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Series: Bad Bet

What to do when your best customers have a problem Add to ...

Problem gambler Barbar Maalouf signed a form banning himself from Ontario's casinos more than six years ago, but he returned to Woodbine Raceway hundreds of times, driving up his total gambling debt to at least $1-million.

So severe was his compulsion to bet that for five months he had no home, and at times the free casino buffet was the only meal for him and his wife Georgia, he said.

"I went [almost]every day after I self-excluded," alleged Mr. Maalouf, who once made a low six-figure salary as an owner of a limousine business. "… I know a lot of people who self-excluded and who go on a regular basis at Woodbine."

The 59-year-old is suing the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., saying that, despite signing the self-exclusion form and having his photograph taken, he was repeatedly allowed into Woodbine Raceway. The lawsuit contains allegations that have not yet been proven in court.

According to his lawyer, William McMaster, the last time Mr. Maalouf was at Woodbine - Sept. 14 - was the only time he was caught; he was charged with trespassing.

In its statement of defence, OLG said the form Mr. Maalouf signed in May, 2003, did not contain any agreement, undertaking or commitment to ensure he was denied access to all Ontario gaming facilities, adding "as such, he must bear responsibility for any losses he did suffer."

Mr. Maalouf's contentious story is all too common: Policing of self bans has been a vexing problem for government-owned casinos. Experts says they should be run by a third party and not by casinos that stand to profit from problem gamblers.

"The conflict is that problem gamblers are their best customers," said Roger Horbay, addictions specialist and electronic gaming machine expert of Game Planit Interactive Corp., where he is president. "It makes it hard for them to do the right thing."

A Globe and Mail investigation has revealed government-owned casinos are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on freebies - trips, dinners, theatre tickets, jewellery - that keep gamblers coming back.

As well, high-rollers are losing more than $1-million apiece and others are laying out hundreds of thousands of dollars in British Columbia and Ontario casinos. Gambling debts have led to bankruptcies and even suicides.

"The ultimate problem with the self-exclusion program, which was commendable in theory, is that it was doomed to failure because it could not be enforced, with the memory-based system they put in place," said Mr. McMaster, the lawyer for Mr. Maalouf. "…They are addicted to the revenues and they don't recognize the addiction themselves but they want my client to recognize it. Too many people are paying too much into the system and not getting anything out of it."

Canada's efforts to detect voluntary self-excluders have often been confined to binders filled with hundreds, sometimes thousands of gambler photographs, located in casino security offices. Effectively, the system relies upon the memory of a few for the enforcement of many.

Without enforcement, a self-exclusion program may actually be harmful as it provides false hope, said Robert Williams, the Lethbridge co-ordinator of the Alberta Gaming Research Institute. "It will convince problem gamblers that someone is going to provide due diligence," he said, "… but they don't."

The Dutch way

Ask experts what country has the most effective system of dealing with problem gamblers and they answer as one: the Netherlands.

There, 15 visits in one month automatically trigger a conversation with an operations supervisor; it takes fewer visits for gamblers under age 24. Last year, 35,000 gamblers of all ages had talks, resulting in 4,563 visit limitations - allowing a specific number of visits per month - and 5,340 admission bans, which are akin to self-exclusion, according to Abigail Hall, spokeswoman for Holland Casino.

Gamblers are required to provide photo identification before entering a casino, making it simple to detect a self-excluder or people violating their visit limits. Those who want to return after self-excluding are closely watched to see if they go back to their old gambling ways. If so, they have another interview, which often results in another visit limitation or ban.

Most people, said Pieter Remmers, director at Assissa Consultancy Europe, who created responsible gaming platform at Holland Casino and in other European countries, "appreciate the fact they [casinos]are not only after the money."

In Canada, Saskatchewan does the most to detect problem gamblers. Its i-Care computer system uses algorithms to analyze gambling patterns from the player's card, with unusual changes in amount of time and money spent alerting casino employees to specific players.

Repeated ATM withdrawals, gambling for more than three hours and not taking breaks can also trigger a talk with a responsible-gaming employee; as of Sept. 24, the province's Regina and Moose Jaw casinos had logged 6,920 interactions this year. But the system stops short of the Netherlands program, which has more direct dialogue with gamblers.

In Ontario, casinos are expanding their facial recognition technology to help detect more self-excluders. B.C. has begun using licence-plate recognition technology at three casinos and is planning to roll it out to others.

After researching the issue in 2006, lawyers William Sasso and Jasminka Kalajdzic said courts would conclude that governments have a duty of care to take reasonable and proper steps to enforce their self-exclusion programs. A more difficult question is what casinos should do to detect problem gamblers in the first place.

"We have a significant medical problem," Mr. Sasso said. "We've got a number of people exposed and are incapable of helping themselves. We have a situation where you would have thought that one of the things that government would be trying to do - and the casino operators would be trying to do… - is to develop a perfectly sustainable business model. That sustainable business model shouldn't be based on the short-term exploitation of any group of people who can't help themselves."

In Manitoba, Georgina Bauer filed the province's first lawsuit over being admitted to casinos after she signed a self-exclusion form in 1996 and sent in a written reminder in 2000. Despite that, she returned to the casino and played blackjack, according to her statement of claim, which includes allegations not yet proven in court.

"The program is a farce in that respect," said Ms. Bauer's lawyer, Richard Beamish, noting that his client lost about $100,000 gambling. "She was so regular and in there so much and playing so much, that she said all the pit bosses would just wave to her and say, 'Hi Gina.' Everybody knows her. To her, it was like family in there."

In its statement of defence filed in September, the Manitoba Lotteries Corporation [MLC]acknowledged Ms. Bauer signed a self-exclusion form, but said she knew the lottery corporation would not be responsible for any losses arising from gambling during the exclusionary period. It says it never guaranteed it would succeed in excluding her. And while it received a subsequent letter regarding her enrolment in the program, it responded with a letter five days later urging her to seek counselling.

No province has more lawsuits involving self-exclusion than Ontario; it has settled nine such cases and three additional cases regarding problem gambling for a total of 12. In addition, a proposed $3.5-billion class-action suit has been filed on behalf of more than 10,000 Ontario gamblers who self-excluded.

Major losses

In Mr. Maalouf's case, he signed a self-exclusion agreement in May, 2003, after he lost $7,500 in one day. His wife Georgia, 55, went to Woodbine Raceway slots with him that day.

"Self-exclusion is a joke," said Ms. Maalouf, who thought when he signed up that "this time, he will get help. How wrong was I?"

Although Mr. Maalouf was caught once at Casino Rama in 2005, he simply went to Woodbine Raceway that night and for years afterwards, he said in an interview. Up to Sept. 5, 2009, his wife's card was used 841 times at Woodbine after he self-excluded, OLG records obtained by Mr. McMaster reveal.

The lawyer says Mr. Maalouf lost after more than $300,000 after he self-excluded, bringing the total gambling debt to at least $1-million.

Today, Mr. Maalouf is on medication and under the care of a psychiatrist. He is rebuilding his limo business.

Getting involved in gambling, he said, "that's what ruined my life."

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