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GAMBLING

The Machine That Ate Bill Bennett

May 11, 2003|Marc Cooper | Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to the Nation magazine and a columnist for LA Weekly. His forthcoming book is "The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas."

Bill Bennett set himself up as the conservative right's morality czar. So he can't be surprised that a lot of people are now chuckling over the news that he lost as much as $8 million while binge-gambling in Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos over the past decade.

But what was actually going on with the guy? In one sense, Bennett was a classic high roller, wielding $200,000 credit lines in at least four casinos, going through tens of thousands of dollars in an evening, and sometimes making $500 bets. Compare this with the average American visiting Las Vegas, who plunks quarters into the slots or lays down $10 bets on the blackjack table, usually with a gambling budget of about $500 for an entire trip.

But "high roller" more typically conjures up the image of a happy-go-lucky boaster with a pinkie ring and a cigar, who plops down wads of cash on the craps or 21 tables, all the while back-slapping and glad-handing other players. What we think of as a high roller is what experts in problem gambling call an "action gambler" -- someone who's drawn to wagering for the "juice," the buzz, the flutter in the stomach. Action gamblers also enjoy the social aspect of betting. These players lose big and win big and often try -- sometimes even succeed -- in making a living off their obsession. These are adrenaline junkies who thrill to the ups and downs of playing high-wire games of cards, dice and roulette, always with the hope that the next deal or roll could change everything.

This is not Bill Bennett. With his bestselling homilies and his $50,000 speaking fees, he hardly needs to supplement his income. Bennett, by his own admission, is a "machine person" who eschews the noisy and crowded tables in favor of sitting alone for hours robotically pumping his money into faceless slot and video poker machines. Bennett claims this is purely a function of his desire for privacy. "When I go to the tables, people talk, and they want to talk about politics. I don't want that. I do this for three hours to relax," he told Newsweek.

But that doesn't ring quite true. The secluded high-stakes rooms where Bennett says he likes to play offer just as much privacy for those hunkering down at table games as for those plugged into the slots. Casinos will even open up a totally private table for those betting as high as Bennett. Instead, it seems, Bennett is just one more among a growing army of zombie-like gambling machine addicts in America.

With casino gambling now in dozens of states and slot machines as familiar to most Americans as ATMs (albeit with a reverse flow of money), more and more average people are getting hooked. "The machine gambler is someone who wants to be numbed, who wants to escape, who essentially becomes a zombie," says Bo Bernhard, an assistant professor of sociology and director of gambling research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "For these gamblers it's not at all about the money. The gambling is just a substance that fills some void in their lives."

And they are becoming the norm. The profile of the average U.S. problem gambler today is no longer a race-track sharpie or hustler blowing his paycheck on a dice game. More typically, says Bernhard, it's an alienated single mother in her 30s with a couple of years of college, addicted to the unblinking video poker screen or the quiet whir of a computer-driven slot machine. Ten days before the Bennett story broke, Bernhard told me: "What a video poker player fears most is that someone will sit down and start talking to them." Sound familiar?

On a recent weekday evening I sat in on a group therapy session at the Las Vegas-based Problem Gambling Center where Bernhard is a consultant. Among the 15 people in the room, none was a Damon Runyon type. They were sad, frightened people -- insurance salesmen, grocery checkers, waitresses and a professional or two -- who had lost, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars, their homes, their livelihoods, their families and parts of their souls, quarter by quarter in video and slot machines. They were all now struggling with great pain to break free of their addictions.

One woman cried as she admitted that on her way to the meeting, and only in her fourth day of treatment, she had stopped at the local drug store and blown a roll of quarters on video poker. Everyone sympathized with her predicament. The presiding therapist predicted this might not be the last time she succumbed to her weakness.

These are the kinds of people Bennett has made millions from, lecturing them in his books and speeches to take responsibility for their own lives. It's true he didn't end up financially ruined, but that may simply be because he had more of a cushion going in. He insists that he broke even, that he didn't have a gambling problem. But I wonder whether Bill Bennett would have recognized himself in the people in that room? And I wonder, what measures will he now take to tame whatever it is that drives him into such self-destructive behavior? No one dumps millions into gambling machines for fun or "relaxation" -- but only out of pain and obsession.

As Bennett wrote in "The Book of Virtues for Young People": "Life isn't just about winning. Much of life is about losing. It's something we do over, and over and over again."

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