It had been three years since her husband died, and on Thanksgiving weekend, his widow sought relief from her heartache and dark, pandemic-induced loneliness in the bright glow and hubbub of a casino.
Huong Luong, 67, knew she shouldn’t be at a poker table inside Live! Casino & Hotel Maryland in Hanover, where surveillance cameras showed she spent nearly 13 hours.
That’s because, in a moment of self-awareness and resolve a year earlier, the retired postal worker had signed a state document acknowledging “I have a problem with gambling” and pledging to stay out of the state’s six casinos — or risk being arrested for trespassing and stripped of any winnings, according to state and court records.
But like hundreds of self-barred Maryland gamblers during the coronavirus pandemic, Luong was drawn to casinos during the yearlong period’s toxic mix of stress, boredom and isolation.
“I am doing what makes me feel alive,” said Luong, who lives in Centreville in northern Virginia.
As the pandemic raged, Luong was among a record number of people charged at Maryland casinos during the last six months of 2020 with violating their “voluntary exclusion” agreements, according to state Lottery and Gaming Control records.
The 205 violations in the second half of the year represent a 61% increase over the 127 in the second half of 2019.
“Some of it is that people are struggling,” said Mary Drexler, program director for the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, which oversees a 24-hour help line (800-GAMBLER) and other support programs. “Some people think gambling is a way to make money.”
On the casino floors, with few windows or clocks, problem gamblers lose themselves in the rhythm of poker, slots, blackjack or other wagers, and a cacophony of pop music, shouts, beeps and chimes.
A review by The Baltimore Sun found that periodically, casinos did not adhere to state-mandated procedures designed to protect people with gambling issues from their worst impulses.
For example, Luong was permitted — 12 hours into her Nov. 29 visit to the Live! Casino — to obtain a $1,000 advance from a casino cashier, allowing her to continue her poker binge. The transaction violated Maryland regulations and the casino’s policy because she was on the prohibited list, according to an incident report by state casino compliance officers.
Live! Casino spokesperson Dara Cohen wouldn’t talk about what happened, but said in a statement that the casino has worked to better detect patrons with gambling disorders.
“The safety and security of our guests and Team Members are our highest priority at Live! Casino, and that includes those in the [Voluntary Exclusion Program],” Cohen said.
“We are always augmenting our procedures as part of our mission to lead the market. In late 2019, we added industry-leading technology to improve even further early detection of VEP participants.” She declined to describe the technology.
The closures created “pent-up demand among recreational gamblers, but also pent-up desperation among problem gamblers,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “They get such a surge of adrenaline and endorphins — the sights, the sounds, the music. That’s when they feel lucky and alive and valued.”
Gamblers can ban themselves — either for two years or for life — at any casino or at the offices of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency in Baltimore. Those with two-year bans can get agency permission to withdraw from the program after an assessment by a licensed counselor. Otherwise, they remain on the list indefinitely.
The program “is a successful self-help tool for people who want to make a change,” said Lottery and Gaming Director Gordon Medenica.
In July, the casinos’ first full month back after the closure, 38 self-excluded gamblers — including 26 at Live! Casino — were charged with trespassing for violating their agreements. That was the highest monthly figure ever in Maryland, where the first casino, Hollywood Casino Perryville, opened in 2010. The total rose to 47 the following month and remained significantly above average the rest of 2020.
Luong and other defendants face a maximum sentence of three months in jail and a $500 fine if convicted of a first offense. Many such cases end with a sentence of community service or counseling, however.
A hearing in her case is scheduled for May 5.
“I feel so lonely” during the pandemic, said Luong, who responded via text messages to questions from The Sun. According to records, she drove to Live! Casino on the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving and played seven rounds of poker over the next 12 1/2 hours before attracting the attention of security by seeking a second advance at the cashier’s cage. Casino officials then matched her name against the more than 2,400 people on the state’s self-exclusion list. Luong estimates she had lost about $1,000 by the time she was escorted out.
For this article, The Sun examined police and District Court records and dozens of casino incident reports obtained from the Lottery and Gaming Control Agency through public records requests. Defendants’ names are redacted in the incident reports, but appear in police charging documents.
The records showed that what happened to Luong was a variation of a scene repeated, most commonly at Live! but also at Horseshoe Baltimore Casino, MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Hollywood Casino Perryville and Ocean Downs Casino near Ocean City. Rocky Gap Casino Resort, near Cumberland, was the only state casino not to report any banned gamblers last year.
In a typical case, the player is spotted — sometimes after spending thousands of dollars or winning four-figure jackpots — and quietly led from the glitzy casino floor to a drab hallway where police are summoned. After being charged, the gamblers usually leave through a back door.
Sometimes, security staff catch prohibited players before they set foot on the gambling floor. Many casinos use scanning equipment that saves information from driver’s licenses, so the data can be quickly checked against the lists of banned gamblers.
Butcasinos, which operate extensive surveillance systems, don’t consider it necessary to check every guest’s ID, as long as the visitor looks 21 or older. That’s Maryland legal gambling age.
Whyte, the problem gambling council director, said casinos could be more thorough in detecting excluded players through various means, such as when the gamblers seek cash advances or use customer loyalty rewards cards or VIP services.
Asked about the council’s concerns, the owner of MGM National Harbor, the state’s largest casino, responded with a statement that its properties remain “committed to supporting responsible gaming efforts.” The 45 banned gambler citations at the Prince George’s County property in the second half of 2020 represented a 36% increase over the same period in 2019, according to state records.
Live! is the state’s second-largest casino in terms of revenue. Horseshoe, the third-largest, declined through a spokesperson to address how it looks out for prohibited gamblers.
Alan Woinski, CEO of Gaming USA Corp., which publishes industry newsletters, said it is not the industry’s job “to police self-banned players.” While casinos are obligated to evict self-barred players, checking the ID of every gambler at the door would create long lines, Woinski added.
“Obviously, if they know there is a person there that is self-banned, they are obligated to get them out of there,” he said. “But they are in the business of providing entertainment.”
James E. Rogers Jr., 42, of Baltimore, was not screened when, according to police and casino agency records, he entered Live! on Nov. 24 and hit a $2,000 slots jackpot. His good fortune was his undoing. In claiming the prize, he was identified as a self-excluded player and police charged him with trespassing. Rogers, who declined to be interviewed for this article, must answer the charges May 5 in Anne Arundel County District Court.
Like all confiscated jackpots, the $2,000 was turned over to a state fund to address problem gambling. The fund, which includes annual fees paid by each casino, totaled nearly $3.8 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30 — less than usual because the casinos had been closed for three months.
Under state law, prohibited players give up not only their winnings, but also “unredeemed items and prizes.” That means they must hand over chips, sometimes thousands of dollars’ worth, that they’ve purchased but didn’t play before they were identified.
Still, the delicate process of obtaining players’ chips doesn’t always unfold as it is supposed to.
On Thanksgiving Day, a 33-year-old Baltimore man entered Live! Casino and bought $2,000 worth of chips, according to a casino incident summary. He’d handed his identification to a greeter on the way in, but wasn’t stopped at that point.
He still had the $2,000 in chips, plus $100 he apparently won at a gambling table, when a security supervisor took him to a back hallway because he’d been flagged as a self-banned gambler.
That’s when he refused to give up the chips. The incident report details 20 minutes during which one official after another — from the casino and state — couldn’t persuade him to turn them over, even after a regulatory officer “explained the rules.”
Anne Arundel County Police, who cited him for trespassing, refused the casino and regulatory agency representatives’ requests to confiscate the chips. The man “was allowed to leave property with the chips in his possession,” the report said.
Before leaving, the gambler, who could not be reached by The Sun for comment, told police that casino staff had “allowed him inside” and permitted him to buy all the chips, according to the police charging document.
His court appearance is scheduled for May 3 in Anne Arundel County District Court.
In a statement, the county police department declined to address the case. It said only that officers’ role at the casino is “to enforce criminal law and to ensure public safety.” The casino declined to comment, referring questions about the exclusion list to the gambling agency.
The state gaming agency said the program “has assisted thousands of people” since it began in 2011. About 70% of the participants are men and a majority are in the 35-54 age range.
Benjamin Herbst, a Baltimore lawyer, has represented more than 20 gamblers on the exclusion list.
“Most of the people that hire me are professionals that have college degrees,” Herbst said. “I’ve got guys with security clearances, with professional licenses. I’ve had multiple people who have received two or three of these [trespassing citations] in a year.”
The gambler who refused to surrender his chips is among those who have been cited more than once. On Nov. 25, the day before he went to Live!, he entered the MGM National Harbor casino in Prince George’s County. According to court records, he was charged there, too, with trespassing.
Luong thought her gambling issues were in check when she signed up for the exclusion program in January 2020.
She said she had gambled for years with her husband (”the love of my life”) around the time of past Thanksgiving holidays. Casinos remain a connection to the manshe lost to bladder cancer complications in 2017.
And so, on Thanksgiving weekend 2020 — feeling isolated by the pandemic — Luong slipped.
Jeff Barker is The Sun's Washington correspondent and a business of sports reporter. A University of Pennsylvania graduate, he formerly worked for AP and as the Arizona Republic’s Washington reporter. He has covered politics and Terps basketball and football for The Sun. He is co-director of a documentary on the development of baseball in China.