Self-exclusions not making casinos any more exclusive

Posted Online: July 30, 2007, 12:00 am
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By Stephanie Sievers, Small Newspaper Group Springfield Bureau
SPRINGFIELD -- Struggling with a gambling addiction, Todd Ruder’s mother signed herself up for the state’s self-exclusion program, a move her family hoped would keep her off the riverboat casinos.

But Ruder says his mother still found ways to get on the boats and feed her addiction, all while losing more and more money.

Now Todd Ruder, of Schaumburg, is trying to convince the Illinois Gaming Board that Illinois casinos be required to check the IDs of every gambler boarding the boats. Then banned gamblers could be red-flagged immediately.

“The self-exclusion program is supposed to be there to protect,” Ruder said.

Gaming board chairman Aaron Jaffe said Illinois already is ahead of most states by requiring identification from everyone 30 or younger. At some point, the board may look to do more despite gambling industry opposition, he said.

Board member Eugene Winkler doesn’t need to be convinced. He would like to see everyone provide identification, including older gamblers. Gamblers 31 to 65 years old make up 86 percent of those on Illinois’ exclusion list, according to Illinois Gaming Board statistics.

There are more immediate issues before the board, but Winkler says he can see consensus eventually building for the idea.

Like many other states with legalized gambling, Illinois has a voluntary, self-exclusion program for compulsive gamblers.

When addicted gamblers sign up for the confidential list, they are banned from the state’s riverboat casinos and risk being arrested for trespassing and losing their winnings if caught.

Casinos are prohibited from sending marketing materials to those on the list and offer their employees $250 rewards if they spot a banned gambler on their boat.

Since 2002, when the Illinois Gaming Board began the statewide program, 4,914 people have signed themselves up for self exclusion.

But even those who advocate for the program and say it has helped some of Illinois’ most desperate gamblers, they acknowledge that self-exclusion isn’t foolproof. Determined gambling addicts still find a way into casinos.

Under self-exclusion, it is the gambler’s responsibility to stay away from the boats. Ruder says his mom was able to skirt the rules by using cash and leaving before she won enough money to attract the attention of casino authorities.

Many others have gotten caught. Since the self-exclusion program’s start, there have been nearly 1,000 people who have been caught in the casinos, 467 of whom have been arrested, according to Gene O’Shea, director of the exclusion program.

Anyone caught on the boats must forfeit their chips, tokens and any winnings. The money goes to one of three designated gambling addiction support groups: Outreach Foundation of Illinois, the Illinois Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling and the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery.

The Illinois Gaming Board has seized more than $400,000 from excluded gamblers so far, according to O’Shea.

Once on the list, it’s difficult to get off. After five years, a person can seek to be removed but only if a gambling addiction counselor signs an affidavit that they can gamble responsibly. No one has yet been taken off the list, O’Shea said.

But Anita Bedell, director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, says too much of the responsibility falls on the gambling addict and not the casinos, which are more than willing to take money from gamblers on a losing streak.

Plus, the exclusion list is far too long for casino employees to recognize everyone who might be on the list, she said. “These people are so sick, why (not) ID them to keep them out?”

Last year, in an effort to catch people gambling illegally, the Illinois Gaming Board did begin requiring casinos to check the IDs of everyone 30 and younger. Their IDs are checked for validity and are matched against the exclusion database.

But that does little to catch older gamblers on the list.

“The system is very easy to outsmart. All you have to do is not look 30 and walk on board,” Ruder said.

Not surprisingly, the gambling industry is opposed to IDing everyone who goes into a casino. Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said doing so could drive away casino business.

About 13 million people go through Illinois’ riverboat turnstiles each year while there are only around 4,000 gamblers who have made the step to ban themselves from the casinos, Swoik said.

Checking every gambler’s ID would be cumbersome, cause delays and prompt some players to go elsewhere, he said. Other gamblers might have privacy concerns about handing over their ID.

There’s also the possibility that if you make the self-exclusion program too restrictive, some compulsive gamblers may avoid signing up at all, Swoik said. “The more intense you make the system, the fewer will sign up for it.”

There hasn’t been extensive research done on the overall effectiveness of self-exclusion programs. A study is currently being done on Missouri’s program, which has more than 11,000 people signed up and was one of the early programs.

There may be critics, but Tom Tucker, CEO of the Compulsive Gambling Institute, said there aren’t any real downsides to self-exclusion programs, which are worthwhile if they help any gamblers avoid casinos.


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