Neuroscientists have discovered characteristics that appear to be unique to the brains of addicts, particularly in the dopaminergic system, which includes reward pathways, and in the prefrontal cortex, which exerts executive control over impulses. “We’ve seen a disregulated reward system,” says Jon Grant, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “The frontal parts of the brain that tell us ‘Hey, stop!’ are less active, and parts that anticipate rewards tend to be stronger.”
Gambling addicts may have a genetic predisposition, though a specific marker has not yet been uncovered. Environmental factors and personality traits—a big gambling win within the past year, companions who gamble regularly, impulsivity, depression—may also contribute to the development of a gambling problem. Whatever the causes, there’s widespread agreement that certain segments of the population are simply more vulnerable to addiction. “You can’t turn on and turn off certain activities of the brain,” says Reza Habib, a psychology professor at Southern Illinois University. “It’s an automatic physiological response.”
Scott Stevens’s story is not anomalous. Given the guilt and shame involved, gambling addiction frequently progresses to a profound despair. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that one in five gambling addicts attempts suicide—the highest rate among addicts of any kind. There are no accurate figures for suicides related to gambling problems, but there are ample anecdotes: the police officer who shot himself in the head at a Detroit casino; the accountant who jumped to his death from a London skyscraper in despair over his online-gambling addiction; the 24-year-old student who killed himself in Las Vegas after losing his financial-aid money to gambling; and, of course, Stevens himself.
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.”
All of these data have enabled casinos to specifically target their most reliable spenders, primarily problem gamblers and outright addicts. Despite those customers’ big losses—or rather, because of their losses—the casinos lure them to return with perks that include complimentary drinks and meals, limo service, freebies from the casino gift shop, golf excursions for their nongambling spouses, and in some cases even first-class airfare and suites in five-star hotels. They also employ hosts who befriend large spenders and use special offers to encourage them to stay longer or return soon. Some hosts receive bonuses that are tied to the amount customers spend beyond their expected losses, which are calculated using the data gathered from previous visits. As Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University and the president of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, explained at the group’s forum on casino gambling in the fall of 2014, “The business plan for casinos is not based on the occasional gambler. The business plan for casinos is based on the addicted gambler.”