I wanted to clarify something about casino gambling. We’ve all heard that it’s rigged in favor of the casino, but what exactly does that entail? After all, casinos are legal in many places, and we’ve all read about big winners, and it’s true that more respectable business ventures can be just as rigged for the seller’s advantage (see the film The Big Short).

But casinos present a special risk for people in recovery. Why? Because addicts and alcoholics are prone to gambling disorders. Many arrive in addiction treatment with clear symptoms of problems with gambling that often go unrecognized. From a 2007 study of inpatients (Lesieur, Blume and Zoppa):

“Out of 458 patients interviewed, 40 (9%) were diagnosed as pathological gamblers and an additional 47 (10%) showed signs of problematic gambling. These patients showed clear signs of emotional, financial, family and occupational disruption, and illegal behavior in connection with their gambling which compound the disruption induced by alcohol and/or drugs. Five per cent of the patients abusing only alcohol, 12% of those with alcohol and another drug in combination, and 18% of those with other drug abuse problems… showed clear signs of pathological gambling.”

So we could be talking about one in five addiction clients. That would certainly seem to justify screening. For clinicians, some valid instruments here on the National Council on Problem Gambling site.

Let’s look for a moment at what we mean when we say a game is ‘rigged’. We’ll use the most popular– the slot machine, which can account for up to 70% of a casino’s revenue. Modern slots are programmed. Let’s say I put $20 into a 25 cent machine. It’s likely that the machine has been programmed so that unless I hit a jackpot, my twenty bucks will last about half an hour. If it lasts 45 minutes I should consider myself lucky; if it’s gone in 15 minutes, I had a bad time. But either way, sooner or later, my $20 is gone.

By the way, about those signs advertising the “loosest slots in the state!” That’s often true for a small percentage of the available machines in the casino. You don’t know which ones they are.

Back to the programming: Machine X, we’ll say, has been programmed to pay out once every 10 plays at a 1 to 1 return. On that play, you won a quarter. Let’s say it’s programmed to pay out at 80 to 1 every 300 plays. A quarter spent on that play could win you a whole $20. Of course, how much have you already spent before you win that twenty bucks?

You never know for certain on which play a machine has been programmed to pay off. The player just has to keep playing, in hopes of a hit. But the risk is clear: It’s easy to lose more than you can reasonably hope to win. Unless you’re one of the small percentage of players that day who hits a true jackpot.

Another consideration: The casino may not want you to win too much at one time, because you’re likely to take your winnings and go home. They prefer that you keep playing, in hopes of winning more. The programming reflects that.

Many players will just keep playing until they run out of money, or get tired, or the bus from the Senior Center is ready to leave.

The slot machine is just one example of how casinos work. In future posts we’ll look at some of the other ‘games’– casino owners dislike the term gambling, since it implies the expectation of winning– that casinos provide to players, as a way to increase the casino’s revenue.