The arrest this week of State Rep. David Nangle raised the issue of compulsive gambling in Massachusetts. Nangle allegedly spent more than $70 thousand of campaign funds in part to bankroll an extensive gambling habit. As a result, he's facing more than two dozen charges of fraud and tax evasion.
Gambling addiction is surprisingly common in the state and can take a serious toll on families. For one Massachusetts man, the irresistible pull was toward scratch lottery cards.
"Anything I won, went right back into buying more because I don't win enough," he said.
Because not everyone in his life knows about his addiction, he asked that WGBH News not use his name. He said he’s not sure how much debt he racked up, but it was easily in the six figures.
By the fall of 2016, he began to plan how he might commit suicide.
"Booze, pills, clean up my garage, back my car and start the car, fall asleep and not wake up," he said, adding that thinking of his sons that stopped him from doing it.
"Could I put them in a position where they would spend the rest of their lives thinking - not thinking, but understanding - that I was a complete and utter failure in every sense of the word. And I didn't want to do that to them.”
After his wife discovered all the bills he'd been hiding and kicked him out of the house, he started going to Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
Now, after he saw the news of Rep. Nangle's arrest, he said he feels like he understands what was probably going on.
"Somewhere deep in his mind, I guarantee you, he believed that he was going to win enough to pay everything off,” he said. “That's the one thing we all share, is that we're going to win.”
He added that as much as he feels for Nangle personally, he's no fan of a state government that oversees a massive gambling industry.
"They're okay with addiction as long as they can monetize it," he said.
In 2018, gamblers spent $5.2 on the Massachusetts lottery, averaging out to $953 per adult — more than any other state. Research from a 2017 University of Massachusetts report showed that more than 4 percent of people who played scratch tickets met the definition of a problem gambler, and more than 16 percent could be considered at-risk gamblers.
The numbers were even higher for people playing games like Keno.
Yet in recent years Mass. moved beyond just the lottery, bringing new questions about how new casinos in Everett and Springfield would impact problem gambling.
Dr. Rachel Volberg, a research professor at the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences said it's too soon to know those impacts. But a study of the area around Plainville showed the Plainridge Park slots parlor actually didn’t increase problem gambling.
"And that was a surprise to us because all of the research that has been done internationally for the last 30 years has indicated that there is very often an increase in the prevalence or the rate of problem gambling within one to three years after the opening of a large gambling venue in the area," Volberg said.
When she dug deeper, she realized there wasn’t a difference because people in the Plainville area were already busy gambling in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The research around the MGM and Encore casinos is ongoing, but she said she expects to find a different story there.
"First of all, the size of the gaming operations in Springfield and Everett is very different from the size of the slots parlor in Plainville," she said.
She added that both communities tend to have lower income people who are more vulnerable to gambling losses.
"[This] suggests to us that the populations in these two communities are going to be much less resilient than the population in Plainville and surrounding communities," she said.
All over the enormous gaming floor at the Encore Boston Harbor Casino on Thursday, people carried cardboard boxes with toasters in them — a giveaway to the most loyal customers. In one corner sat a desk for GameSense — a responsible gambling program the state's casinos are required to include.
A woman, drawn in by a gift basket being raffled up, walked up to the table.
"What we're gonna do is we're gonna sign you up for the raffle,” a GameSense representative told her. “All you gotta do is answer three questions. True or false. Doesn't matter if you get them right or wrong."
The questions were all designed to illustrate points that people should understand before they put their money down.
“If I study the rules of the game enough, I can beat the house,” the representative said.
“False," she replied, correctly.
Marlene Warner is the executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, which runs the program. She said the GameSense advisers aren't just behind the desk. They were walking the casino floor, looking for signs of problems and offering to connect people with resources to help them.
"So, if somebody has come in one time and lost a ton of money, we probably wouldn't know about them,” she said. “If they’re a regular, typically our GameSense advisors have developed a strong relationship with them and that's where those conversations will take place.
“So, if someone is spending more time or money than they want to, they're often are talking to the GameSense advisers about ‘come tell me what an hour's up so I can come and stop play. So, I have a reality check.’"
The program allows people who recognize that they have a problem to opt out of the state's casinos. But the so-called voluntary self-exclusion program basically means that if they do show up and win more than $1,200, they don't get to keep it. If they lose, they lose.
Currently, there are about 700 people enrolled in the program. And with two percent of the state estimated to be problem gamblers, that's just a fraction of the people who really shouldn't be in the casino.
For those people who have lost control — that recovering gambling addict has a message.
"All the effort you put into lying and manipulating and finding more money and everything, you put that energy - hell, you put half that energy - into getting help, going to meetings, life gets better very quickly,” he said. “Life's freaking wonderful. It really is.”
The first step, he said, is just realizing that you want to stop.