Policing Gamblers Who Can't Police Themselves

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
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    Around dinnertime on Presidents' Day, Kylee Bryant strolled into SugarHouse Casino and headed for the craps tables.

    That was his game.

    He liked how gamblers circled the table to watch a shooter roll the dice. He liked all the hoots and hollers.

    At blackjack tables, players studied their hands in stoic silence. But when a craps player was hot, it was like cheering a Michael Vick drive from the Eagles' bench.

    Bryant, 33, was a regular in Pit Four. Everyone knew him, yet no one knew him. No one knew he had voluntarily signed a pledge to stay out of all casinos in Pennsylvania.

    Yet here he was, putting down $100. He was up and down and up and down.

    Out of work at the time, the married father of two from West Philadelphia was hoping to win at least $500 to pay a traffic fine.

    It wasn't happening. He got up to eat. He switched tables.

    Twenty-four hours passed.

    Bryant went to his car to take a nap. But he hurried back, afraid he'd miss a shooter on a hot roll.

    Another day passed.

    Bryant was losing and thought the tables had gone cold. Taking a break from play, he held his iPad just below the craps table and checked his e-mail and Facebook.

    SugarHouse security got suspicious. What was this guy doing? A surveillance camera zoomed in and read his name on the iPad.

    Someone checked the database of players. Bryant came up on a self-exclusion list.

    Seventy hours after arriving at SugarHouse, Bryant was escorted away by security. State police cited him for trespassing, a misdemeanor.

    The "Self-Exclusion"

    Kylee Bryant knows he has a gambling problem.

    His wife does, too. He said she prodded him to sign a voluntary agreement to exclude himself from all 12 casinos in Pennsylvania.

    But Bryant's experience, marred by his inability to stay away from casinos, underscores the difficulty of enforcing self-exclusion pledges.

    "When people sign up, we tell them, It is your responsibility to stay out of the casino," Liz Lanza, director of the office of compulsive and problem gambling for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    C.P. Mirarchi, a counselor for compulsive gamblers in Philadelphia, says a self-exclusion list is a tool, not a solution. "I tell my patients, 'It's not like Star Trek, where you vaporize once you walk through the doors of a casino,' " he said.

    Under Pennsylvania law, casinos are required to have policies and practices in place to catch banned customers.

    But while casinos are skilled at spotting cheats, they are less so at stopping players who are trying to control their impulse to gamble, according to experts.

    "It is somewhere between infrequent and unlikely that you will be detected," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. Casinos "rely on security guards at the entrance with an antique face book - a binder with photos" of customers on self-exclusion lists.

    In Pennsylvania, 5,631 people have asked to be excluded from casinos for one year, five years, or a lifetime. As of July 31, 777 gamblers had violated their agreements once or more frequently.

    Violators are caught by casino staff or detected when they try to make a transaction with an ID card, such as receiving a jackpot or cashing a check.

    New Jersey has 1,329 people on its self-exclusion list, Delaware 260.

    At their July meeting, Pennsylvania's gaming commissioners excoriated SugarHouse representatives for not catching Bryant.

    The incident that began on Presidents' Day was the third time Bryant had violated his pledge.

    He signed an agreement with the gaming board Jan. 4, 2012 - and broke it 10 days later. He was picked up during a two-day bender at SugarHouse only after his wife called the casino to report him.

    The second time, Bryant entered SugarHouse on June 29, 2012, and was not turned away until 91 hours later.

    After reading a report on Bryant, Commissioner Gregory Fajt told SugarHouse officials he was "outraged."

    "It boggles my mind that somebody can be in your facility for three days in one instance, four days for another, a known compulsive gambler on the list, and not be recognized," Fajt said at the board meeting. "It's disheartening to me."

    "We're Not Proud Of This"

    Kylee Bryant wasn't always a gambler. He made the occasional trip to Atlantic City, nothing more.

    That changed when SugarHouse came to town.

    "SugarHouse is like a neighborhood casino," Bryant said.

    A friend introduced him to craps. He would play $100 to $200 at a time and had beginner's luck, sometimes winning a couple of hundred dollars, once a couple of thousand.

    "Whatever I could win, I'd hurry up and get out of there," Bryant said.

    But it started getting harder and harder to leave the table. He kept chasing his last big win.

    After Bryant lost his job - he had worked for a Norristown firm, cleaning out apartments after tenants were evicted - it seemed as though he found himself at SugarHouse every other day. "It was like a job," he said.

    In the windowless cocoon of the gaming floor, Bryant said, it was easy to lose track of time. "You can be in there for 10 hours and not know it."

    Despite his self-exclusion pledge, Bryant said he went right back to SugarHouse because "I didn't think anyone would notice me."

    Problem gamblers are warned from the outset that they can be cited for trespassing if they violate their self-imposed bans. Bryant was charged three times.

    SugarHouse, too, faced penalties. In a settlement last December with the gaming board, the casino agreed to pay a $10,000 fine for its handling of Bryant and another compulsive gambler. The company also pledged to retrain its staff on methods for enforcing the self-exclusion list.

    With Bryant's third violation, the board has taken a tougher stance. At their July meeting, commissioners rejected a new settlement agreement that would have included a $15,000 fine and another pledge to reinforce training. The matter is pending.

    Fajt said the gaming board was "not without culpability." The agency, he said, has compliance officers on the floor at SugarHouse, and they, too, missed Bryant.

    But Fajt pressed SugarHouse officials on how they could have failed to detect Bryant during off hours. "At 8 o'clock in the morning, 7 o'clock in the morning," Fajt said, "there can't be that many people in the casino."

    Rosemarie Cook, vice president for gaming at SugarHouse, responded that many customers return day after day. "So it's not unusual in our casino to see somebody the next day and the day after that and the day after that," she said. "It's a local market."

    Cook said Bryant did not display any behavior that would have been a warning sign for casino staff.

    "It was not a case of being 'asleep at the wheel,' " she said.

    Bryant, she testified, was not making large bets; he was not belligerent or disruptive or drunk; he was not unkempt; he displayed no unusual gambling rituals, a tipoff of compulsive behavior.

    By reviewing surveillance video, the casino concluded that Bryant spent most of his time away from the tables, Cook said. And when he did play, it was for two to 12 minutes.

    "I assure you, we're not proud of this moment," Cook said.

    SugarHouse keeps a binder with photos of the more than 5,000 people on the self-exclusion list. Faces of repeat offenders, like Bryant, have been placed on an "alert board" outside the table games office, she said.

    Some casinos employ technology to recognize faces of customers, but it is costly, according to Cyrus Pitre, chief enforcement counsel for the gaming board. He told the commissioners, "I'm not going to say what casinos have it in the state, but it does exist."

    A Verdict, A Job, A Ban

    On Aug. 2, Bryant had a hearing in Philadelphia Municipal Court on his most recent trespassing charge and was found not guilty.

    His public defender, Jason Parris, said the prosecution failed to produce a copy of the self-exclusion paperwork. Without that evidence, there could not be any testimony about the consequences of violating the voluntary pact, he said.

    Last March, Bryant asked to be taken off the state's self-exclusion list.

    Working now for the city's sanitation department, he said he still gambles, but far less than before.

    "I work too hard for my money to lose it all," he said.

    He said that over the years, he has probably lost more than he's won.

    Recently, he has gone with friends to Parx in Bensalem and Harrah's in Chester to play craps. But not SugarHouse. The casino has banned him for life.

    "He can never come into the SugarHouse Casino," Michael Sklar, a casino lawyer, assured commissioners in July, "or he's not supposed to."