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A blackjack table at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
A blackjack table at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Series: Bad Bet

Casinos spend millions to make losers feel like winners Add to ...

Ernest Sanderson said he and his wife, Judith, met Ringo Starr, Engelbert Humperdinck and Reba McEntire. He and 30 other gamblers were flown to Miami, then taken on a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, courtesy of Casino Rama, he said.

"We used player's cards because we would get the perks - the rooms, the meals, limos picking us up at the door, meeting celebrities," wrote Mr. Sanderson in his examination for bankruptcy in September, 2007, documents of which were filed in court. Their player's cards, in fact, reveal they earned more than $7,407 in food, accommodation, parking and concert ticket comps at Casino Rama from April, 11, 2001, to Nov. 16, 2004.

Mr. Sanderson and his wife filed for bankruptcy after racking up what he said was about $1-million in gambling debts. The couple played video poker at casinos three or four days a week.

"At no time would a supervisor walk by and say, 'Maybe you should stop,' " Mr. Sanderson, 65, said in an interview. "…You know the people with the problems. They should be singled out and talked to."

At their height, said Jordan Rumanek, the Sandersons' bankruptcy trustee who did Freedom of Information searches on their player's cards at Casino Rama and Woodbine Raceway, the couple was "going [to casinos]more than they were going to their jobs."

In the past five years, Mr. Rumanek has seen the number of gambling-related bankruptcies in Toronto double.

"You are always hoping for the big win, that's the whole concept of gambling," Mr. Sanderson said. "… It was like being hypnotized."

In June, 2007, both Mr. Sanderson and his wife signed self-exclusion forms, banning themselves from Ontario casinos and they say they have sworn off gambling.

Jenna Hunter, media-relations manager for Casino Rama, said comps are like other business-reward programs, such as Air Miles, and are directly related to the money spent or points earned.

As for the Sandersons' cruise, she said: "It is common practice in the gaming industry to offer exclusive, off-site events to certain qualified patrons." That particular trip, she said, would most likely have been one of Casino Rama's player trips that are only offered once a year.

"At the end of the day, though, from a business perspective, there is a maximum amount a casino would want to offer any player in complimentaries," wrote Ms. Hunter. "While we cannot disclose that exact value for obvious business competitive reasons, we know you will see the business sense in controlling marketing spending on a per-customer basis."

Yet even those who work in casinos see problem gamblers and often want to stop them before they bet again. Stuart Slaven, 26, a games dealer at Edgewater Casino in Vancouver during 2005-2006, said it could be a depressing place to work.

"There were times when I wanted to shake one of the players and say, 'Get out of here. Don't come back,'" he said. "Not out of anger but just because it was doing them no good to be in the casino."

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