Gambling Center seeking right formula to success

December 24, 2001 3:20 AM
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On the surface, the Problem Gambling Center could be a type of halfway house for the wayward looking to kick the habit. That’s not nearly the deal.

“We are just trying to straighten gamblers out,” said Bo Bernhard, a Harvard sociologist who has worked at the nonprofit center for two years trying to help people handle gambling. “We look at ourselves as people at the bottom of the ski slope giving aid to those who fall and need attention.”

The Center has been able to stay in operation through financial contributions from groups that include Stations Casinos, IGT (International Gaming Technology), Alliance Gaming and Anchor. Bernhard admits that finding agencies to give to the cause is difficult.

“Gambling organizations are not likely to contribute to something they believe could bite the hand that feeds them,” Bernhard said. “That’s why it’s so important for us to get out the message that we are not the enemy. We are as much against the anti-gambling factions as the casino industry is.”

Bernhard said that the original center was founded in 1986 as a Betty Ford-type clinic for problem gamblers.

“Organizations from around the country would send their gamblers to Las Vegas to learn not to gamble,” he said. “Charter Hospital got a lot of publicity and completely subsidized the project. It became the best treatment offered in the world.”

The facilities, however, were shut down about three years ago, leaving Las Vegas with no treatment option. It was then that Bernhard joined with Dr. Robert Hunter and Dr. Fred Preston to aid people who voluntarily sought help.

“The corporations that I mentioned were very supportive of what we were trying to do,” Bernhard said. “We also a received financial boost from Global Cash Access, which runs the ATM machines. IGT has made a four-year commitment to us.”

Bernhard grew up playing little league ball and understands that aspects of gambling could be extremely productive.

“I have friends that work in casinos and I find that lifestyle not only normal, but productive to community life, especially in Las Vegas,” he said. “We are against the moralistic, religious right movement that places gambling on the level with alcohol and drugs. Gamblers are not sinners.”

What gamblers are, according to Bernhard, are addicts. As to why, the reason could boil down to a chemical imbalance in the brain.

“This is an advancing science just at its infancy,” he said. “We are just beginning to understand the affliction. We are a place where alcoholism was 40 years ago. We are looking at the DNA structure as being a cause.”

Bernhard said the sessions, usually held Thursday nights at the Center, go a long way to understanding why they gamble and how to deal with the problem.

“We are all dealt different hands,” he said. “All of us have different temptations when engaged in addictive behavior. There is no stigma toward gambling in Las Vegas. This is the gambling capital of the world. I live here and feel good about it.”

The Problem Gambling Center operates on an intensive outpatient program. People attend sessions in the off-hours.

“It’s interactive and sometimes confrontational,” he said. “We pack the house on a number of occasions. I would say that it costs $6,000 for this type of treatment on the open market.”

The treatment basically gets down to the “win it all concept” and the majority of those people affected are women.

“There are more females than males contacting us in Vegas,” Bernhard said. “I think that’s because the nature of gambling is moving from the gaming tables to the video slot machines and the Internet. The future of gambling is computer-based and we’re finding that more women than men are involved in it.”

Bernhard reiterated that the center is trying to show people that there are ways of controlling gambling, so that it becomes a treatable addiction.

“If a Michael Jordan were to throw hundreds of dollars a hand on the table, that would be fine for him. He wouldn’t feel the loss,” Bernhard said. “When a person lives for the moment he can hit the big one, that’s where the problem lies. Alcoholics know drinking is no good for them. Gamblers believe the opposite.”

The Problem Gambling Center is located at 1640 Alta Drive, Suite 11 and can be reached by E-mail at info@gamblingproblems.com. Among those on the board of directors is UNLV head football coach and athletic director John Robinson.