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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 ...

The OLG said the resort casinos do not openly advertise house credit and only make it available to players after a successful background check. Only a tiny fraction - one quarter of 1 per cent of loyalty-club members - have active credit accounts, said a letter that accompanied the Freedom of Information figures. And they stressed the numbers reflect credit that was available; not all of it may have been used.

"We're in the gaming business," said Greg Medulun, until recently director of communications for Niagara Casinos, adding that those who have their credit limit raised are subject to a 24-hour cooling-off period before they can use it. "But we're not gambling on credit by any means."

Some compulsive gamblers try to rein themselves in through self-exclusion programs, a type of voluntary ban available in each province. But the results have been spotty. Many have been able to return repeatedly to casinos, sparking lawsuits in Ontario and Manitoba over massive losses.

In Mr. Isaacs's case, he twice banned himself from casinos by signing a self-exclusion form, then requested to be reinstated.

According to a statement of claim, which contains allegations not yet proven in court, Mr. Isaacs's gambling dates back to 1997, but it intensified between January, 2005, and November, 2006, after he asked to be reinstated and the casino comps piled up. With his losses topping the $1-million mark, he became despondent and emotionally traumatized, while his mother, whose money he also lost, experienced a significant decline in health, the statement of claim says.

The statement of defence acknowledges Mr. Isaacs received substantial comps: some $133,009 of them, with the bulk - $122,781 - redeemed from 2005 to 2007. The defence deducted them from what it says were his total recorded gambling losses - $626,561 - putting his net recorded losses at more like $493,552.

"Casino gambling is a form of entertainment," says the statement of defence. "Casino patrons pay for that entertainment through their wagering, just as theatre patrons pay for a ticket to a play or sports fans pay for a ticket to a game. Mr. Isaacs's wagering was an expenditure, not a loss that is recognized at law."

Allison Sparkes, the OLG's director of communications, said Mr. Isaacs never gambled while he self-excluded; he self-excluded twice, confirming on both occasions that he abstained from gambling. He then voluntarily reinstated himself after following the requisite exclusion periods and 30-day cooling-off period after the request was made.

However, "he did take use [of]his entitlements to complimentaries, primarily through use of hotel suites and restaurants," she said.

But Mr. Yachetti said that while Mr. Isaacs followed the rules for reinstatement after self-exclusion, being allowed back in caused his gambling problem to worsen. Comps, he added, are "insidious inducements to have people continue in their losing ways to try to get back their money."

From smoked meat to limos

How comps are determined is something of a secret. It is based on a theoretical loss formula - the longer people gamble, the more they are expected to lose as the house always has the edge.

"We cannot be specific about amounts of money played," said Jean-Pierre Roy, director of media relations for Loto-Québec, where an FOI request revealed that $49.8-million worth of comps were provided in fiscal 2007-2008. "…We're in competition so basically, of course, the calculation comes from the duration of play and volume of play."

According to the FOI request, the Quebec comps included golf, hotels, Grand Prix tickets, $100 gift certificates, limo rides, toiletry bags, Christmas platters, theatre tickets, lobster and smoked meat.

Peter Chen, an addiction therapist at Ontario's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said clients tell him they received a call, saying there was a gift waiting for them, such as a watch or jacket. "If somebody is trying to stay away from the casino, they'll get urges to return," Mr. Chen said. "The urges can come from different sources, such as advertisements or internal stressors in their own life. Another source of that could be getting mail that is inviting them to come back because they have a gift waiting for them."

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