The bright lights, the loud camaraderie, the flowing booze and the clamour of the slot machine soon became Roberto Rossi’s* new home, and he loved it.
“To my astonishment, I found myself enjoying it and it was really exciting,” Rossi said. “Ladies would serve you drinks. There were lights, bells, trinkets, noise if someone won, and people yelling. They made the atmosphere conducive for you to really have a good time.”
For the 59-year-old college grad, contractor and father of two his introduction to gaming began by joining a friend one Friday night in 1994 at Mohawk Racetrack. Soon he was thinking of nothing else.
“I found myself thinking about it during the workday. But I didn’t go with my friends. I went by myself, “ he said.
Peter Tabuns, MPP for the Toronto-Danforth is concerned about gaming’s impact in his constituency. The City of Toronto is considering the Portlands, the southern end of Tabuns’ riding, as a possible location for a casino and entertainment facility. Toronto will vote on the Ontario Lottery and Gaming’s (OLG) new modernization plan next year.
“If you have a casino, then the people who make money off the addicts follow. I have no interest in seeing more of that behaviour and frankly people who are addicts and who are desperate can be in situations where they do desperate things to get their money, “ Tabuns said.
Jenna Hunter, spokesperson for Casino Rama, says only a small portion of the gaming public are addicts.
“[We want] the 96 per cent of people who come here as an entertainment option,” she said.
For the four per cent who have a gambling addiction, according to Hunter, Rama has a Responsible Gambling Resource office at the entrance of the gaming floor. As well the casino has additional staff training and a self-exclusion program where self identified addicts “are charged with trespassing” if found on the casino floor.
Rossi recalled few resources being available to gambling addicts when he first sought help in 1997.
“For people affected like me, … there were no resources, no government help; we were on our own. Even if we realized we had a problem, we had nowhere to turn,” he said. “I lost two jobs, I was charged. I did not go to jail, but I did time with probation and curfews.”
He said he even used illegal sources to get money.
“I owed money everywhere, and I owed money on the streets. I always paid them on time,” he said.
Tabuns expressed concern about the criminal element.
“I’ve talked to people in my riding who have worked in Las Vegas and they have remarked to me about the presence of loan sharks and everything that implies. It’s a pretty brutal culture, loan sharking,” he said.
According to Hunter, after 16 years in operation, Casino Rama has had a very different experience.
“With the Toronto casino coming in, we do hear about organized crime and prostitution. These things don’t exist here. There isn’t a cartel in the cornfield looking to rob people when they leave …We don’t have any more issue with organized crime than the local cinema.”
For Rossi, though, things did not improve.
“I was going to the casino 24 hours, sometimes two days straight,” he said.
He would find himself driving home at dawn, with no money in his pocket, and out of the gas. He rarely went to work, slept less often and gave up on personal grooming.
In the end, Rossi, now a reformed gambler, chose to be honest with his family, his friends and especially himself, .
“My first day of recovery is when I told the truth,” he said.
*Certain details in this story have been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.