To help raise public awareness, No Casino Toronto, the impromptu citizens’ coalition formed to fight plans for a Toronto casino, is screening Owning Mahowny at the Revue Cinema in Roncesvalles on Sunday afternoon. The 2003 film, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, is based on writer Gary Stephen Ross’s 1987 book Stung, about a CIBC bank teller whose gambling addiction caused him to embezzle some $10-million from his employer. Mr. Ross, a former Torontonian now living in White Rock, B.C., and a strong opponent of the casino plan, will introduce the film and field questions. He spoke recently with Globe and Mail reporter Michael Posner.
What do you have against casinos?
Casinos are highly sophisticated examples of social engineering meant to separate people from their money. The people who get separated are the hopeless, the dumb and the addicted. People with brains understand that it is not about luck, but about the mathematical certainty of the way casino games are structured. If you go in there and play, more than once, you come out with less money. [Psychologist] B.F. Skinner showed that the best reinforcement schedule to optimize particular behaviour is intermittent positive reinforcement. If you are rewarded unpredictably for your behaviour, that is the best way to get creatures to repeat the behaviour.
Sounds like golf.
That’s right. From the moment you walk in, you are immersed in this other reality. It’s neither day nor night; it’s a twilight zone. You turn your money into chips because if you actually counted out $20 bills instead of putting a $500 chip in play, you would realize what you were doing.
Governments say it’s a great way to raise money.
Yes, but the money raised comes from poor people. It’s people with money selling hope to people who have little but hope.
Can’t a casino provide an otherwise innocent evening’s entertainment for people who don’t mind losing a hundred or even five hundred dollars?
It can, but that’s not where the money mainly comes from. Casinos sell the gaming experience as entertainment, as if it’s like going to a baseball game and spending a few hundred dollars. You may come out of the stadium thinking, ‘Gee, that cost me $240, for tickets, food and beer, parking, the babysitter, etc.’ So they are pricking you and taking drops of blood, but they are not, as casinos are, trying to open a vein and bleed you out.
If you have money, you are in a casino database, all of your likes and dislikes are available to everyone there, and just when you might want to leave, a nice man in a nice suit will invite you to have a complimentary dinner with a lovely companion.
Is that what happened to Brian Molony, the man on whom the film is based?
He wasn’t interested in stage shows or women, but the thrill of being in action. Compulsive gamblers get the same kind of high that drug addicts get, in terms of dopamine and norepinephrine and serotonin levels. Molony, who earned $30,000 a year, would talk about the world going into slow motion when he bet $75,000 on a single hand of baccarat, as a wave of good feeling washed over his skull. It was 10 times better than sex. It’s interesting that when Molony was tried – he ultimately served six years after his conviction for fraud – his lawyer, Edward Greenspan, was the first I think to argue that gambling addiction was an illness, not a crime. It met with some resistance from the sentencing judge at the time, but now it’s common wisdom.
Don’t casinos advise patrons to know and play within their limits?
It’s a wonderful hypocrisy. They pay lip service to the notion, by pretending not to want your money. Know your limit, but you can’t win if you’re not in.
What about the prospects for job growth and economic development that casino proponents trumpet?
These are always wildly overblown. Casino gambling, you may recall, was going to revive the fortunes of Atlantic City. Well, if you go there, you will find one strip of seemingly prosperous casinos and, one block behind it, and many blocks beyond, it’s the South Bronx.
Owning Mahowny plays the Royal Cinema Sunday, April 7th at 4PM.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.