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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 Bets

The million-dollar club: Losing big, losing often Add to ...

High rollers are losing more than $1-million a year apiece and others are dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars at some Canadian casinos, according to documents that reveal for the first time the magnitude of gamblers' betting habits.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation show the top gamblers in British Columbia and Ontario are losing as much as $1.8-million and $701,000, respectively, while many others are blowing sums in the low six figures. Loto-Québec refused to provide similar data, saying it constitutes commercial information that is competitively sensitive, and that even unnamed players could possibly be identified.

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After examining the data, Robert Williams, the Lethbridge co-ordinator of the Alberta Gaming Research Institute, said it is "very likely" a majority of those in the top 100 are problem gamblers. He said it's "scandalous" that governments have not done more to identify and help them - a conclusion he reached after conducting studies that show the highest net losses are sustained by problem players.

"Research has established that about one-third of government gambling revenue comes from problem gamblers," Dr. Williams said. "Furthermore, the player-card data you have provided shows that provincial governments actually know who many of these people are."

The data found on player's cards is not used to help potential problem gamblers, but often to reward them - and keep them coming back for more. Player's cards resemble hotel keys and are inserted into slot machines or handed over to dealers by the gamblers themselves to collect rewards of free hotel rooms, dinner, merchandise and cash back.

The cards contain a wealth of information about how long gamblers have played, how often they visit the casino and how much they have lost, making it possible to determine who has a problem - if governments wanted to know.

Gambling losses can be "devastating, not only because of the amount of money but also the amount of time that these gamblers spent at the machines," said Kevin Harrigan, who teaches computer-game design and has been an expert witness in cases involving players who have lost significant amounts of money.

Lead researcher and founder of the University of Waterloo slots laboratory, Prof. Harrigan assisted The Globe and Mail with the Freedom of Information request and interpreting the data.

He pointed out that one gambler spent 1,394 hours at a B.C. casino, the equivalent of 40 weeks of full-time work, based on a 35-hour work week, according to fiscal 2008-2009 data. Eight gamblers in that province individually lost $1-million or more and collectively dropped $10.6-million.

Even the lowest of the top 100 were losing big. In B.C., the last player in that group dropped $269,735; at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, where the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation operates 2,000 slot machines, it was $110,317. (Player net loss may include redeemed cash from player's card points and promotional coupons.)

Allen MacQueen, 24, who used to be cage cashier at Casino Nova Scotia in Halifax, said he was astounded by the amounts people spent, adding that many of those he knew on a first-name basis were likely problem gamblers. One man, he said, came to him five different times one night, requesting credit-card authorization to remove $25,000 each time, for a total of $125,000.

"I couldn't believe it when I'm making $10 an hour," Mr. MacQueen said.

'Nobody wins'

The casino corporation in B.C. cautioned that the top-end figures may not be quite as high as they appear. Months after providing the information on the biggest losers, BCLC officials contacted The Globe to say that the numbers may in fact be 20 per cent lower: Painting a theoretical scenario that if a player won a jackpot and took the card out before a slot attendant has reset the machine, they said that jackpot wouldn't register, even though the player has been paid, making the losses look inflated.

"Even if the figures were inflated by 20 per cent," Dr. Williams said, "it wouldn't change the fact that these top 100 players are still spending enormous amounts of money with no intervention from BCLC."

Kevin Gass, vice-president of corporate affairs for BCLC, said those patrons likely could have afforded the loss and he cautioned against making any other judgment.

"Those individuals are clearly able to make that kind of expenditure without an impact on their economic security," Mr. Gass said. "I think that's really the way that one has to look at it, and I think it's dangerous to try to guess or judge based on that level of expenditure."

Paul Pellizzari, OLG's director of policy, said the corporation is considering providing a special player's card that allows gamblers to set money and time limits. "We don't want people with problems playing our games, and we don't want to squeeze the last dollar out of the hand of every problem gambler," he said.

Dr. Williams says an automated system cannot come soon enough.

"To my mind," he said, "it is scandalous that they have chosen not to implement an automated system that either restricts how much people can lose and/or automatically asks people with excessive time/spending amounts whether they would like any help or restrictions on their gambling activity."

Brady James has seen the need first-hand. Now 45, Mr. James spent a decade working in a Victoria casino, where he started as a dealer and was promoted to floor manager, before leaving the business in 2005.

"Guess what?" he said. "Nobody wins. I'd say three-quarters of your business comes from the same 20 per cent of people."

*******

High rollers, big losses

The amount of time and money spent by problem gamblers can be staggering. The losses of the top gamblers at one Ontario casino and in British Columbia are shown below.

OLG SLOTS AT WOODBINE RACETRACK, Toronto

PLAYER NET LOSS

Number of visits*

$701,117

294

$635,921

92

$620,884

149

$603,203

166

$521,193

165

$416,401

299

$344,686

101

$293,380

47

$261,637

124

$257,126

171

*Number of visits by each player from Aug. 1, 2008 to July 31, 2009. Player net loss may include redeemed cash from playerís card points and promotional coupons.

BRITISH COLUMBIA

Number of hours spent gambling annually

PLAYER NET LOSS ($ amount lost - high range)

485*

$1,850,185

653

$1,542,125

1,241

$1,429,705

1,369

$1,333,345

241

$1,273,120

719

$1,155,225

920

$1,063,610

259

$1,008,495

329

$981,850

449

$936,225

*Numbers are rounded

The B.C. figures appear to show gamblers losing the largest amounts, but thatís only because that province was able to track the top players in all its casinos. Ontario, on the other hand, could only find top players at individual casinos but not its four resort casinos. As a result, Woodbine Racetrack was selected, as it has the largest number of slot machines. Had Ontarioís resort casinos been included, said one expert, player losses would have been much higher.

SOURCES: BCLC FOI, ONTARIO LOTTERY AND GAMING CORPORATION FOI

************

BAD BET / THE SERIES

SATURDAY

Millions in taxpayer dollars are spent feeding gambler's habits, leading some to financial ruin and even suicide, a Globe investigation shows.

MONDAY

Some people lose more than $1-million a year at government-owned casinos, according to documents that reveal the magnitude of some gamblers' habits.

TUESDAY

On the bus with vulnerable seniors.

WEDNESDAY

Protections that work.

 

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