Problem Gambling and Seniors, Part One - The Psychology of the Casino

"We are going to begin a five-part series about problem gambling and our seniors," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly. "I believe it goes without saying that gambling is not a way to fund your retirement." Problem gambling for seniors certainly can lead to catastrophic outcomes, both emotionally and financially for those who live on fixed incomes.

Attorney RJ Connelly III

"We are not dealing with a thirty-year-old who has time to recoup their losses," stated Attorney Connelly. "Seniors do not have a whole lot of time to recover from devastating losses. These are individuals who have worked their entire life with a plan in place to provide for their retirement. Suddenly they find themselves dipping into retirement accounts, selling that second house, or even taking out a mortgage on their current home. Problem gambling disrupts and destroys a gambler's personal life and creates the kind of stress no one in their senior years should be experiencing."

Our series on Gambling Addiction and Seniors will be in five parts:

  • Part 1 - The Psychology of Seniors

  • Part 2 - The Dangers of Online Gambling

  • Part 3 - Spotting the Problem and Discussing It

  • Part 4 - Beginning the Financial Recovery

  • Part 5 - Recovery, Treatment and Moving Forward

In our first part of gambling and seniors, we will look at those things that casino operators do to draw you in and then once there, keep you spending in hopes of the big score. And there's much more involved in the casino experience than just a good marketing strategy.

Gambling and Other Addictions

Seniors continue to be one of the fastest-growing groups of gamblers and with the proliferation of casinos in this country and the aging of America, it's safe to assume that the problem will continue to grow. As if casinos with their slots and table games and States promoting their endless lottery games are not enough, the legalization of “sports betting” has added yet another layer to this problem with an eye on legalizing online gaming across the country.

Sports gambling a money maker

In 2018, the Rhode Island state legislature passed a law allowing sports betting in the state. In Connecticut, retail sports betting launched in September of 2021 and online betting became available in October of 2021. Massachusetts continues to be the holdout state in southern New England regarding the legalization of sports betting, but their governor continues to be under pressure to move forward with the legislation.

When it comes to addictions, gambling is a more behaviorally and cognitively based disorder than substance addiction, however, there does exist a strong connection between gambling and other addictive disorders. Multiple research studies suggest that there are high comorbidity rates between substance use disorders (SUD), in particular alcohol, and problem gambling. A large study in this country found that 73% of people who participated in the study who were previously diagnosed with a gambling addiction also had an alcohol use disorder.

Catherine's Story

I worked with a grandmother (we'll call her Catherine), who was from the Boston area. She went to the casino in Connecticut at least three times a week, playing “strictly slots”, as she would say, to "forget my personal problems." But the hours she would spend there also included free drinks and plenty of cigarettes, which exacerbated her alcohol abuse and contributed to the worsening of her COPD.

Catherine started with the penny slots, moved on to the quarter machines, and finally spent her time at the dollar slots, “that’s where the real money can be made,” she told me. She entered treatment after her daughter found unpaid tax bills, her electricity shut off, and a refrigerator loaded with warm, rotting food. She was living alone after the death of her husband and used the social interactions at the casino as a replacement for her five-decade-long marriage.

"The casino became my new family...I made friends, not only other people my age, but all the waitresses knew me by name, they seemed to really care." --- Catherine

“The casino became my new family,” Catherine said. “I made friends, not only other people my age, but all the waitresses knew me by name, they seemed to really care. I would give them big tips and they spent time talking with me. If I were feeling down, I would walk in, and just being there brought me back to life. There was no place else I wanted to be!”

The excitement of winning

“After Art died (her husband),” she continued, “everything just got worse. We would enjoy a glass of wine with dinner each night but that was it. Now I drink first thing in the morning and because of my COPD, my coughing has gotten worse because I smoke more now, too. When I got his life insurance money, I thought I had it made but it’s all gone now, and so are the other savings we had. All I have now are his VA survivor benefits, my own social security, and a house that I will most likely be losing if I continue this way.”

Catherine had three children and four grandchildren, all of whom were scattered around the country. It wasn’t until Christmas of that year that her oldest daughter found the truth of how bad life had become for her mother.

“When she came, I had completely lost control of everything in my life. I was hooked on poker slots and spent more time at the casino than at home. When my car broke down, I called a friend I had met there to pick me up and take me to Mohegan Sun. I started borrowing money from people and the more I borrowed, the more depressed I became and the more I would drink,” she said. "But I couldn't stop."

“Right around Thanksgiving, I had really hit a new low. My electricity had been off since August, I had no heat or hot water. I kept a gym membership that was ten dollars a month just so I could shower and stay warm, and when I wasn’t at the casino, I was at the senior center where I could eat and get cigarettes from people. By the second week of December, for the first time in my life, I began thinking about suicide. If my daughter hadn’t arrived, I don’t know if I would be here right now. I was so ashamed when she found me, so ashamed.”

"By the second week of December, for the first time in my life, I began thinking about suicide. If my daughter hadn't arrived, I don't know if I would be here right now. I was so ashamed when she found me, so ashamed." --- Catherine

Catherine attended a residential treatment program and was referred to financial counseling. She was put in touch with an elder law attorney who helped her sell her house with the proceeds going towards her debts, she moved into an affordable apartment, the excess monies were put into a trust, and his office managed her accounts and paid her bills. But the truth is, she was one of the few success stories. There are many more who end up losing everything because of their gambling addiction and the problems resulting from it.

The Psychology of the Casino

There is nothing accidental about how a casino is put together. Every shop, every entrance, every sign, and even the employees assigned to tables are intentionally in place because research into the psychology of gambling has provided casino operators with insights into how to keep the customer there and spending.

The psychology of a casino is, if nothing else, fascinating. There is a tried-and-true model that they all use, and it obviously works, even if you know what they are doing to you. As Catherine said, when she was feeling depressed, “just being there brought me back to life. There was no place else I wanted to be!” And that’s exactly what they are counting on.

Not a Clock in Sight

In the age of cell phones, people have stopped wearing watches. And when someone is engrossed in the whirling slot machine, reaching into their pocket to take out the phone can interfere with the rush, so time passes and passes quickly. Casino operators know this and take advantage of it. Think about the environment -- the spinning wheels, the ringing bells -- all distractions and all things designed to keep the player from caring about the time.

No need for clocks

Clockless walls eliminate the reminder of how much time you have been sitting and losing money as the minutes meld into hours and day moves into night. Research shows that the player will only become aware of time when they are thirsty, so they also keep you plied with refreshments. It’s a well-concocted plan to separate you from your money.

No Need for Windows

We talked about the day moving into the night but surely you would notice the sun going down and the moon hanging in the sky, right? Wrong. There are also no windows in the casino. Yes, they have them by the entrances and exits, but once the monster swallows you, the outdoors becomes a distant memory.

Not a window in sight

Think about this, if you could see the light outside changing, your body clock would kick in and tell you it’s time to go. Once it became dark, you would start to feel sleepy and that would move you to leave. But they got you hooked.

They also don’t want you to see anything interesting happening outside. I remember about ten years ago; I was at a concert at a local casino when a truck fire occurred in the parking lot outside one of the entrances to the building. Firetrucks, smoke, and flames caused patrons to leave their seats and walk towards the doors to watch. Casino security moved in, bringing along curtains to secure the area, and closed the entrance. Of course, they detoured everyone through one of the busiest casino areas.

Very smart and surely something they plan and practice on a regular basis. As the saying goes, never let a good crisis go to waste.

Sensory Stimulation

What is more exciting than the inside of a casino? People yell when they win, lights flashing, sirens, and the whirring sound of the electronic slots that are strangely hypnotic. They are all meant to convey one message – you can win, others are! In reality, the only big winners are the casinos. But by the sounds of things, you would never believe that.

Bell, whistles and lights

Imagine another scenario. You walk into a gaming room where all the customers are losing and sitting around complaining. No bells ringing, no lights flashing, just people upset and broke. Would you spend a dime there? It's doubtful. So operators know just how to keep things lively and just enough people winning to stimulate the free flow of cash.

It Feels Just Like Home

Even with all the sensory stimulation, the rest of the casino lighting is low, mellow, and inviting. It’s reminiscent of your living room or sitting around a fire drinking a hot chocolate or warm latte -- and who wants to get up and leave that type of setting?

The operators want you to feel cozy and safe, that’s what keeps you spending and feeling good about gambling. After all, if they care enough about you to make this such a comfortable place, they must also care about your finances, too. Just a few more spins and you’ll win, just wait and see -- they count on that thinking.

Colors, colors everywhere

Ever look at the carpet? Have you ever seen one that was only plain green, or blue, or even yellow? Doubtful. And there is also a reason for that.

Most of us would never put a casino pattern carpet in our homes because as a friend of mine said one time, “looking at the floor makes me seasick!” And it’s meant to do that. The patterns are swirls, lines, circles, and splashes of color. These patterns become mesmerizing to the mind and strangely pleasing after a while.

How about the walls? They are often painted shades of red or gold, which to the mind is comforting and evokes a feeling of safety. Again, all designed to keep you feeling homey and spending your cash.

And when it comes to cleanliness, you will see workers cleaning everywhere. They are in the casinos, the bars, and the bathrooms -- the only place you may see more cleaners is at Disneyland. Keeping the place spotless tells your mind that the operators value you and want you to be safe and healthy. Again, it makes you feel at home. You are part of the family, by golly.

Do you go shopping at the stores in the casino? You certainly know that the prices are higher than other retail outlets on the outside, but you buy anyway. Why? One of the reasons is the ambient music being played. It's always soft, easy to listen to, and keeps the shopper in a trance-like state and again, relaxed, and ready to spend freely.

Services Other Than Gambling

After sitting for hours at a slot, drinking free alcohol, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and becoming more frustrated at losing, the body still has its biological needs -- you need to use the bathroom and eat something.

Inviting but expensive Casino stores

To find a restroom or a food court, you must go deeper into the bowels of the casino. Many of these services are usually wedged at the back of the building, designed to keep you further away from the exits. Often, a shortcut takes you through another in-house casino, and it's not by accident. If you are ready to leave and have been lucky enough to have won and are ready to cash in your winnings, walking to the exit that takes you through yet another casino, it's a trick designed to separate you from your winnings. It's a version of "Point of Sale" (POS) marketing.

Think about going food shopping. Grocery stores commonly place merchandise shelving in between each available register, featuring items such as magazines, candy, gum, and batteries. Sodas are often displayed in a small refrigeration unit at the end of these displays. Items near the POS frequently move at one-and-a-half to three times as fast as the same product on a shelf elsewhere in the store, and some items in high-traffic supermarkets have been reported to sell as much as sixty-four times faster. In a casino, this gives you one more chance to win, or take what you did win and try to win again.

Coming Close but No Cigar

Nothing, but nothing, gets the juices flowing like a near win. Think about a baseball game. What’s more exciting than a home run? A near-home run that’s nearly over the fence until the opposing team grabs it.

Another exciting bet

When the scene is replayed over and over, the adrenaline flows with every replay. The same with a near win at a casino. You swing for the fences thinking that sooner or later, you'll get that home run. Unfortunately, like in baseball, there are many more strikeouts than round-trippers.

Slot machines are set up to give smaller payouts leaving you just one star, one cherry, or one dollar sign away from the big hit. In Blackjack, players always win hands giving hope to other players that everyone will walk away with money, so they keep betting and betting until the money is gone. The house will never lose, you can count on that.

Like playing craps? The dice is in your hands, so you are in control, right? Well, you may think so but once again, the odds are always with the house. By watching near winners, the casino is giving the players a false sense of security while cleaning out your account.

We Like You So Much We’ll Give You Free Things

Called “comps” by casino operators, these free giveaways keep the blood flowing for the casino. Employees give away free food, tickets to shows, buffets, and even a cup of quarters. But like the famous potato chip commercial of years past, they know you can’t stop at just one. These things keep you coming back.

We like you, we really like you

I remember talking to one client who told me about the free shows she watched followed by a "meet and greet" with the talent and a great party afterward. I asked her how much that show cost her, she replied, “It was free, I just told you that!” I clarified my question by asking her how much she lost at the casino that day, to which she replied, “Close to a thousand, I suppose.” That was the actual cost of the show, I told her.

She could have purchased tickets for $80.00 a seat, eaten at the buffet for $29.00, and gone home with $900 more in her pocket. There is nothing free in the casino world. Remember, whatever a casino gives out in comps, they reap back a hundred-fold.

Have A Drink on Us

I suppose this could be classified as a freebie but the discussion about consuming alcohol while gambling is a different subject with serious ramifications. As we discussed earlier with our client Catherine, her casino addiction also exacerbated her alcohol problem.

Keep the drinks flowing

The operators know that drinks will keep the player cheerful and willing to spend. The waitresses will run to you when the glass is empty, not only keeping you filled with a mind-altering substance but appealing to your narcissistic side. Imagine, you are so important that the house is paying attention to you. Yes, another game played by casino operators.

If you are playing blackjack, the casino operators know the more alcohol you consume, the more of a sloppy game you will play. As the brain becomes more intoxicated, basic decisions can no longer be made. Rational thinking is out the door as impulse takes over. Need we say more?

We All Want to Feel Important

I mentioned this earlier and will elaborate on it here. Almost all of us fall for the trick of others making us feel important. Those who visit the casinos and play the penny slots are less likely to get "comped" than those who spend time at blackjack tables -- it all comes down to the money.

Those who win big surely do get the attention of the casino operators through free hotel rooms, upgrades to existing rooms, and high price meals at the best steak house in the building. Although the casinos may be putting out big money upfront, they know by appealing to the player's sense of narcissism, they will get their money back and then some. Keeping big winners playing so the money does not leave the building is a crucial part of the casino business.

A Maze Called A Casino

If you could fly over top of the casino, you would see a layout like a cornfield maze that pops up around Halloween. The only difference is, the cornfield maze has a planned layout, the casino is designed to confuse you.

When you enter one casino in the building, the dollar machines may be at the entrance while at another, it’s the quarter machines. This is designed to confuse – purposely.

You will find little nooks where machines are tucked away and large areas where tall machines keep you from seeing where the exits are located. Newer casinos have been built with low ceilings to keep the player from seeing landmarks, keeping them from learning the "lay of the land". Now, add a few drinks to this and the player becomes disoriented trying to find their way out and sit down to just play a few more games so they can "gather their thoughts".

The floor plan of a casino is a maze designed to direct you right back to the gaming floor

Using What's Familiar

Casino operators know that many who visit come from out of town but there does exist a large contingent of locals who patronize their business. To capitalize on this, the sales departments of casinos often make deals with other local businesses, offering free meals at a well-known location in town and some will even feature a free car to be won obtained from a local, well-trusted dealer (in return for advertising, of course).

This is good business for all concerned and the player feels that if a well-respected local business is associated with the casino, it must be a trustworthy place that cares about the community. And perhaps they do, but remember that they are a business that needs to make money to stay open.

Oxygen-Filled Buildings?

I have had more than one client tell me that losing money was the fault of the casino. One gentleman was adamant when he stated, “I was really tired and ready to go home and then, like a wave of cold water hit me, I was suddenly wide awake. I know that these places pump oxygen into the building to keep you going. When this happened, I lost another $400.”

Smoking would be a fire hazard in oxygen

The theory behind this statement is that oxygen will create a feeling of euphoria for the players and keep those who are tiring wide awake and, spending wildly. This is a myth. Although they do keep it cooler than an average building, with all the other sensory stimulation going on, oxygen is not needed to accomplish this.

I also know fire officials who say such a plan would get a casino shut down immediately. Can you imagine the fire hazard that would be associated with extra oxygen in a building where players are smoking, and electric slot machines are shooting out lights and sound by the second? Would such a stunt be worth the liability should a fire break out? These are some of the major trick's casinos use to separate you from your money.

Why Seniors?

Although losing money is never good for anyone, younger people have time to rebuild their retirement funds again while unfortunately, older adults will have no time to recover. Health issues also arise for seniors due to increased drinking and breathing in unhealthy levels of second-hand smoke. They also lose track of time easier and often skip medications while busy at the slot machines.