39-year-old wife was consumed by the state's fast-paced, computerized numbers game.

In the first four months since the Schaefer administration initiated keno, the center has received calls from 35 men and women who can't shake their desire to play it.

"That tells us this is the fastest addiction to hit ever," says Valerie Lorenz, director of the gambling center, a nonprofit clinic at 924 E. Baltimore St. that counsels people who uncontrollably spend their life's savings betting on everything from horses to football and baseball games, video poker, and even the state lottery.

Ms. Lorenz acknowledges that 35 is not a large number compared with the thousands who have played keno. But what is striking, she says, is how soon after the game was started that the calls started pouring in.

"Keno addicts seem to get out of control within two to three weeks," she says, noting by contrast that gamblers who become addicted to horse racing typically go to the races for two to five years before getting hooked.

(That, too, is likely to change, she predicts, as intertrack betting and simulcast racing from other tracks dramatically increase the hours and opportunities horse players have to bet.)

William F. Rochford, director of the State Lottery Agency, says that officials knew there were bound to be some compulsive gamblers.

"We're not ostriches with our heads in the sand who would tell you that no one will become compulsive [about keno.] There will be some folks who will become compulsive about anything -- eating, drinking," he says.

"But we have not had any indication that [compulsive keno playing] was in such an amount as to cause us alarm. . . . We monitor it. We talk to our agents at agent meetings, and so far we haven't had any complaints [about keno addicts]."

Kay, a compulsive gambler who agreed to talk about her addiction as long as her last name was not used, says she was hooked within a month after keno was installed in the corner market near her home in the Washington suburbs.

'Slot machine on every corner'

"It is like having a slot machine right at your disposal at every corner. For a compulsive gambler, it is hard to walk away from," she says.

By the time Kay cried out for help, her keno losses had put her family nearly $20,000 in debt and three months behind on the mortgage.

Already a regular player of the state's other lottery games, Kay says she was "terrified" the first time she heard keno was coming. She knew she wouldn't be able to resist a game that offers players a chance to win every five minutes, all day long, seven days a week.

Apart from her compulsiveness, Kay pretty much epitomizes the kind of player the State Lottery Agency envisioned when it decided last year to offer keno as a way of boosting sagging lottery revenues. She's 40, from Montgomery County, works as "an administrator" and describes her family as middle-income. Middle-age, middle-income and suburban.

But, unlike most keno players, Kay couldn't quit. She discovered she could not even drive by the market where the new keno game had been installed.

"I couldn't go by that place without stopping. The second I saw it, I would be in there," she says. "The only thing pulling me away was when I knew I would be late for work, or someone would be looking for me."

Ms. Lorenz says that most hot line callers (1 800 332-0402) are white males in their late 30s to mid-40s. The calls have come from Baltimore, Westminster, Glen Burnie, Annapolis, Ellicott City, Hagerstown, Hyattsville, Lansdowne, St. Leonard, Shady Side and elsewhere. Callers say their gambling has caused marital problems, wiped out their savings, caused them to start drinking again -- even to consider killing themselves.

Some anguished callers, she says, complain "I just blew my paycheck" on keno.

Kay says she would blow $100 to $150 a day, sometimes writing checks to cover losses that the market would hold until they were good. She says she would play "in the morning, in the afternoon, on breaks -- whenever I could find a few minutes to get away."

Dr. Rachel Volberg, a sociologist from Albany, N.Y., has been studying compulsive gamblers since 1985. She says there are no good national statistics on the addictive effects of keno. But the pace of keno, she says, is typical of the national trend toward "rapidly cycling games," such as video poker, which are creating problem gamblers in other states. "The shorter you make the interval between when you stake your money and how quickly the play takes place, the more addictive the game is," Dr. Volberg says, adding that she was "not terribly surprised" some Maryland keno players are already complaining they're hooked.

Money vs. morality

Maryland's General Assembly, worried that legalized gambling was becoming too pervasive, considered prohibiting keno just as the first keno monitors were being installed. But the lawmakers ultimately decided they could not live without the money keno was expected to raise. There was no way politically to raise taxes or cut spending to replace the keno revenues, so the game stayed.

Various lawmakers pushed bills to strengthen the regulation of legal gambling, to establish an advisory commission on gambling addictions and to funnel as much as half of 1 percent of the $452 million in revenues the lottery raises -- or, about $2.2 million next year -- into Ms. Lorenz's center. Those bills all failed by lopsided margins after hearings at which virtually no one showed up.

"I find that people are not sensitive to this in the legislature," says Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who co-sponsored the bill to use lottery revenues to treat compulsive gamblers. "There's been no tragedy -- no hostages have been taken in some bank because it is about to foreclose on some [gambler's] house."

Although the legislature forced the lottery agency to print the toll-free hot line number of the compulsive gamblers center on the back of all tickets, including keno tickets, the only other state support the center gets is a $24,000 grant to pay for the hot line. The center, staffed around the clock, receives about 15,000 calls a year. It relies on private donations and fees from clients to keep going, Ms. Lorenz says.

She says that Kay is luckier than many of her callers: She has health insurance to cover the cost of medication and professional psychological counseling. Of the 35 who have called the hot line, 29 did not have health insurance, Ms. Lorenz says. She says the center tries to help everyone, regardless of ability to pay.

Lottery officials say the game is too new to estimate exactly how many people are playing keno, or to give an accurate profile of the average player. An annual study of the demographics of all lottery players was begun just this past week and will look for the first time at who plays keno.

Says Lottery spokesman Carroll H. Hynson: "We wanted middle class, middle income and above, people who can afford to go out and eat a meal out once a week. And, indications are, that's what we've got."

Marty Goldman, deputy director of marketing for the lottery, says that keno play appears to be strongest in the suburbs, areas such as Montgomery and Baltimore counties, "areas where the population meets the middle-class demographics." Other lottery games have historically flourished in poorer, black neighborhoods in Baltimore and Prince George's County.

Even though keno revenues remain below original estimates, Mr. Goldman says, the game appears to be popular throughout the state and already represents about 20 percent of overall lottery sales. The state is counting on keno to raise $100 million in the budget year that begins July 1.

At Riordan's Saloon, a bar and restaurant on the waterfront in Annapolis, the color keno monitor in the corner flashes the winning numbers every five minutes from 11 a.m. until closing time. When the game was new, it kept bartenders and waitresses so busy they switched the machine off during peak weekend hours.

But bartender Willie Wilson says play seems to have declined since the novelty wore off for the bar's regular patrons.

He says he has seen no evidence of chronic gamblers who can't stop playing, and he notes that the keno screen now flashes a reminder to players, "Play within your means, not over them."

But Mr. Wilson says with a grin that neither has he seen many keno players walk away with winnings in their pockets.

"If people win something, they keep playing until they lose it," he says.

"The motto is, 'You've got to play a lot to win.' "

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