The choice to play

Part 2 in a two-part series: VLT accessibility not the problem, Atlantic Lottery Corp. says

Published on March 26, 2014
— Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

To check out video lottery terminal (VLT) usage today is as simple as a run down to a section of Topsail Road, from The Village Shopping Centre to Mount Pearl Square. There are at least 20 VLTs located at four separate locations on the stretch of road.
Early on a Friday afternoon at Mister Billiards, for example, the three faux-leather couches in two different colours are empty, while a trio sitting at the bar emits snippets of friendly conversation and laughter. Apart from that chatter, the five seats at the VLTs are full and the machines are rolling steadily.

Walking into the front porch of the Misty Blue Lounge further down the way means being confronted with the sign of the hours of business: 12 to 12 every day. VLT use can legally start at 12:30 p.m.

About 1:30 p.m., through the inside door, the lights of the first machine are noticeable just to the left, with a small fan of natural light making it through the front windows. Step forward to the bar, or turn left to find four more machines.

“You always won, every time you placed a bet,” Bob Seger sings on the radio to the VLT users and the bartender — the only other person in the room.

A woman walks through the front door, pushes back the hood of her wet raincoat, takes a spin around and, seeing there is no seat available at a machine, leaves again.

A stenciled sign tells people not to stand over others who are playing.

A bartender from another bar on the strip tells The Telegram he has seen arguments arise over who is next in line for a VLT.

“Ninety per cent of the people that are there pumping it in don’t have it to be pumping it in,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding it is common for him to see people lose $300 or $400 in a single VLT at his bar. He described feeling powerless as he watched a customer lose $1,600 in a single day.

Downtown St. John’s at Erin’s Pub on Water Street, there was not a soul on the machines late Friday afternoon. Co-owner and Shanneyganock frontman Chris Andrews was asked why he decided to place them in the bar at all.

“Because everybody else does. If everybody else gets rid of them, I’ll get rid of them,” he responded, straightforward.

“You have to be competitive. And they’re for adults. It’s like anything. You can go buy alcohol. You can go and buy cigarettes. You can’t stop people from doing what they want to do.”

He said he and the staff keep an eye out for anyone throwing away thousands as the result of an addiction, ready to ask a question or give a comment to encourage a person to walk away.  

But with that said, “it’s a form of entertainment and 90 per cent of the people who come here use it as that. It’s a small percentage of people who seem to have an issue with it,” he said.

A few days later in Paradise, one of the people making up that small percentage, a self-identified gambling addict, talked about his highs and lows while looking out a coffee shop window — two locations housing 10 VLTs sit in his line of sight.

In his early 30s, university educated, he has maintained long-term relationships and kept steady, full-time employment while at his worst in terms of his gambling. He contacted The Telegram after reading the comments of another individual, going by the name John Doe, in the paper.

“It’s been 13 years where ... it’s been a struggle,” said Frank (not his real name), who estimated he has lost $250,000 cash and credit, mostly through VLTs. That includes money he owes family and friends and money taken from past employers. Every cent of the money taken was later repaid, he said, usually with the help of the same people.

Frank started on the machines at the age of 19, when he was working in a bar. He tried his hand with $20 in a machine one night at the start of a summer. By the end of the season, he was making trips to the ATM in order to play longer.

He went away for school and ended up spending his school loans at a casino in the same city, throwing away an estimated $40,000 while still in his mid-20s, mostly on cards there. He had himself placed on the casino’s exclusion list, denying him access.

“Now there’s still VLTs in bars in (that city), but to me, at least where I was living, they were a lot less accessible than here,” he said, adding it was just a feeling. When he ultimately returned to Newfoundland and Labrador, he kept finding himself in bars and restaurants, around VLTs.

He racked up debt on the machines, saying some locations are more welcoming than others.

He was never once forced to play, he said, but had an addiction for which he had yet to really seek help.

Asked about his worst day, he said it was two to three years ago and ran him $4,000. “It was a 24-hour period. It was two days, $4,000, and it would have been more if I could have got my hands on it.”

On his worst day, he simply sat in a bar on Torbay Road and played the machines.

“It’s a mind frame that unless you’re in it, you can’t even fathom it,” he said.

 

Support

He started seeking help with Gamblers Anonymous. A few months ago, he was confronted by his employer and admitted to his addiction for the first time to someone outside of his inner circle of family and friends. He is now unemployed, but attends group sessions offered by Eastern Health.

“It’s that feeling that you get from doing it, the money just gets you there,” he said.

In addition to a weekly support meeting, Eastern Health offers individual counselling.

“From April 2012 to March 2013, Eastern Health received 75 referrals for gambling-only counselling and 19 referrals for people coping with both gambling and substance addictions, which is three per cent of the total number of addictions referrals,” stated a spokeswoman in response to questions.

“The majority of these referrals are related to video lottery use, with a few online gambling and game of chance addictions. Referrals are near evenly split between males and females.”

For the same time period, the provincial, 24-hour Gambling Helpline — 1-888-899-4357 (HELP) — received 143 calls.

“We want people to enjoy these games as a form of entertainment and to do that via making an informed choice to play,” said Craig Ennis, a spokesman for the Atlantic Lottery Corp. (ALC), when contacted about VLTs this week.

He said the ALC’s approved retailers are trained in responsible gaming. Separately, the provincial government’s video lottery regulations stipulate only five machines are allowed per location, no longer per liquor licence.

“In 2013, we rolled out new terminals to replace obsolete units. The terminals in market today provide us with the flexibility to quickly introduce new responsible gaming tools as they become available. In addition, as part of our commitment to offering a responsible video lottery program, we are always keeping an eye to the market for best practices and possible enhancements,” Ennis stated.

 

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com