How casinos enable gambling addicts

Problem gamblers are worth a lot of money to casinos. According to some research, 20 percent of regular gamblers are problem or pathological gamblers. Moreover, when they gamble, they spend—which is to say, lose—more than other players. At least nine independent studies demonstrate that problem gamblers generate anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of total gambling revenues.

Casinos know exactly who their biggest spenders are. According to a 2001 article in Time magazine, back in the 1990s casino operators bought records from credit-card companies and mailing lists from direct-mail marketers. One of the latter, titled the “Compulsive Gamblers Special,” promised to deliver the names of 200,000 people with “unquenchable appetites for all forms of gambling.” The casinos used these records and lists to target compulsive gamblers—as Caesars was alleged to have done with Jenny Kephart.

These days, the casinos have their own internal methods for determining who their most attractive customers are. According to Natasha Dow Schüll, an NYU professor who spent more than 15 years researching the industry, culminating in her 2012 book, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, 70 percent of patrons now use loyalty cards, which allow the casinos to track such data points as how frequently they play electronic gaming machines, how long they play, how much they bet, how often they win and lose, what times of day they visit, and so on. Each time a patron hits the Spin or the Deal button, which can be as frequently as 900 to 1,200 times an hour, the casino registers the data. Even gamblers who choose to forgo loyalty cards do not necessarily escape the casino’s watchful eye. In some machines, miniature cameras watch their faces and track their playing behavior.

Several companies supply casinos with ATMs that allow patrons to withdraw funds through both debit and cash-advance functions, in some cases without ever leaving the machines they are playing. (Some of the companies also sell information on their ATM customers to the casinos.) “The whole premise of the casino is to get people to exceed their limits,” says Les Bernal, the national director of the advocacy organization Stop Predatory Gambling. “If you’re using the casino ATM, it’s like painting yourself orange.”