Monday, December 17, 2012

Q&A with author Sam Skolnik

Sam Skolnik is the author of High Stakes, and a longtime journalist with newspapers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Las Vegas Sun. He’s currently an editor with The National Law Journal and lives outside Washington, D.C.

Q: You write that 35 years ago, casinos were legal only in Nevada, whereas today, gambling is legal in almost every state. What caused that increase in legalized gambling, and what impact has it had?

A: States and cities have been suffering through severe financial problems in recent years, causing many local leaders to look to legalized gambling as a solution that brings jobs and can help shrink budget deficits and tax rates by boosting revenues. Politicians also claim that newly legalized gambling helps spur broader economic development in communities – a notion that’s been disproven repeatedly. They claim it’s a “painless” revenue stream, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Ultimately, I believe the costs of legalized gambling outweigh the benefits, and not just from an addiction standpoint. Gambling is damaging in a variety of ways. It changes the character of communities.

Q: Proponents of expanding legalized gambling argue that it creates more jobs and more money that can be used for education and other functions, while opponents argue that an expansion actually creates more societal costs due to an increase in addicted gamblers. In your book, you take the second view. Why, and which side of the argument currently is stronger around the country?

A: The second view, that the costs outweigh the benefits, is simply backed up by more evidence. In communities where casinos and other forms of gambling are legalized, addiction rates rise. This isn’t just common sense – that when the overall pool of gamblers increases, more of them develop problems with their gambling – it’s bolstered by academic studies and other gauges, including the growth of Gamblers Anonymous chapters around the country. When addiction rates rise, gambling-related social costs increase, including everything from robberies to bankruptcies to suicides.

Right now, though many politicians willfully ignore the downsides to gambling, citizens are conflicted. Look at the 2012 election: Maryland passed its gambling legalization initiative; Oregon voters rejected theirs; and in Rhode Island, the results were split. My sense is that increasingly, communities will be hit by gambling in the same ways as Atlantic City and Detroit – with local governments addicted to the revenues, no economic development and rising social costs and degradation. As these consequences are felt, fewer Americans will support opening new gambling outlets close to them.

Q: Online gambling, which has been around since the mid-1990s, is "especially addictive," you write. What makes it so addictive, and are there new technologies that could create other forms of gambling in the future?

A: Online gambling, including and perhaps especially poker, are much, much speedier than the traditional brick-and-mortar casino games they’re based on. This speed allows gamblers to get that gambling-related rush delivered to them faster and more consistently. Also, it’s much more convenient to gamble from your living room or dorm room than it is to drive 20 minutes or an hour to a nearby casino. And with gambling coming to mobile devices, it will be that much easier to access.

There’s another reason online gambling is especially dangerous. Younger gamblers gamble more online – and these gamblers are more susceptible to addiction. This is clear, and backed-up by studies that confirm younger gamblers are more likely to have impulse control issues that often exacerbate problems.

Q: You write that you have a personal connection to the gambling issue: that you have been negatively affected by your addiction to poker. What advice would you give to others who are struggling with a gambling addiction?

A: Get help. At a minimum, if you think might have an issue, try to diagnose how much of an issue it is. This help can be in the form of counseling, including through employee assistance programs. And I would never discount how much help Gamblers Anonymous can be. GA is free, it’s confidential, and whether the program sticks with you for a short period of time or a longer period, it aids gamblers by giving them a path to stop the losses, and needed perspective about how not gambling can give your life balance.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I have a few ideas percolating. My day job is keeping me busy these days, but I do hope to write another book before too long. Writing High Stakes was a great experience, and in a modest way, it’s become part of the national debate. I’m grateful for that.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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