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CASINO NIAGARA FORCING MORE GAMBLERS INTO BANKRUPTCY

He was a respected cop who won awards for bravery and heroism. But he also had a second, secret life as a compulsive gambler.

He always had kept his betting under control in more than two decades as a police officer. But after Casino Niagara opened last December, just across the river in Niagara Falls, Ont., gambling took over his life. He lost $50,000 in one year -- much of it at the blackjack table -- and wound up in bankruptcy.

Gambling counselors say the retired cop is not the first problem gambler in Western New York to find trouble at the new casino. And Bankruptcy Court officials say the casino is forcing more gamblers into bankruptcy.

"A gambler will always find a place to gamble, but the casino makes it too easy. It kind of opens the floodgates," said the now-retired police officer, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

"The first day I went there, I won $18,000. It was unbelievable. But the next time I went, I lost a few thousand," he recalled. "I was hooked. I would sit there as long as 18 hours a day."

The retired police officer got some help from his family and a doctor, and he has not gambled in several months. This is the longest non-gambling stretch he has had in more than 20 years, and he hopes he can hold on.

Bankruptcy Judge Carl Bucki said he believes problem gambling is on the rise in this region and adds to the skyrocketing bankruptcy rate. He recently allowed gambling counselors to put informational pamphlets in one of the court's meeting rooms. The leaflets disappeared almost immediately.

So far, the number of people who list gambling among their bankruptcy debts is small. The Buffalo News examined 324 bankruptcy cases filed during the first two weeks of May and found only nine people who said gambling helped cause their financial problems.

Even that number is much higher than in past years, according to local bankruptcy trustees, who said gambling was rarely if ever listed in the past.

Many gamblers also use credit cards to pay their losses or for cash advances at the casino -- Casino Niagara has automatic teller machines for bettors -- so gambling losses do not always show up.

"You don't often see gambling debts listed in a bankruptcy, because the gambling debts get paid off," Bucki said. "The gambling establishments don't take credit. So the gambler pays off his gambling debt. What he doesn't pay is his mortgage, his car payment."

"We're definitely seeing more compulsive gamblers ever since the casino opened," said Dr. Rene Wert, a psychologist who counsels gamblers at Jewish Family Services. "We're also seeing more problem gamblers."

Dr. Wert said the casino opening already has doubled the number of calls to local gambling hot lines.

"Often, we are seeing people we would be seeing in a couple years. But with the casino, we see them sooner," she said. "Say a person has a problem with the lottery, spending $40 a day. Now, by going up to the casino, it's $200 a day."

Chris C., a recovering gambler for the past 13 years and a peer counselor with Jewish Family Services, said people are now losing more money more quickly at the casino than he ever did in his 35 years of gambling.

"For awhile, it was the 'in' thing to do to visit the casino," he said. "A lot of people went there, lost $25, then the next time they lost a bit more. Pretty soon they find themselves $6,000 to $7,000 in the hole. It happens that quickly."

Chris C. said there is another reason why there might not be more gambling showing up in bankruptcy files. Gamblers Anonymous considers paying off debts part of the therapy to overcome problem and compulsive gambling.

"We believe we should make every attempt, every effort, to pay back what we owe," he said. "Whether it's to bookies, shylocks, whatever. If we can deal with our creditors, even if it's three, four or five years, that's fine."

John Palumbo, the public relations manager for Casino Niagara, said the casino recognizes the problems some people have with gambling and posts toll-free hot-line numbers throughout the casino.

Besides the toll-free numbers, Palumbo said, Casino Niagara trains employees to stop gamblers who have had too much to drink and refuses to provide credit to gamblers.

"Do we mortgage the house? No. You cannot get credit in the casino. You can not borrow on a car or a house," he said.

Casino Niagara may be bringing millions of dollars of revenue to the Canadian government and the casino operators, but it's going to continue to bring financial disasters and more people to Gamblers Anonymous or Bankruptcy Court.

"A lot of people are getting hurt," said recovering gambler Chris C. "In my day, it took a lot longer to lose that much money. Now it's happening in a twinkle of the eye."

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