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Bottoming Out: Gambling Addiction in Las Vegas

PART 1 OF 3: TONY’S STORY:

The pull of a drug, a push to the brink

Like many others, the lure of easy money drew Tony to the casino again and again — until he realized where his life was heading.

Image

Leila Navidi

Tony McDew, at a bus stop on Spring Mountain Road across from the Fashion Show Mall, holds video camera that he has used to document his struggle with gambling addiction. While he was gambling, money problems forced him to ride the bus regularly.

Bottoming Out

Tony McDew not only recognized that he had a gambling problem, but set out to document it with his own video camera, hoping that sharing his experience could help others. When the jackpot hits, "It feels like you're getting high." And when it doesn't? "You want to crucify yourself."

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About this series

In the three decades since the psychiatric community recognized compulsive gambling as a mental disorder, it has evolved from a small area of study to a global research effort involving dozens of medical doctors and other specialists who have generated hundreds of studies and hosted as many conferences.

Yet it remains a largely secret affliction, in part because it carries a stigma even here in the birthplace of modern gambling. As a result, sufferers don’t want to discuss the problem or seek help.

Fewer than 10 gambling treatment programs run by state-certified counselors exist in Nevada. The number of nonprofit treatment clinics that waive costs for those who can’t pay — a common predicament for gambling addicts — can be counted on one hand. Fewer than 400 people underwent treatment for gambling problems in state-funded counseling programs in the two-year period ending Sept. 30. Though many more seek out self-help groups such as Gamblers Anonymous, it’s believed to be a fraction of the more than 90,000 Nevadans with gambling problems.

Starting with this story, the Las Vegas Sun explores problem gambling three ways — through the experiences of an addict, by examining what happens inside the brain of an addict, and by considering the role of slot machine designs in feeding gambling addictions.

The stories

  • Part 1: Tony McDew not only recognized that he had a gambling problem, but set out to document it with his video camera, hoping that sharing his experience could help others. When the jackpot hits, “It feels like you’re getting high.” And when it doesn’t? “You want to crucify yourself.”
  • Part 2: The mere sight of a slot machine can trigger a chemical response in the gambling addict’s brain in the same way the thought of cocaine stimulates a drug addict. Some researchers are exploring the use of drugs to treat addicts. Robert Hunter offers old-fashioned group and one-on-one therapy. Coming Monday.
  • Part 3: When designer Si Redd realized the overwhelming attraction of his video poker machine, he advised addicts to get help — and leave Nevada if necessary. Today the role of the machine in feeding addiction is debated. At some casinos in Canada, gamblers can tell slot machines to limit their play. Coming Tuesday.

The machine is playing its familiar Las Vegas victory song, ding-ding-ding-ding-ding.

Tony McDew has just hit it big on his favorite slot game, Max Action, which he likes to call Action Max.

“The numbers are still going up,” he says happily.

A bit later, he is standing outside the Palms, displaying crisp hundreds in front of the small video camera he’s using to film himself.

“Tony from Cali, here at the Palms. Sixteen hundred bucks, baby.”

McDew, 46, came here from California in 2003 after a divorce and, like so many before and since, sought a new life and maybe even a new identity.

He was a computer technician in Sacramento and when he moved here, he got hired as a salesman at Comp USA. He had trouble covering the rent while also trying to do nice things for his then-girlfriend.

And then a few lucky days at the casino got him to believe that gambling was a way to supplement his income.

“I was like, ‘wow, this is crazy.’ The coins come out, the machine trickles down and you hear all the noises, the bells and whistles, and I was like, ‘wow.’ ”

McDew is drug free, but he says gambling has given him some idea of what drugs must be like: “It’s like you’re getting high,” he says.

Like most people who struggle with gambling, he loves — and hates — the machines.

McDew’s experience — an insidious need to gamble and a resulting downpour of debt — is well known in a city with 100 separate, regular meetings of Gamblers Anonymous.

A problem for many

According to a 2002 report commissioned by the Legislature ­­— still considered the most reliable — 2.1 percent of the Nevada population met the definition of “pathological” gamblers, who have a mental disorder characterized by a loss of control over gambling.

Another 3 percent were not pathological, but could still be classified as “problem” gamblers, a broader term referring to “patterns of gambling behavior that compromise, disrupt or damage” work and family life. Given Nevada’s current population and assuming similar rates of pathological and problem gambling, when the two groups are added, they total nearly 97,000 Nevadans, or a city more than one-third the size of Henderson.

McDew deluded himself, like so many others, into thinking he could beat the games, that there was a pattern he could master.

“What’s weird,” he says now, baffled, “is that I’m a technician” — he knows he should have known better.

The urges were powerful, though. “It’s like a trick. When you get in there, there’s no clocks, and time goes by, five, six hours. It’s like they kind of trick you into being there. The sounds, the bells, the whistles, the cocktail women trying to give you drinks.”

Soon McDew found a good job as an audiovisual technician at Mandalay Bay.

He was helping set up rock concerts, shows and big-time political rallies. McDew is an electronics junkie. His rented house in northeast Las Vegas looks like a spaceship inside, with a plethora of computers in various states of repair, camcorders, lights and stereo equipment. He loves Star Trek and Star Wars and seems to have a rich fantasy life.

He enjoyed his work and was making good money, buying electronics.

But there was never enough.

At some point, he began upping his bets, and more and more of it swirled down the gaming drain.

“It’s one of those things where you almost can’t control it,” he says.

Once, a paycheck was gone in one sitting.

“I was like, man, I can’t even get anything to eat. I felt like one of those people who wants to go kill themselves.”

He kept it a secret from his then-girlfriend, telling her that he was jumped and robbed.

“It’s like people when they get on drugs or are doing something they don’t want to talk about,” he says.

Casino co-workers would ask if he’d been playing. He would lie and say no.

This only worsened the isolation. “You can’t talk to anybody about it.”

Quitting was out of the question. He compared himself to a crack addict.

“Sometimes I get really crazy and lose everything. I’ve done that, where I don’t even have enough gas to get home,” he says.

In all, he’s spent $35,000 gambling, he estimates.

McDew’s openness about his experience as a problem gambler offers a glimpse into the lives of those 97,000 Nevadans.

He not only talks honestly about his story, he’s also filmed much of it.

Struggling to survive

He’s used his collection of cameras and video editing equipment to document his struggle to survive — like Dostoevsky’s “The Gambler” — while dumping paycheck after paycheck into the coffers of casino companies.

His home movies reveal a McDew who blends several strains of the American psyche — desire, compulsion, confession.

He hopes to create a reality show of his sometimes-chaotic life, one that would teach others to avoid his mistakes.

One day in June, not long after his big, $1,600 win at the Palms, McDew, or “Tony from Cali Reality,” as he calls himself, is on film, holding his camera at arm’s length, running down his losses.

The day before, he’d lost $800. He’s a frequent visitor to pawn shops and borrows from payday lenders.

He also has a car title loan; he pays $160 per month to prevent his car from being taken. By this time, he’s paid back the $800 principal many times over in interest payments, but still doesn’t have the title in his hands because he never manages to pay down the principal.

“It’s a rip-off. But I can’t complain because I made the mistake of getting involved in it,” he says.

McDew takes a computer to Super Pawn and gets $400 for it, hoping to eventually buy it back. Even if he’s successful, however, he’ll have to pay interest.

He calls his pawn proceeds “emergency money.” Being out of money to gamble is an emergency.

He uses the $400 pawn proceeds to pay his title loan interest, and heads back to the casino with $240. A lot of people in Las Vegas live this of cycle of borrowing, he explains.

The air conditioner in his van doesn’t work; he chooses the slots over getting it fixed, so on the way to the casino he cools himself with a spray bottle filled with water. It’s Tony from Cali’s Astro Van Air Conditioning, or the “bro-conditioner.”

“The more you make, the more you spend,” he tells the camera. “And right now, like I said, I spent $800 yesterday. Today I’m going to try to make some of that back.”

He enters the Palms, which ends that video segment. Inside, the ironclad laws of mathematical destiny take hold.

The next video clip opens with him back outside.

“Everybody, your boy Tony from Cali. Well, it didn’t happen. I ended up losing the $240.”

The next day, he’s back at Super Pawn and comes out with $600.

His list of collateral at Super Pawn at that moment, best as he can recall: three computers, a Behringer amplifier, two MIDI controllers, a stereo system, a video camera and tripod.

After settling a payday loan and an electric bill, he has $100 in his pocket for the Palms.

“I don’t really want to head back to the Palms. I’m starting to hate the Palms more and more. It’s just, with the recession and all the bills coming up, I just want to be able to do everything. And one of these days I’m hoping that maybe I will hit it big.”

McDew says he likes to confess to the camera because it’s therapeutic. If he were to tell others that he gambled his whole paycheck, “They’re going to look at you like you’re crazy. They’re going to disown you.”

On his way back to the casino, some of his shame comes spilling out, acknowledging his depression and referring several times to being embarrassed about his life and what he’s made of it.

“I’m not gonna go out and kill myself, hang myself, although I’ve thought of that because of some of the things I’ve done. You know, you want to beat yourself up, you want to crucify yourself, but you know you can’t do that.”

There’s a haunting, lonely quality to this part of the video.

Robert Hunter, a Las Vegas therapist in the treatment of addiction, says problem gamblers suffer the highest rate of suicide of any population subgroup. Unlike other suicide cases, which are often a statement of anger to family and community, gambling addicts take their lives in shame, Hunter says.

“It’s, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. My family deserves better.’ ”

Back at the Palms, McDew loses again. He finds $6.12 in change to get gas.

‘I might as well quit’

In July, Tony McDew decided he’s had enough. He was on another losing streak, most of his possessions were held in hock — nearly $10,000 worth — and he barely managed to pay rent with a loan.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is crazy.’ It just hit me.”

He finally pierced the fiction that has transformed Las Vegas from a dusty outpost to a giant city.

McDew recalls thinking, “I’m just never gonna get ahead. I’m never gonna get the money back I lost, so I might as well quit.”

He’s gambled just once since July.

It’s hard to know why some people fight powerful human urges while other relent.

Hunter recently met McDew and evaluated him. He asks McDew the 20 questions Gamblers Anonymous uses to guide people in discerning whether they have a problem.

Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?

Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay off debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?

And so on.

McDew answers yes to 14 of the questions, or twice the number indicating he could have a problem.

Hunter tells McDew that he has all the indicators of a problem gambler, and says quitting was a smart move. He compares him to a friend who was quite obviously an alcoholic in need of treatment, but was arrested for drunken driving and successfully quit cold turkey: Hunter’s friend danced right up to the line and managed to pull back without hurting himself or someone else.

As Hunter notes, McDew is — yes, this is surely ironic — quite lucky. Many problem gamblers need help to stop, and only after losing jobs, families, lives.

“Now, I don’t want to see a casino,” McDew says.

A new attitude

Click to enlarge photo

When Tony McDew was gambling, his favorite casino was the Palms. Tired of living on the edge, McDew had an epiphany in July: "I'm just never gonna get ahead. I'm never gonna get the money back I lost, so I might as well quit." He's gambled only one time since.

His new stance isn’t easy considering that he works in a casino and so much of the social life of Las Vegas revolves around casinos.

McDew moved to a section of northeast Las Vegas with almost no casinos.

He spends time with his electronics — he has recouped much of it from the pawnshop — or relaxing in the Jacuzzi tub he installed in his living room.

The metaphor is not lost on him — he’s replaced the aggressive stimulation of the machines with the serenity of a soak.

Occasionally he goes to Privé, the nightclub at Planet Hollywood, dressed in a gold lamé, 1980s party costume. With his giant gold chain, high-top fade haircut and cell phone that he’s made to look straight out of 1987, he’s like a character out of a funky comic book. He skates the line and goes in free, and the regulars love him, with hugs and high-fives. McDew doesn’t drink, so for these nights at Planet Hollywood, which no longer involve the slots, he needs just $2, for the bathroom attendant.

It’s all part of his new attitude toward life.

“Don’t live beyond your means. Enjoy your life. If you don’t have money to do certain things, just do whatever you can do.”

He offers a warning, hoping to prevent the suffering he’s experienced. “You can get hooked easily. I got hooked on $5.”

McDew’s awakening and turning away from gambling is as mysterious as the working of the brain itself, but he seems to have been affected by seeing how much farther he could go if he kept playing.

“I started to look at people less fortunate than we are. You see people who are homeless. It makes you appreciate what you have. Yeah, I don’t have a high-def camera. But I do have a camera.”

Sun videographer Scott Den Herder contributed to this story.

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