By Harold Henderson

Chris Anderson spent the middle 1980s gambling, first with his money and then with his life. He didn’t understand his problem until it was almost too late. Now he sees Illinois following a similar path, and he can’t look away.

Anderson graduated from college in 1979 with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. Within a few years he was burned out as a therapist and went to work as a stockbroker for a firm in Austin. The career change was a long shot–“I literally did not know a stock from a bond”–but it seemed to pay off. He learned fast and soon graduated to buying and selling options.

In June 1983 his addiction to gambling began in an unspectacular way: he bought two Southwest Airlines options for $150 apiece. Each option entitled him to buy 100 shares of Southwest stock, and as he recalls, shares were then trading at roughly $20. So for $300 he had temporary control of shares worth about $4,000. When the price of the shares went up a few days later, his options doubled in value; his $300 investment was now worth $600.

“What I made from that first trade was not that significant,” Anderson says now. “What was significant was that I had generated a 100 percent rate of return in a few days, just by filling out a piece of paper and walking over to the wire operator and back.” (His office was computerized a year or two later.) He was thrilled to think that it would have taken hours to earn that much as a marriage counselor and years to double his money in a conservative investment. He was hooked twice–first on the chance to get rich quick and second on the adrenaline rush (“action”) that came when he put money on the line. Even though what he was doing was part of a respectable white-collar job, the psychology was the same as if he’d been rolling dice on the corner or pulling slot-machine handles in Las Vegas.

“If I’ve done it once,” he remembers thinking, “I can do it again.” (Now he knows better: “For compulsive gamblers, it’s not losing that’s a problem–it’s winning.”) He began to study the market closely, charting and graphing the rise and fall of stocks. “I developed some strategies and began generating income for myself and the firm by finding other people willing to risk money.” And he does mean risk. “Investing is a long-term mentality. Trading–what I was doing–is a short-term mentality. It’s a fast, risky market.”

When his parents lost the family ranch in the mid-80s, Anderson assumed a hero’s role, planning to make enough money in the market to buy it back. Instead he lost his initial stake and then some. That hurt, but he felt worse when his customers’ trades went bad. Guilt pushed him in the same direction as his own nascent addiction, and he began “chasing”–trading ever larger amounts to try to make up for past losses.

A smart but unlucky trader knows when to quit. Someone with a gambling problem keeps on chasing losses. Even when the chase is momentarily successful, the problem gambler won’t stop to cut losses or take winnings–because then there would be no more action. He or she–one-third of problem gamblers are women–is in the grip of what one authority calls an “overpowering and uncontrollable impulse.”

“Things got worse for me over time,” Anderson recalls. “I was losing more money, and my stress level was going up. I felt guilty and ashamed of myself. I was uncomfortable talking with my boss, even though I was generating a lot of revenue for the firm.” At first he’d craved the euphoria of winning. But once he found himself stuck on a treadmill, he was trying just to avoid the pain of losing. He got more depressed and desperate but maintained a poker face; he and his wife drew apart. Near the end of 1985 he collapsed at the office from stress and a kidney stone and wound up in a residential addiction-treatment center in Arizona.

Unfortunately, the only addictions the center knew how to treat involved substances. “I got a lot of tools there that I still use and that have been lifesaving for me,” says Anderson, who was also dealing with an alcohol problem at the time. “But nobody there understood gambling as an addiction. I got no treatment for it.” Addiction to gambling resembles addiction to physical substances in many ways–among other things, it’s progressive, preoccupying, and chronic, and it can cause withdrawal symptoms. But it leaves no physical or chemical trace and so is easier to hide. “It’s based on an escape from reality into the fantasy world,” Anderson says. “Instead of ingesting a substance, you manufacture the image of hitting the big one.” These days he sees gambling addiction as the triumph of image over reality.

He emerged from treatment in February 1986 rejuvenated and confident. He and his wife reconciled. They both knew he needed to get out of securities trading and rebuild his counseling practice. But he said he still had a few brokerage customers, and anyway the transition would take some time.

“I made a characteristic mistake,” he says. “I felt I was in control. I started with some conservative trading strategies. You can make money trading if you’re patient, but I wasn’t. I ran up one credit card after another. I sold three or four pieces of real estate my wife and I owned and lost years of equity.” After three months back in the market, he says, “I had done incredible damage.” In September the stock market dropped 60 points–a lot back then–and wiped him out. He was so desperate, so far from his original fantasies of winning, that bankruptcy came as a relief.

That November, after a humiliating court ritual in which the prosecutor wanted to take their wedding gifts and car as part of the settlement, the Andersons were officially bankrupt. But even then the slide wasn’t over. Anderson hadn’t hit bottom. “I started having fantasies about getting a couple of thousand dollars together to meet the margin requirement and making our money back.” He told his wife. Neither one of them recognized this as a typical fantasy of a compulsive gambler at that stage–something that it’s OK to feel but not to act on. She saw it as one last, unendurable threat, and threw him out.

“I lived out of my truck,” he says. “I even saw patients then, and I did some pretty competent work. But I wouldn’t recommend it.” Their family had been surrounded by clinicians, pastors, and other people with above-average awareness of mental-health issues, but none of them knew how to help. (One of the defining books in the field, Robert Custer and Harry Milt’s When Luck Runs Out, had only been published in 1985.) “My life and my family’s life were disintegrating, and nobody was in a position to do anything. As a marriage and family therapist I gambled away my marriage and my family, and as a financial professional I went broke.” Anything was better than the pain and isolation of such a comprehensive failure. He kept thinking that he would drive his truck as far as it would go into the desert, and when it ran out of gas he’d either starve to death or die of thirst.

Shortly after his wife filed for divorce, Anderson took their seven-year-old son to an annual baseball ritual at the University of Texas stadium. “All the ‘Texas exes’ play a game and give autographs. It’s great. I remember thinking that it would be a day my son would remember for the rest of his life. He was holding my hand in a death squeeze the whole time–and all I could think about all day was that I had to kill myself. Afterwards I dropped him off and watched him walk down the sidewalk to our house, and I realized the full impact of what I’d done. I had lost something money couldn’t replace. Before, I’d always fantasized that I could get it back by making enough money.”

In the 11-plus years since that day Anderson has slowly and with difficulty put a life back together–not a life with his family, and not the life he’d fantasized about when making his trades. “It’s my belief,” he says, “that God has used my screwups to accomplish things, used my weaknesses as strengths.” He now counsels problem and compulsive gamblers in his private practice in Evanston (“problem gambling” is a looser term than “compulsive” or “pathological” gambling; in general, problem gamblers have some of the same symptoms as compulsive or pathological gamblers, but not as many). He has also trained many other counselors and served as executive director of the Illinois Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling. (The council is the state affiliate of the National Council on Problem Gambling, which describes itself as a “nonprofit health agency” disseminating information about problem gambling and promoting services for problem gamblers.) He has worked with hundreds of people who’ve followed the downward spiral he did. Though he doesn’t put it this way, Anderson thought he’d seen it all. But now he sees something that scares the hell out of him. He thinks the government of his adopted home state of Illinois–and sometimes its citizens–is acting much the way he did more than a decade ago.

Like compulsive gamblers, we need bigger and bigger wins to stay interested. Like compulsive gamblers, we’re fixated on the cheerful, glitzy image gambling offers. Like compulsive gamblers, we don’t know we have a gambling problem. Like compulsive gamblers, we don’t want to know we have a gambling problem. Like compulsive gamblers, we don’t want to do anything about our gambling problem, if indeed we have one, which we do not admit.

Could Anderson be right? Is Illinois acting like a gambling addict in denial? The notion sounds outrageous. Most Americans (75 percent at the very least) have gambled in one way or another, and the vast majority of those who gamble have no problem quitting before they get into trouble. According to the best nationwide estimate–derived from dozens of separate studies analyzed in 1997 by Howard Shaffer of the Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions–only 1.6 percent of Americans are lifetime pathological gamblers. (That would be 190,000 out of almost 12 million Illinoisans.) How can a state be hooked if most of the people in it aren’t?

One way to answer this question is to borrow the experts’ systematic approach to identifying compulsive gamblers. The American Psychiatric Association has classified pathological gambling as an impulse-control disorder since 1980. The fourth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders–known as DSM-IV and published in 1994–lists it as category 312.31 and gives a short explanation of how to diagnose it. According to this explanation, anyone who exhibits five out of ten possible symptoms, aka diagnostic criteria, is a pathological gambler.

Of course these criteria are only a quick summary of one way professionals diagnose individual patients. They aren’t intended for amateurs to use in judging public, governmental, or quasi-governmental actions–and half of them clearly can’t be used that way. Looking at Illinois’ experience with legalized gambling through the remaining five criteria is a bit outlandish, but it might help us see a pattern.

-o- Diagnostic criterion: The pathological gambler “needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement.”

In October 1987 “lottery fever” struck Illinois when the jackpots in each of the major state-sponsored games rose above $10 million for the first time. In April 1989 it took six times as much cash–a record $69.9 million jackpot–to cause the same kind of frenzied buying of lottery tickets. This past summer it took a $200-million Powerball stimulus to evoke a similar response.

The media have reflected this increasing desensitization. In 1985 and 1986 it was news when people won $4 million or $6 million in the state lottery. But the Tribune hasn’t reported lottery winners of sums less than $10 million since 1993.

“It’s a hallmark of addiction” to always need more stimulation, says Anderson. He adds that if more casinos are approved or if the requirement that riverboats “cruise” during gambling is lifted, his suspicion that Illinois is having trouble controlling its gambling habit will be confirmed.

So far the Illinois Gaming Board has resisted pressure to let casino gambling go in this direction. It rejected a 1996 proposal for “wide area progressive slot machines,” which could have produced casino jackpots of $1 million or more. According to administrator Michael Belletire, the board was uncomfortable with the contradiction between the get-rich-quick appeal of a high jackpot and the casinos’ advertising image of themselves as providers of entertainment.

-o- Diagnostic criterion: The pathological gambler “has repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling.”

When the Illinois General Assembly legalized riverboat casinos in January 1990, it acknowledged that gambling could become a problem. Less than a week before passage, the bill was to include money earmarked for programs to assist problem gamblers. It was also supposed to limit gamblers’ losses to $500 per cruise. Neither provision made it into the version that became law. Legislators made no provision to help problem gamblers and merely asked the newly founded Illinois Gaming Board to recommend whether limits on wagering losses should be imposed “in order to protect people from gambling beyond their means.”

Less than four months later the board announced that it wouldn’t recommend loss limits of any kind. Limits, it said, were an ineffective way to deal with pathological gambling: not only would they be hard to enforce, but they wouldn’t do much good even if they were. A $500 limit would hamper a well-off player but would do nothing to protect the welfare recipient who can’t afford to lose anywhere close to that much. Besides, determined compulsive gamblers could find plenty of places besides riverboats where they could ruin themselves and their families. (During his years as an active addict, Anderson never entered a casino.) Instead, the board said, “Using gaming funds to fund treatment programs for pathological gamblers would be a more direct way to counter the effects of increased gambling.”

The Illinois Gaming Board published this reasonable-sounding opinion in its 1991 annual report. Anderson says, “That’s what we call ‘talking the talk.’ Then we have to see whether they have been ‘walking the walk.'”

-o- Diagnostic criterion: The pathological gambler “relies on others to provide money to relieve a desperate financial situation caused by gambling.”

The state took less than four months to decide not to use loss limits to protect problem gamblers; it took more than four years to take any further action on the issue, and then it wasn’t much. The casino operators themselves moved faster. When Chris Anderson and Henry Lesieur of the Illinois Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling approached them in 1994, seven of the riverboats contributed a total of $35,000 to enable the council to run a shoestring help line for problem gamblers and their families.

When a one-shot appropriation of $400,000 in state funds finally did become available in 1994, Illinois Gaming Board administrator Michael Belletire delayed spending it for so long that he got his picture on page one of the March 8, 1995, Sun-Times under the headline “State Stiffs Problem Gamblers.” Eventually the Gaming Board used the money to contract with Bensinger, DuPont and Associates to survey and then train treatment providers. BDA is a Chicago-based management-consulting firm led by former Drug Enforcement Administration head Peter Bensinger; the firm describes itself as working “primarily on the issues of drugs and alcohol in the workplace.”

Not surprisingly, the survey found that few mental-health professionals in Illinois were prepared to help problem gamblers. To train them, BDA sought the expertise of the Illinois Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling. “We did an eight-hour program–just an introduction,” says Anderson. “Certification by the National Council on Problem Gambling requires 60 hours. But it was a great start, and we are grateful for it.”

This brief flurry of state-sponsored activity led to a more systematic response from the casinos, which since 1995 have taken on a role that state governments perform in most other jurisdictions. On February 1, 1996, Illinois casino operators agreed to pay BDA to answer the problem-gambling help line and to pay the Illinois Council for publicizing it and for training mental-health professionals around the state. These three functions feed one another: without publicity, no one will know there’s a help line to call; without a help line, problem gamblers may not be able to find real help; without trained professionals to help them, they’ll be as bad off as Anderson was 12 years ago.

As partners, the two organizations were by no means perfectly matched. Both Bensinger, DuPont and Associates and the Illinois Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling were anxious to help problem gamblers. Both appreciated the willingness of casino operators to make this help more available. But they had very different styles. BDA is a private business in a hot market; the Illinois Council is a chronically impecunious nonprofit trying to call attention to a form of addiction most people don’t take seriously. BDA works for corporate managers all the time; the Illinois Council was skittish about taking money from the casino industry. BDA had a contract with the Illinois Casino Gaming Association; the Illinois Council didn’t have a contract and didn’t want one, because it wanted to avoid the appearance of being employed by the industry. (Says council past president Ira Edidin, “I wanted an agreement that we would provide a service to them, not work for them–just as MCI does not work for you when you have them as your long-distance carrier.”) Anderson complained that BDA spent $70,000 on a survey, while he’d kept the help line running for a year on half that amount. As the months went by, he and Lesieur objected that ICGA wasn’t reporting statistics on help-line callers as often as promised.

Most significant, the Illinois Council publicly criticized practices of the gambling industry it believed did more to entice problem gamblers than to provide legitimate entertainment. If BDA had such concerns, it kept them quiet. By way of example, BDA also holds the contract to answer a separate gambling help line for the Illinois Lottery. (The $2,200 a month for this help line constitutes the entire expenditure of the Illinois state government on behalf of problem gamblers.) Until this fall, when you called the only number the state advertises as offering help, you heard the following recorded spiel: “Welcome to the lottery player hot line….For winning numbers from the last 14 months for all games, press one. For current Lotto, Little Lotto, and Big Game jackpot amounts, press two. For the most recent Lotto, Little Lotto, and Big Game payouts, press three. For information on the lottery’s subscription programs, press four. For information on filed claims, press five. For lottery promotions, upcoming games, and last claim dates, press six.” Finally, “If you or someone you know has a gambling problem or a problem with compulsive lottery purchases and would like to speak to a counselor, press seven.” Anderson angrily compares this series of prompts to offering a desperate alcoholic a cold Bud. BDA’s vice president for clinical services, Marie Apke, doesn’t think it’s a big deal. “The players already know the prompts; we’re still getting calls.” Anderson protested to lottery officials, and this fall they arranged to have the gambler-help prompt come first rather than seventh.

Anderson has also criticized the way credit is made available at riverboat casinos. Customers can either apply for credit from the house itself or avail themselves of prominently placed ATMs and credit-card cash-advance machines. “Legalized gambling assumes that people will use their discretionary entertainment dollars,” says Anderson, “not their food money or their rent money–and certainly not borrowed money. There is not a single compulsive gambler that we work with that has not gotten himself in trouble with the extension of credit.” Again, BDA’s Apke isn’t sure this is a problem. “Accessibility of credit may not be an issue so much as where you are–you [a problem gambler] shouldn’t be in a place that isn’t conducive to your recovery. Do we make alcohol less available to people who don’t have a problem with it in order to protect those who do have a problem?”

Both positions are defensible, but it isn’t hard to see which one casino owners would be more comfortable with. Anderson believes his outspokenness led to the Illinois Council’s losing its funding from the casinos earlier this year. He recalls appearing at a meeting of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association board in October 1997 and being asked, “How do you weigh in the balance what you say to the media versus biting the hand that feeds you?” Anderson replied, “I don’t.” Soon after, ICGA offered the Illinois Council a new arrangement, on a month-to-month basis, with a ten-day termination clause. The council rejected what it took to be an attempt to muzzle it, ran out of funds by midyear, and closed its office. It now operates on a drastically reduced scale, with volunteer help only, out of Anderson’s and his secretary’s living rooms.

As of September 1 of this year, the Illinois Casino Gaming Association had contracted all three services–help line, publicity, and training–to BDA. According to Tom O’Donnell, vice president of ICGA, the change had nothing to do with Anderson’s public criticism. He says the ICGA wanted to deal only with BDA because “we felt it would be more efficient in terms of delivering services as quickly as possible.” (It may be more efficient, but it’s not cheaper–this year’s approximately $200,000 contract is about 10 percent larger than last year’s.)

O’Donnell has no recollection of anyone at the October 1997 meeting asking Anderson about biting the hand that fed him. “We just wanted to ensure that when he talks about riverboat gaming, that he speaks factually,” O’Donnell says. And what did Anderson say that casino operators regarded as nonfactual? O’Donnell doesn’t recall.

If switching training and publicity from the Illinois Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling to BDA had been simply a matter of making its administration more efficient, then one would have expected the casino owners to let Bensinger get on with it–doing or subcontracting the work as he saw fit. But Bensinger says the casino association made it clear to him that they didn’t want the Illinois Council to be involved with training this year, even under his supervision. That would be an odd stipulation, unless the casino owners were sending a message. (O’Donnell says he isn’t aware that the Illinois Casino Gaming Association has taken this position. ICGA president David Belding, who works out of Las Vegas, didn’t return repeated phone calls.)

But at least the casinos are providing some funds. “I give them credit,” says Anderson. “They have at least tried to address the problem–more so than other segments of the gambling industry.” O’Donnell says that Illinois casinos put significantly more money into helping problem gamblers than casinos in other states. That may be because in other states casinos rarely have to work on their own. In Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, and most other states with casinos, the state government provides at least some money to help compulsive gamblers. But Illinois seems to view problem gambling as an industry responsibility.

Does it matter that the state of Illinois relies on others to provide money to relieve problems caused by gambling? Marie Apke of BDA says the important thing is that people are getting help. (And some are. BDA reported an average of 196 help-line calls per month during 1997.) Anderson, whose organization no longer has any income, thinks it does matter. So does Republican state representative Rosemary Mulligan of Park Ridge, who has written several bills addressing these issues: “If the boats are paying for everything–the study, the training, the referrals, the hot line–I feel it’s a little too close. What if they tell us, ‘We hardly had any calls’? How can we judge?”

-o- Diagnostic criterion: The pathological gambler “has committed illegal acts such as forgery, fraud, theft, or embezzlement to finance gambling.”

Since January 1, 1996, Illinois has had a law on the books saying that the state would maintain and promote a toll-free help line for problem gamblers and their families, train counselors and therapists, publicize these services, and conduct research to identify those at risk of problem or compulsive gambling. Mulligan sponsored the bill and shepherded it through the 89th General Assembly. But to get the votes to pass it, she had to promise some of her colleagues that all these activities would be paid for not out of general revenue but from taxes on gambling itself. Each promise in the law is preceded by the phrase “subject to appropriation”–and since no appropriation has been made, nothing has been done.

This isn’t illegal, but some would call it fraud. “I contend that there is no law,” says the Illinois Council’s Ira Edidin. “As long as there is that tag line–‘subject to appropriation’–and there are no appropriations, it is just public relations, not a law.” As in the problem gambler’s world, image trumps reality.

-o- Diagnostic criterion: The pathological gambler “lies to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling.”

On May 20 Illinois Gaming Board administrator Michael Belletire told the National Gambling Impact Study Commission that Illinois had “avoided creating an environment in which the unintended or undesired elements of the new business [riverboat casinos] offset its benefits.”

Good news if true. But is it true? Belletire’s board did indeed hire the University of Illinois’ Regional Economics Applications Laboratory to study how casino gambling affected the Illinois economy between 1991 and 1995. The team of economists, led by Geoffrey Hewings, used a model of the state’s economy to determine that “each dollar expended by the casino operations generated an additional $0.72 worth of activity elsewhere in the state’s economy.” Every ten casino jobs, they found, generated another seven jobs elsewhere in the economy. But they cautioned, “At this stage, no attempt has been made to identify the net impacts.”

This phrase could mean two different things. To an economist, “identifying the net impacts” of gambling means finding out what people would have spent their gambling money on instead and whether that would have made any difference to the economy. For instance, maybe people went out to eat more often before the riverboats came. In that case, the boats have been bad for restaurateurs; but was that switch in consumer spending a plus or a minus or a wash for the economy as a whole? According to Belletire, ascertaining this would be prohibitively expensive, involving interviews with “lots and lots of people” and comparisons of gamblers’ and nongamblers’ budgets.

To noneconomists, “identifying the net impacts” of gambling means finding out if the suicides, bankruptcies, embezzlements, frauds, and thefts traceable to problem gamblers add up to more than the economic benefits outlined by the U. of I. economists. But ascertaining these “social costs” is hard–not only because it’s expensive, but because it’s conceptually confusing. It’s expensive because social costs accrue in the criminal justice system, or in the welfare system if problem gamblers’ families get that desperate, and neither system sorts out gambling-related cases from others. (You can’t just survey costs incurred by problem gamblers who are already in treatment, since they’re arguably the worst off, not a representative sample.) It’s conceptually confusing because in real life compulsive gamblers have other problems too. “Pathological behaviors interact with other illnesses,” says Belletire. The simple case of a person whose only problem in life is compulsive gambling and goes on a binge that ruins lives–that’s not typical. For example, someone who’s already near the end of their financial rope might turn to gambling, but the original shortage of money might not be exclusively due to gambling.”

In neither sense has the Illinois Gaming Board investigated the “net impacts” of legalized gambling–not because they aren’t there, but because it would be difficult. To Chris Anderson, this focus on the benefits of gambling and not the costs is depressingly familiar. It reminds him of the guy who wins $10 in the lottery and conveniently forgets that he bought a dozen $1 tickets to do so. “We’re taking revenue in one pocket, and we have no clue how much we’re taking from the other pocket to prosecute and incarcerate people who forged or embezzled or stole to feed their gambling habit. It’s as if we count all the deposits and don’t count the checks that we’re writing out of our checkbook. If the state is operating as an addict in denial, then it makes sense that those questions are not asked.”

It’s possible that the state’s problem-gambler-like failings are no big deal. If Illinois has neglected to do anything about the downside of legalized gambling for a small minority, it certainly won’t break the state to pay up. But it’s also possible that the problem-gambling minority is neither as small nor as incidental as it seems. Prolonged exposure to legalized gambling may turn more people into problem gamblers over time. And the industry itself may depend significantly on their patronage.

Two relatively simple kinds of gambling studies have been done elsewhere, though not in Illinois. One is a “prevalence study,” a survey of a random sample of the population to determine what percentage are potential or actual problem or compulsive gamblers. Iowa has done two prevalence studies in the past decade, with surprising results.

In 1989, two years before the state licensed riverboat casinos, 1.7 percent of Iowans had had gambling problems at some point in their lives. When the state repeated the survey in 1995, the percentage of problem gamblers had tripled. Now 5.4 percent of Iowans had had gambling problems at some point in their lives. The proportion of lifetime pathological gamblers, the most severely affected, rose from 0.1 percent in 1989 to 1.9 percent in 1995. These changes were highly significant statistically. Study author Rachel Volberg, of Gemini Research, concluded, “The hypothesis that increases in the availability of legalized gambling lead to increases in the prevalence of gambling-related difficulties in the general population is clearly demonstrated.”

“Clearly demonstrated” may be strong words. Dean Hestermann, who follows research for Harrah’s Entertainment, says that suicide rates (sometimes thought to be associated with problem gambling) declined in Iowa over the same time period. But the Iowa findings deserve more attention than they’ve got, since they’re consistent with other studies. Midwestern states, which legalized gambling only recently, show a lower rate of problem gambling than northeastern and western states, where legal gambling has been around longer. The rate of problem gambling everywhere was significantly lower in studies done before 1990 than since. Howard Shaffer’s 1997 Harvard study also found an upward trend: “During the past two decades, gambling disorders have evidenced an increasing rate among adults sampled from the general population.” In other words, what was a small problem ten years ago has become a bigger one today and could become an even bigger one tomorrow.

Michael Belletire of the Illinois Gaming Board has problems with the methodology of these studies, but he doesn’t press the point. “I’m not sure it helps to get into those arguments. If we had a study showing that there were 10 percent problem drinkers, does that in and of itself improve things? But if we find DUI is up, cirrhosis of the liver is up, workplace disruptions are up,” those are the kinds of findings that galvanize action. He says he also thinks the state will get more involved in problem gambling “when there are more social indicators obvious to banks, social workers, physicians, lending institutions, and not just to antigambling people.”

But then Belletire reverses himself and says that over the long haul he does expect problem gambling to increase. “There are more people behaving strangely about gambling than I expected. If everyone went to the boats, say, twice a year, with a set amount of money to spend, and quit when they lost it, the industry wouldn’t generate the revenues it does. People don’t all behave that way. But it’s real difficult to say when to step in.”

Another kind of study, even rarer than prevalence studies, asks what proportion of gambling revenues problem gamblers provide. They might well be among the industry’s better customers, but are they? In Illinois a random survey sponsored by the state Gaming Board found that 59 percent of casino visits are made by members of a “player’s club” or “slot club.” But these are frequent gamblers, not necessarily problem gamblers.

In an article published in the March issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Henry Lesieur took his best shot at this question. (In addition to his work with the Illinois Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling, Lesieur taught in Illinois State University’s criminal justice department from 1992 to 1997 and now heads the Institute for Problem Gambling in Rhode Island.) He summarized studies conducted in Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Washington, Louisiana, and New York, along with Volberg’s Iowa study. In each case, randomly sampled people were questioned to determine their problem with gambling (if any), then questioned about how much they recalled gambling in a typical month. These studies suggest that all forms of legalized gambling derive between 23 and 41 percent of their revenue from problem gamblers; the figures are somewhat higher (27 to 55 percent) for casinos. (The industry has criticized studies of this kind but hasn’t provided any numbers of its own.)

If this finding were to hold true in Illinois, it would mean that problem gambling is not just a side issue affecting a few people–it would mean that problem gamblers are propping up the state’s biggest new industry. Are they? We don’t know. And if we don’t know, then it seems fair to ask, as Anderson does, the question that separates the image from the reality: “Why don’t we know?” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chris Anderson cover photo by Eugene Zakusilo; misc. photos by Jim Alexander Newberry;.