One woman finds lure of slots can be costly
Gambling is now a fact of life in Maine, accessible, packaged and promoted as a wholesome, middle-class pastime. For those with a little money to spare, a penchant for risk and a healthy respect for the odds, it can be fun and exciting - and, occasionally, players reap big payoffs.
But for one Bangor-area woman, the dream of striking it rich has turned into a nightmare.
Since early last year, "Nancy," a health care professional in her mid-50s, has lost at least $100,000 at Hollywood Slots in Bangor. In the process, she has drained her pension fund, remortgaged her home and put her marriage in jeopardy.
It can happen to anyone
"Nancy" didn't want her real name used in this story - she feels ashamed and guilty, and she's still trying to sort through the damage she has done to her finances and her family.
If an educated, middle-aged, professional woman with a loving family can lose her life savings, her self-respect and possibly her marriage to slot machines, anyone can, Nancy says.
In conjunction with Gov. John Baldacci's declaration of this week as Problem Gambling Awareness Week in Maine, she is sharing her story in hopes of alerting others to the risk of developing a serious gambling problem. She allowed the Bangor Daily News to examine her financial records to verify her plight.
Just a few months after Hollywood Slots opened its doors in November 2005, Nancy and a friend dropped in to see what all the hullabaloo was about.
"Aside from buying the occasional lottery ticket, I had never gambled before. I had never been inside of a casino or sat in front of a slot machine," she wrote in an e-mail to the BDN.
She was suffering from a string of recent emotional losses, including the sudden death of a longtime business associate and the relocation of several good friends, she said. Beloved family pets had grown old and died. Her mother's health had declined, and the distressing prospect of moving her to a nursing home was looming large.
And, critically, Nancy herself had suffered a physical injury that prevented her from taking part in a challenging outdoor sport that had been a consuming passion for all of her adult life. She said she was grieving, lonely, anxious, robbed of a healthy physical outlet and stripped of an essential part of her identity.
"Worse things do happen to people," she acknowledged during a recent interview, "but I was just not coping at all."
On that first visit to the slots, Nancy won $5. It cheered her up. She went back the next week, and pretty soon, dropping in at Hollywood Slots was part of her normal routine.
"It was a fun place to go. The people were friendly, the staff was great - it was like a social club. I was going there to be with people so I could forget about how sad I was," she said.
But within a few weeks, her experience, and her motivation, changed.
"I just wanted to play. I wanted to be left alone and I wanted to win money," she said. But she didn't win, except occasionally. Mostly, she lost.
The more she lost, the longer she stayed, trying to win back her hard-earned dollars, convinced she could figure out the "system" by which the slot machines paid off.
At home, she stayed up late, devising strategies for outsmarting the machines. During the day, at the medical office where she worked, she thought about how good it would feel to walk back into the noisy anonymity of Hollywood Slots. She imagined how she would win back all of her money, and more.
Sometimes, Nancy said, she realized she was becoming obsessed with playing the slots. She felt guilty for being less than honest with her husband about how much time and money she was spending at Hollywood Slots. She tried to cut back, and failed.
"I made little deals with myself," she said. "Like, 'I'll only stay two hours.' Or 'I'll only spend $20.' But there's an ATM right outside the door, and once I was playing, time had no meaning."
She started drawing out cash advances with her credit cards, eventually racking up $50,000 in high-interest debt. Still convinced she could beat the machines if she kept at it, she withdrew her entire retirement account - a $67,000 pension fund that dropped to a little more than $50,000 after the early withdrawal penalties. Thirty cents, a dollar, $10 a spin - little by little, she lost it all.
It wasn't until then that she confessed to her husband the trouble they were in - how much credit card debt she had amassed, and that her retirement savings were all gone. Even then, she said, she hesitated to tell him, because she knew it meant she would have to stop going to Hollywood Slots.
"First he was scared, and then he was angry," she said. "Things are very strained between us now. He's trying to be supportive, but he's due to retire in a year, and there just won't be enough money."
They've taken out a second mortgage on their home to pay off some of her credit card debt. But, largely because of the influx of taxable income from her retirement account, Nancy owes more than $34,000 in state and federal taxes this year, and there's simply no way she can pay it.
She plans to file for bankruptcy, hoping that the assets in her husband's name will not be affected and that, somehow, they can pick up the pieces and get on with their lives.
Since it opened in 2005, Hollywood Slots in Bangor has welcomed steady crowds of dedicated gamblers - or "gamers," as the casino industry calls them - who come from all across the state, and farther, to try their luck.
As of January, gamblers had bet about $624.2 million, with $582.8 million paid back in winnings. Taxes on revenues brought in more than $21 million in 2006 to support harness racing in Maine, as well as to fund a number of state and city projects. Of taxes paid to the Maine Gambling Control Board, about $100,000 has been earmarked for services to combat problem gambling.
On a typical weekday, between 1,400 and 1,600 hopeful patrons visit the Main Street facility, temporarily housed in the refurbished Miller's Restaurant building. On Saturdays and Sundays, the count can swell to 2,700.
Earlier this month, corporate parent Penn National started work on an elaborate new $131 million Hollywood Slots located just down Main Street from the current facility. It is expected to open in the summer of 2008. The project will feature a hotel, restaurant and a 1,500-space parking garage; the number of slot machines will double, from 500 to 1,000. The facility is licensed for as many as 1,500 machines.
Last week, company spokeswoman Amy Kenney said Hollywood Slots is concerned about the well-being of its customers and their families. In recognition of the statewide awareness campaign, she said, the company will run a full-page educational ad in Maine's four largest newspapers, including the Bangor Daily News, on Thursday.
Kenney noted that Hollywood Slots has an ongoing, in-house "responsible gaming program." Informational brochures are available throughout the facility, she said, and the toll-free gambling help line number is posted prominently in several locations, as well as on the "responsible gambling" page of the company's Web site, www.hollywoodslotsatbangor.com.
In addition, individuals can enroll in a "self-exclusion program" - put their names and photographs on a list of people who want to be denied entry for a year, two years, five years or more. If security staff members spot someone from the list, they will "very respectfully" ask that person to leave, Kenney explained. In the 17 months Hollywood Slots has been open, 56 people have self-excluded, she said.
Nancy said she has managed to stay away from Hollywood Slots for close to a month now, but it hasn't been easy. She hasn't put herself on the self-exclusion list because, she said, she doesn't want word to get out that she's in trouble.
Angry, despondent, remorseful and guilty - Nancy has experienced intense and painful emotions lately. She even has thought, fleetingly, of suicide, but says she would never be able to follow through with it.
"But it would be so much easier for my husband; he'd be better off if I weren't here," she said. "If I died, he could collect the life insurance and pay off all our debts."
Nancy said she hopes the problem of gambling addiction gets a lot more visible soon in Maine, and that the state acts aggressively to make sure there are reliable resources available for people like her.
"When a woman my age starts using drugs or alcohol, you know it's potentially dangerous. There's so much information out there," she said. "If I was going to the liquor store every night and bringing home a bottle of wine and polishing it off, I would have realized at some point that I had a problem. But I had no real awareness that my gambling had the potential to become the problem it did."
Nancy has gone to the recently established Gamblers Anonymous support group in Bangor once. When she went last week, though, there was no one there, not even the group leader. Feeling the need for reinforcement, she has dropped into some AA meetings, but said she doesn't feel quite comfortable there.
"The people were very open and supportive, but they're talking about a whole different set of issues that don't really apply to gambling addicts," she said. "And I know, with that new building coming, there are going to be whole lot more of us."