Part of The Big Gamble, a series examining British Columbia's complicated relationship with casinos.
Adrian Maisonneuve and the staff he works with in casinos from Victoria to Prince George don't have any trouble spotting problem gamblers.
"They call it a hidden addiction because they look the same as the person beside them – but there are signs," Mr. Maisonneuve said.
What a casual observer might see as just another gambler having a bad day can be a clear signal of trouble to the 14,000 casino workers who have had the B.C. Lottery Corp.'s "responsible gambling awareness training."
Mr. Maisonneuve said it is easy to spot players who are in obvious distress – those who are visibly angry, frustrated or freaked out by their mounting losses – but there are also more subtle hints of gambling addiction.
"You can tell by a change in their approach to gambling," said Mr. Maisonneuve, the regional team leader for responsible gambling for BCLC. "They used to spend an hour in the casino, now they are there all day. Or they are sitting hour after hour at the same slot machine."
The B.C. government announced last week it is putting $11-million this year into responsible gambling programs and services. The need is obvious: A help line for gamblers received more than 4,000 calls last year, and more than 2,300 of those callers eventually agreed to counselling.
The government also announced it will invest $2-million over the next five years to create a centre for gambling research at the University of B.C. to study the social and behavioural aspects of gambling.
Part of Mr. Maisonneuve's job is to make sure staff at the four casinos he monitors in Victoria, Nanaimo, Prince George and Quesnel, along with several bingo halls, are trained to spot and approach problem gamblers to guide them into government-funded treatment programs.
B.C. has an estimated 159,000 problem gamblers, 31,000 of them "severe problem gamblers" or hardcore gambling addicts.
Mr. Maisonneuve said it is not easy for casino staff to tell a customer they appear to have a problem. He advises a soft sell.
"Our job is not to confront people and break them down," he said. "We know that's not going to work. They just see you as a threat if you come on like that and you can do more harm than good."
He said the people working card tables or patrolling the rows of slot machines try to establish a relationship with a gambler and look for an opportunity to raise the issue.
"It's a very sensitive type of situation," he said, noting that gambling addicts often are not willing to admit they have a problem. Studies have shown gamblers entering BCLC's voluntary self-exclusion (VSE) program, in which they ban themselves from casinos, have been addicted for six years on average before seeking help.
Mr. Maisonneuve said staff have to wait for the right moment.
"It's not when they are gambling," he said. "We wait until they have a break … you approach them while they are having a coffee. You say, 'You look like you are not having a good time. What's going on?' And from there you just watch where the conversation goes."
Mr. Maisonneuve said it is best to catch a problem gambler immediately after a series of losses.
"There's no problem if you are winning. That's not the time to talk to them," he said. "It's the [losing] money piece that takes them to rock bottom. And that's when people are most likely to listen."
B.C. gambling providers have a legal responsibility to help problem gamblers, but Mr. Maisonneuve said staff feel a moral obligation as well.
"It's different in Las Vegas," he said. "There, they just want to strip you of all your money and send you home. You are not their problem after you leave. But we can't have our customers come in and take everything from them. These people are our neighbours."
Mr. Maisonneuve said casino employees watch for problem gamblers on every shift, every day. But they don't see themselves as cops.
"You are like a lifeguard," he said. "You know, he sits there all day and it doesn't look like he's doing much. But he's watching and if a person starts thrashing in the water, he is there to help."
Irwin Cohen, research director of the B.C. Centre for Social Responsibility at the University of the Fraser Valley, said a study of the VSE program shows that it helps people control problem gambling. The program, he said, is not designed to break addiction, but rather to give problem gamblers a chance to reset the parameters of their gambling experience.
"In broad terms, what the program is designed to do is sort of give self-identified gamblers a time out," he said. "What we are not looking for is abstinence, what we're looking for is better control … gamblers saying, 'I'm playing on line less, or I'm playing for lesser stakes.'"
Participants place their names on a list of people who are excluded from casinos from six months to three years. Many try to sneak in after registering. If they are caught, either through facial recognition cameras or by gaming staff, they are escorted from the premises.
More than 3,000 people were on the list in 2009. In 2010, more than 8,000 VSE violations were detected, because many self-excluded gamblers repeatedly sneak in. They are frequently caught when security staff scan their licence plates in parking lot checks.
Asked why gamblers would violate the agreement, Mr. Cohen replied: "It's addiction."
One incentive for honouring the agreement is a regulation that withholds the winnings of a gamblers who sneak in.
But two men who signed up for the self-exclusion, then slipped into casinos – and won – are challenging the rule.
Hamidreza Haghdust, who was denied jackpots totalling $35,000, and Michael Lee, who was denied winnings of $42,484.67, are asking the courts to order BCLC to give them the money.
Paul Bennett, a lawyer for the two complainants, said about 250 other gamblers could make claims, and the winnings withheld probably total more than $3-million.
1% - 5%
Percentage of the population that are problem gamblers
Gambling revenue in Canada generated from problem gamblers
Amount of time before problem gamblers typically join self-exclusion programs at casinos
Average age at which problem gamblers said they started gambling
Average age of the typical self-excluder
Amount a typical male problem gambler in B.C.'s self-exclusion program spent, per week
Amount a typical female problem gambler spent, per week
Percentage of those who self-report gambling addiction who said they have problems with slot machines
Percentage of those who self-report gambling addiction who said they have problems with cards
Percentage of those who self-report gambling addiction who said they have problems with video poker