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Compulsive Gamblers: Reno's Lost Souls

by J. Robin Witt

Mr. Witt, a former United Methodist minister, is now a reporter for the Nevada Appeal in Carson City, Nevada. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 30, 1974, pp. 1011-1013. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


On a Saturday afternoon in a betting parlor in Reno, Nevada, Jack, a young mid-westerner, sips his second beer and rolls the cool bottle across his forehead. Cigarette dangling between his fingers, he peers eagerly at the flitting figures on the television screen.

UCLA and USC are playing football to determine which team will represent the Pacific Eight Conference in the 1974 Rose Bowl. Jack is nervous. He has bet heavily on UCLA -- and his team is losing. He folds his hands in a parody of prayer and mumbles, ĎPlease, God, let them win this time."

Actually, Jack would prefer a more direct route to a win. He tells the crowd around him how he won a bet in Nebraska: a bribed official in the Big Eight Conference "misofficiated" an important football game, and Jack, who was privy to the officialís chicanery, won hundreds of dollars on the game. But cheating does not seem to be in the cards today. UCLA will lose and so will Jack.

Still, he has hopes for a Southeast Conference game. He tunes in on it by radio and finds that his luck there is better. Then he checks a ticker tape which is mechanically providing data on games throughout the nation. When the whole count is in, Jack will be a winner -- today.

All this time Jack has been "working." Gambling is his profession and his only means of support. He is employed by no club or casino. He comes to a Reno betting parlor each week, to fleece or be fleeced.

At Harrahís Casino nearby, Wanette, a 50-year-old widow, busily feeds $5 tokens into a slot machine. Her arm and back are aflame with pain, a condition her physician warns her will worsen if she continues to play the slots. However, she won a $5,000 jackpot last night, and she intends to blow all of it before she leaves the casino. Why? She explains, "My psychiatrist in Europe told me that I have a need to punish myself."

I

Jack and Wanette are compulsive gamblers. Jack is young and self-confident. He is sure that he can consistently overcome the odds stacked against him. His experience tells him that he can go on winning forever. Wanette wants to stop, but she doesnít know how. Expensive psychoanalysis in Europe did not cure her. And now that she is back in Reno she can find no one to help her.

Jack and Wanette are the products of a society that allows gambling to flourish. You will find their type in California card rooms or at Massachusetts dog- or horse-racing tracks. But these two express little interest in gambling in areas other than Nevada. That is where the action is. In Reno you can bet on anything you could bet on anywhere in the country, and in Reno everything is legal. In other words, Nevada actively encourages betting. According to William R. Eadington, assistant professor of economics at the University of Nevada at Reno, that state derives half its income directly or indirectly from gaming sources.

The U.S. Department of Public Health estimates the number of compulsive gamblers in the nation at nearly 6 million -- a figure that rivals the statistic for alcoholism. But in northern Nevada no one knows or seems to care how many compulsive gamblers reside there. Whatever the number, it appears that their hardship does not outweigh the $800 million in revenue the state generates each year from gambling. So lucrative is the gaming industry that Nevada has apparently decided to put its money on producing more gamblers instead of on programs for rehabilitating them. In fact, few Nevadans will openly admit that there are compulsive gamblers, for to admit as much would also be to admit that there is something inherently evil in their states major industry.

Nevada legalized gambling in 1931. Other states are now considering similar legislation. However, before they do so they should take a serious look at the price Nevada has paid for its experiment. They should note Harry S. Trumanís words:

If you want to be like Nevada. thatís your business. Nevada is the only black spot on the United States continent. So go ahead and do what you damn well please. . . . Legalized gambling is the worst thing in the world. I donít believe in it. Too many people have jumped out of windows because of Nevada. It is a fever.

One consequence of Nevadaís action is that (according to the Federal Bureau of Investigationís Uniform Crime Report) Renoís crime rate today is far higher than that of most other American cities of comparable size. But perhaps the most damning consequence of legalized gambling, is that it tends to anesthetize the gambling stateís moral sense. Nevada, and Reno in particular, have totally forgotten about Jack and Wanette. The Reno community has failed to set up even one rehabilitative agency for the compulsive gamblers who want help. That failure is accounted for by a laissez-faire attitude toward gambling that permeates this growing community. It says in essence: "Do what you want so long as you can pay for it. Only the individual can decide what is right for himself. If he gets into trouble with his vices, then itís his problem."

I asked Bob Brigham, a vice-president at Harrahís, what the casinoís official policy is in this regard. He answered that Harrahís felt no shame about its activities and needed no policy on compulsive gamblers. "We donít think people who gamble too much are any of our business," he told me. "Wouldnít you get angry if a restaurant waitress told you that you were too fat to have a second piece of pie? We feel the same way about so-called compulsive gamblers. If they want to lose their money, thatís their business."

II

Many Reno residents have adopted this "liberal" view of Harrahís. Even Renoís "enlightened" churches agree with it. Few of them are willing to rock the economic boat. After all, they profit from tithes paid by casino employees, and their budgets and building programs are enhanced by the depression-proof stability of the gaming industry.

One might say that many Reno churches suffer from a type of moral schizophrenia, a separation between belief and action. The United Methodist Church, for example, has a history of condemning gambling. Its "Social Principles" states specifically: ". . . gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic and spiritual life, and destructive of good government. As an act of faith and love, Christians should abstain from gambling, and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice." Yet no United Methodist Church in Reno has called the gambling industry to task, exhorted its members not to gamble or set up rehabilitation programs for compulsive gamblers.

Even so, United Methodism should not be considered ethically lazier than other denominations. The fact is that so far only one church in Reno has made a serious effort to deal with the problems of compulsive gamblers. That single church is Faith Lutheran, led by David Babcock. Pastor Babcock once tried to organize a Gamblers Anonymous group and failed. He blames the failure on Renoís relatively small size: We keep trying to start groups, but we canít keep a critical mass built up." However, he has succeeded in starting another kind of group an organization called Gam Anon. But this is not the same as Gamblers Anonymous; Gam Anon is designed not for the deviant gambler but for his or her spouse. On Thursday evenings Gam Anon members gather at Faith Lutheran to discuss their common problems. The women complain bitterly that their husbands are exploited by the casinos but get no help for rehabilitation. One of them, Janice, says; "Clubs extend limitless credit. They must! My husband has the worst credit rating in town and he still gets credit at the clubs. Heís tried to close his accounts at several clubs, but he goes back in the morning and has carte blanche. Nobody will help you when youíre down."

Wanette attended Gam Anon meetings for a brief period but soon left. She says Gam Anon is the only organization in Reno which recognizes her problem, but it could not help her, because it is not meant to help the gambler, only the spouse. Wanette is back playing the slots. She will not get help from the state government. No agency for the rehabilitation of gamblers exists within the stateís Division of Human Resources. The divisionís chief assistant, Orville Wahrenbrock, says: "Iím not aware that a problem called compulsive gambling exists in Nevada. We do have programs to aid problem drinkers and drug abusers, but no program specifically designed to help gamblers." Anyway, Wahrenbrock insists, his experience has shown that compulsive gamblers leave the state because they canít afford the gambling habit; hence there is no need for the state to institute programs to help them. He denies that such an agency would prove a political hot potato in a state which depends so heavily on gambling for its revenues. Another high official in the division disagrees. This man says: "Obviously there is a problem of compulsive gambling in the state. I think weíve just swept the problem under the rug. How can the state government admit its major industry is creating a problem?"

III

One agency under the aegis of the Division of Human Resources is the Nevada Mental Health Institute -- a hospital which, however, has no programs for compulsive gamblers. I asked staff psychiatrist Dr. William Allport why not. "We are in a bad area to treat gamblers," he said. "We donít get much encouragement from the casinos. We donít have any programs to stop people from buying liquor. In Nevada, we donít have a program to stop people from playing the slots. Anyway, how can you expect the state to bite the hand that feeds it?

Even those agencies which might logically be expected to help the gambler in Reno fail to do so. For example, Community Welfare, a private group funded by the United Way, will provide transients with enough food and gasoline to allow them to leave town -- but no other help. Dorothy Drew, director of this agency, has a motherly face that belies the businesslike attitude she takes toward transients seeking a handout. She says:

Most likely, the people we see are from the rural south or midwest. They cannot see casinos as hometown industries equivalent to general stores or mining companies at home. They donít necessarily come to Reno no gamble. But itís a fairyland to them and soon theyíve lost all their money. To the Reno elderly with, a fixed income, gambling often seems to be salvation. In the casinos they can stay as long as they want. They can dream of a big hit. For them gambling is a form of entertainment.

Community Welfare knows of no agency which might help gamblers. Nor does any group in Reno. Trinity Episcopal Church in the heart of the city contains the ecumenically funded offices of People, Inc., a family counseling service administered by a clergyman, Thomas Magruder, who has a degree in pastoral counseling. Dr. Magruder and his staff see something like 25 clients a week, and he estimates that 10 per cent of these have some gambling-related difficulty. "The problem," he says, "is that I really know very little about gambling therapy. . . . I would like to help, but I just donít know anything useful about the problem. Nobody in town seems to."

The one agency in Reno that gamblers might turn to for help is the police department. But more often than not, if they use the police department it is only as an "alibi": having lost an intolerable sum of money, they will go to the police station and claim a false robbery in order to conceal the loss from a boss or a spouse. A Reno Police Department detective, Wayne Lucia, told me that within blocks of the police station he has seen people beating their heads against telephone poles and ripping their clothes to approximate the appearance of a robbery victim. Incidentally, Lucia, who is charged with investigating embezzlements, says that no one knows how much money is lost to Reno businesses at the hands of embezzlers, but that 75 per cent of the total is directly related to gambling; and that the only way in which the department can help the embezzler and the gambling addict is to sentence them to a lengthy but, hopefully, rehabilitative jail term.

IV

My point is very clear: Reno has not been interested in helping its compulsive gamblers. It is true that of the thousands of people who live in or travel to Reno every year most do not become addicted to slot machines or roulette tables; only a comparative few cannot say No to the urge to gamble. Thus the fact remains that Nevada has made its own bed and will probably continue to lie in it. Legalized gambling is there, probably to stay. But does the community have some responsibility for the human wreckage strewed in its green felt jungle? So far, where the question has been asked at all, the answer is No.


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