Hard luck and trouble

Three compulsive gamblers share tales of woe and recovery

“Show me a gambler, and I’ll show you a loser.”—Mario Puzo

Hard-luck stories are never hard to find. Drop a buck in a jukebox, press any song, and chances are you’re going to hear hard luck and trouble.

Or, you can go to Oroville, one of the poorest towns in one of the poorest counties in California. If you can’t find any hard-luck stories on the streets, head to either of the town’s two Indian casinos. That’s where some hard-luck stories go to grow.

What follows are three hard-luck gambling stories germinated in casinos and elsewhere, told by the people who harvested the troubles they sowed there.

Luck be a lady

This is the tale of a young woman who had a bit of bad luck the first time she ever ventured into a casino.

She won.


And so began her hard-luck story.

She doesn’t want her name used, not even her first name, and she doesn’t want a face-to-face interview. “I’ve humiliated myself enough,” she tells me on the phone.

Before she took control of her problem, she gambled away her entire 401(k). In one four-day gambling binge, she dropped $70,000.

“The casino had food brought to me while I played,” she says. “I got annihilated.”

She is packing her belongings as we speak, leaving town to move back in with her parents in the Bay Area. Now in her mid-30s, she’s entered a dark tunnel that cost her everything she had put together up to that time in her life, and now she is trying to grope her way out of the darkness.

She sounds shaky, though she hasn’t gambled in several months.

“There was a lady I met when I was gambling,” she tells me. “Just as crazy addicted as I was. She left the casino one night to go get more money, and she hit a pedestrian. She hit-and-ran from that accident, not just because she was freaked out, but mostly because all she could think of was getting back to the casino. That’s how powerful it is to some people.

“For me, it happened so quickly my head was spinning. It had a dreamlike quality. Money lost all meaning for me; it was just something I needed to get back into the game.”

She pauses in her narrative to take personal responsibility for what happened to her.

“I know my problems were my own fault,” she says, “but I’m so angry at the casinos for exploiting my sickness. I mean, sure, we all have to be responsible for ourselves, but doesn’t a bar have liability for over-serving someone who’s clearly out of control? Anyone could have seen I was out of control. The dealers would even tease me about it.”

She seems on the brink of tears, exasperated at the mess she has made of things.

“In Oroville, particularly, it’s a very vulnerable population,” she says. “So many poor and desperate people. I was making over six figures; I had credit out the wazoo. I could get a $10,000 cash advance in a single day. Anybody who does that kind of thing isn’t going to be able to pay back the money. Just to protect themselves, you’d think the credit-card companies would keep an eye on money withdrawn in casinos in such large amounts, but they don’t. It’s just crying out for regulation.”

And then she cuts the call short and is gone. When I call again to follow up, her phone has been disconnected, and the Butte County chapter of her life is closed.

Before she left town, she began bankruptcy proceedings, retaining Chico attorney Michael Hays as her legal counsel.

“A fair number of my clients wind up here because of those casinos,” Hays says. “When the casinos allow customers to write checks in exchange for chips, they ought to have a means of verifying if those checks are good rather than relying on the resources of the county to go after those people after the fact.”

Hard times are good times for bankruptcy attorneys, and Michael Hays runs a busy office.

“My main beef with the casinos relates to the District Attorney’s Office. If the DA wants to discourage gambling because of the social consequences—domestic violence, etc.—he shouldn’t be underwriting the collection efforts of the casinos. It should be the policy of the District Attorney’s Office to encourage the casinos not to indulge in such loose check-cashing policies. The technology exists to verify whether those accounts have money in them.”

District Attorney Mike Ramsey is well aware of the social costs that come with casino gaming.

“The social costs are recognized by the casinos themselves,” Ramsey says, “and in response they have initiated what amounts to a tax on each play of a slot machine, a special benefit fund they negotiated with the state to offset the social costs they knew gambling can bring to a community. We use the money generated by that tax to employ an economic-crimes investigator.”

Ramsey denies Hays’ allegation that his office has been lax about casino check-cashing practices.

“We have conferred with the casinos,” Ramsey says, “and we’ve been assured that they do, to the best of their ability, confirm the validity of the checks they’re cashing. And frankly, my office doesn’t have that much to do with bad checks cashed in the casinos because they have their own insurance policies against bad checks.

“We get substantially more bad checks—by huge multiples—cashed at grocery stores. We get only a handful from the casinos.”

As to other social problems, Ramsey adds: “We have noted domestic-violence cases that had their genesis in losses at the casinos. But it’s kind of difficult to make the link. There have been instances when people have said they were motivated to steal to feed their gambling habit, but nothing like the number of cases we get where people are stealing to feed their drug habits.”

When I asked Gold Country Casino General Manager Jack Fisher about the young woman who lost $70,000 at his establishment, he was taken aback.

“No one in my position wants to call anyone a liar, especially our customers,” Fisher told me, “but we know when a customer has taken a major loss, and no one here knows anything about anyone losing $70,000 in a four-day period. We’d know if that happened, and we’re utterly unaware of any such big loss recently.”

Chris Ledgerwood, chief financial officer for the casino, added: “Any amount of cash, in or out, over $10,000 we’re required to file with the feds. That’s required by Title 31, and the intent of that legislation was to catch any money laundering.”

Both men assured me that they are committed to protecting gamblers against their worst tendencies. “We try to offer help to problem gamblers,” Fisher said. “We will also exclude them if they ask us to do so. We’re always concerned about our customers. We’re in the entertainment business, and that’s our objective. We’re here in the hopes that people will have a good time and want to come back. That’s our bottom line.”

Photo By Karen O’Neill

The salesman’s tale

If you’re a romantic, you might chalk up this story of personal redemption to the love of a good woman. The recipient of that good woman’s love is a former salesman, a man in his early 40s with lots of miles on him, miles both literal and figurative, racked up on the road, where he spent much of his life selling high-end cookware at fairs and shows.

He looks like a salesman, clean cut and with an anxious-to-please manner. The stresses of his gambling addiction haven’t marked him. He looks youthful, like a frat boy on the brink of middle age.

“I’ve always been compulsive about one thing or another—cigarettes, pot, you name it,” he tells me. “Four years ago I bought an RV, and I lived in it, going around to trade shows. I had my own life on the road—a dog, my own bed. I didn’t have a crew or any immediate supervision, and I could make $3,000 in a weekend.

“I was spending most of my time in Los Angeles, and there are more card tables in L.A. than in Las Vegas. I got to the point where I’d be playing cards whenever I wasn’t actually working, and sometimes I’d let the work go, too. Sometimes I was in such a hurry to get back to the tables I wouldn’t even break down my booth after a show.

“I only had to call in to the home office once a week, but after a while I was even missing those calls.”

In due time, he found himself living in Las Vegas, playing in midnight poker tournaments. He had some initial good luck, the kind of luck he kept chasing.

“I wanted to be a big shot,” he says, “and I started buying in at the bigger-limit games. I read all the books, and I wasn’t a bad player, but nobody wins all the time, and I burned through a bunch of money doing that. I was living cheap in my RV, and those Vegas games were always open, and they kept calling my name.”

It was harder finding games on the road, but the ubiquity of card rooms and Indian casinos made it easier for the salesman to service his gambling jones. There was a time not long ago when he was losing $20,000 a year at the tables.

“I didn’t hold anything back from being a gambler,” he says. “I embraced it as I had embraced being a pot smoker. Being a pot smoker had been my reality, and then being a gambler became my identity.”

His story turns on a time when his mother was about to have a double mastectomy in Southern California. His father couldn’t screw up the courage to face that emotional trauma, so the dutiful son agreed to drive south to lend whatever support his presence might provide his mom.

And he had every intention of doing just that, right up until the moment he succumbed to the lure of the green felt and drove into the parking lot of a Sacramento poker club called The Lucky Derby, where he lost the money he needed to get him to his mother’s bedside.

“I had to call my mom, who was about to get both of her breasts chopped off,” he says, “and I had to hit her up for money to get down there.”

She sent him the money, and he managed to avoid the temptation to risk that money, too, but the shame of what he’d done propelled him to a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous. It wasn’t his first such meeting, but it was the one that did the trick.

“I broke down at that meeting,” he says. “And that time I really got the message. I was a miserable son of a bitch. There was no excuse for me. When I gambled I had no ability to stop, not even when my mother was about to go under the knife.”

He was steeled in his resolve by yet another woman, however, a woman he fell in love with, a woman he asked to be his wife just last month.

“She keeps me focused on the guy I want to be,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a 50-year-old pot smoker whose life is defined by his ability to smoke weed, and I don’t want to become a 50-year-old degenerate gambler. I’ve got an hourly-rate job now that pays me less than I used to lose at poker, but I’m surrounded by family, I interact with healthy people. If I was still alone out there on the road, without a Gamblers Anonymous meeting to go to, and without people I know, I would be back at those tables again.

“It’s been more than 400 days since I gambled,” he adds. “That demon’s either shrunk down to manageable size, or he wasn’t as big as I thought he was. It’s taken a year to start opening the bills from the collection agencies, but I can make commitments now and keep them. I can be honest with people.”

Less than two decades ago, California had no casinos; today there are 65 of them, all on Indian land. Two of those casinos are here in Butte County, both in Oroville. More than a dozen Indian casinos are on the drawing boards, including a big gaming emporium projected to open in Marysville in the near future. Marysville, too, is an extremely poor town, and such towns welcome the jobs casinos bring.

There is no way to know with certainty how much money California’s Indian casinos take in each year. Dr. Alan Meister, who does an annual survey published by Casino City Press, pegs their 2008 income at $7.3 billion, or just less than $200 for every man, woman, and child in California.

Look around the county at the proliferation of cash-advance outfits, storefront businesses now found in almost every strip mall. Those places make the word usury seem like understatement, charging interest rates on short-term loans so costly they would make a Mafia loan shark blush. Among their customers are compulsive gamblers who borrow at sky-high rates in hopes that a big win will get them back to even, or maybe even a little ahead.

But the odds are always with the house, whether the house is the casinos, the credit-card companies, or the sleazy cash-advance loan outfits.

Lower Wyandotte Road, the street that funnels into Feather Falls Casino, is known to some locals as the Zombie Highway because so many pedestrian gamblers walk that road, trudging to and from the tables at considerable risk from the cars speeding by. There is no sidewalk for these zombies, people who are sometimes drunk or stoned, whose minds are churning their losses, trying to figure ways to get back in action. Few are pedestrians by choice.

According to a former casino employee—a guy who once worked as casino security chief—some of those travelers on the Zombie Highway underwrite their gambling adventures with proceeds from criminal activity.

“Make no mistake,” he says, “there’s a direct link between some casino clientele and the ongoing problem of residential burglaries. Burglary is a common fund-raiser for losers in communities that play host to casinos. Their take from residential burglaries gets run through the pawn shops, and then that money recycles back to the casinos.”

Photo By Karen O’Neill

Mr. Lucky lucks out

I’ll call him Mr. Lucky, just for the irony dividend. He’s a big man, with a ready laugh, pushing 60, and looking vaguely like Tony Soprano, with mannerisms and speech patterns reminiscent of the East Coast.

“I got the first inkling I had a problem way back in ’82,” he says. “I was in San Jose, a regular at the Garden City Casino, playing Lo-Ball and Hold ’em. I was selling office supplies to Silicon Valley back then. It was a very lucrative business. The salesmen would meet in the bar and play bar dice, and that soon spun out of control. I was constantly late with my rent and car payments. I would lose $400-$500 a session at bar dice. We played regularly instead of making our sales calls.”

After that job ended, he found his way to others.

“I became manager of a service station in San Jose,” he says. “I don’t know how I got the owner’s confidence, but I have good people skills when I’m straight. I wasn’t gambling right off, but inevitably I started gambling again. I started taking money out of the cash register. A hundred dollars here, a hundred dollars there, and pretty quick I was in over $500, running down to the Garden City Casino, trying to win that money back. I got caught short, and I lost that job.

“I managed to become manager of the 16-unit apartment complex where I was living. I had custody of my son from my first marriage, and by the time he was 6 or 7, I’d leave him sleeping in the apartment, and I’d go to Garden City. I’d try to be home by morning when he woke up, and I usually was.”

He pauses, giving me to know that there were more than a few times when he wasn’t.

“I was collecting rents, and people would sometimes pay in cash. I had a separate receipt book for the cash payments. I got into those people for something like $4,000, telling the owners of the complex that some of those tenants hadn’t paid, or were late. Meanwhile, I was losing those payments at the casino.

“I was in prison for eight years,” he says. “I went in a terrible direction when I was at my lowest. I was in my third marriage, and on the surface things seemed pretty good, but beneath the surface I was just thinking, ‘Fuck it all.’ ”

Mr. Lucky got out of prison in 2005, having served that stretch for a crime unconnected to his gambling compulsion.

“I came out clean and sober,” he says. “A few times in prison, I did meth, or marijuana. One time I even tried heroin. But I got off all that. I even managed to quit smoking while I was in prison.

“I started gambling again in April of ’06. Some of these guys who get out of prison are standing on the corner panhandling, but I was working. I got a job, despite my record. I didn’t have a car. Rode a bike. A friend encouraged me to start eating at the casino buffets because it was cheap. After eight years away, I was impressed by the changes—iPods and lots of Indian casinos.”

He chuckles at the unearned sense of superiority he carried in those days.

“All the smokers and drinkers in the casinos,” he says, “they were assholes. I was sporting a tan and looking good every day, with my weight in check. I began to learn about blackjack. Previously, I’d had no savvy about how to play that game. I learned what I’d been doing wrong, and I began making money. Some nights I was carrying out $400 or $500. I managed to accumulate some credit cards, despite a bankruptcy I’d filed before I went to prison. That record was expunged by the time I got out of the joint.”

Then Mr. Lucky’s luck ran out.

“It all started to turn to shit after a couple of months. I’d get up and go to the casino before work. Play from 6 to 7:45, then rush to work. I’d be impatient with people at the tables who slowed down the action. Then I’d go back to the casino after work, lose, and be miserable again. I’d borrow against the credit card. After four months of gambling every day of the week, the dealers would say, ‘We ought to get you a time card,’ and the next shift of dealers would come in and say, ‘Wow, are you still here?’ ”

He sighs with exasperation.

“It was impossible to stop, but I knew I had to. What really saved me was, my son was coming to visit, and I knew then I had to stop. I was ashamed of myself. He was grown up, in his 30s, and I didn’t want him to see I was gambling again. So I told my parole officer my gambling was becoming a problem, but he said there wasn’t anything he could do about that because it wasn’t a condition of my parole. I tried to explain to him that gambling could lead me to any number of bad behaviors. So he told me he didn’t want me in the casinos anymore. That made me stop. Along with Gamblers Anonymous. But I needed someone to tell me no. I talked the parole officer into doing just that, and I’m happy with my life right now.”

It’s almost sun-up in Oroville, with new light coating the ridges beyond the big neon sign advertising buffet specials and slot tournaments on offer here at Gold Country Casino. Though it’s a quiet hour in the 24/7 life of this place, there are still gamblers feeding slot machines and a few weary dealers serving a handful of players at the blackjack and pai-gow tables. The neon sign is jubilant with color, but there is little that is festive about a casino just before dawn. Its mostly losers trying to chase down the luck, tired players who are, for the most part, now in pursuit of their own money, trying to recoup what they lost hours ago.

One of the players shrugs himself away from the felt and makes his way to the ATM for more cash, but he’s tapped out, his limit exceeded, and he slouches toward the morning light outside the big glass doors, beyond the sound of the chattering slot machines. As he leaves, a cab pulls up delivering a replacement gambler, an old man with an oxygen tank on wheels who heads to the penny slots to begin his day. Or to end it.