Gambling’s Dire Odds

July 12, 2006

By Stacy Lavilla

In 1985, Mark was the picture of middle-class prosperity. In his early 30s and married with two children, Mark had a home in the Bay Area and a good-paying job as an accountant.

All that unraveled on Mother’s Day that year, when the illusion he had so carefully crafted was literally dismantled by strangers who carted off the family car.

Mark’s family was perplexed and outraged. But what they didn’t know then was that Mark had defaulted on a gambling loan, secured by the automobile that collectors had come to get.

His wife knew that he gambled for recreation during family trips to Lake Tahoe and Reno. That was no big deal, but what was was the fact that Mark left his office nearly every day at approximately 12:30 p.m. to place a bet at the racetrack. Often, he’d forget to pick up the kids from school, even as he was squandering thousands of dollars in a week’s time.

Mark says his wife, whom he didn’t identify, found out about that at the same time she discovered that he had forged loans under her name and had taken out two mortgages. He was out $40,000 and counting. Soon, Mark was without a family and a home. After 10 years of marriage, his wife packed up his kids, then 7 and 4, and left.

Mark, though, was far from alone among Asian Americans. Like Kent Woo, executive director of the umbrella group NICOS Chinese Health Coalition, Mark estimates that 10 percent of all gamblers are of Asian descent. However, said Woo, figures are difficult to get, since few studies have looked specifically at Asian Americans.

The lack of such research likely hurt Mark. Though he joined Gambler’s Anonymous, changed jobs and went two years before placing a bet, the lure of easy money soon became irresistible to the Filipino American, who began again to bet secretly at work. For the next five years, Mark placed bets on sports teams through a bookie.

As his debt grew, Mark found himself in an even deeper hole. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable gambling debt and nowhere to turn, Mark embezzled $210,000 from his employer for three years. When the IRS conducted an audit of his company, Mark was caught and sentenced to three years in prison.

That’s when Mark knew he had to quit. He started going to Gamblers Anonymous again and he began seeing a psychiatrist, too. Eventually, he managed to get his sentence reduced to five years’ probation and one year of house arrest, which he has since completed.

“I really never thought my gambling was a problem until I was facing a prison sentence,” said Mark, now 47. “Until I hit that bottom with the judge saying that my crime could bring up to four years in prison … It wasn’t until then that it just kind of struck home.

Mark explained that his reasons for gambling were rooted in the excitement of possibly scoring the big win. “I did it for the thrill of it. There is just something that zaps inside you that gives you that thrill, that feeling of ecstasy, that feeling of being in control yet out of control,” Mark said. “I really didn’t think it was a problem.”

Ironically, he “thought that gambling could fix some of my financial woes. You get to thinking that you could make that big win and make lots of money and pay off your debt and be worry-free.”

When he lost, he said, he’d chalk it up to “a case of bad luck.”


Like Mark, a growing number of Americans and Asian Americans across the country have been devastated by gambling. And according to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, gambling is a bigger business than ever.

The panel’s two-year study on the social impact of betting, released last month, found that since 1975, betting has flourished — 37 states and the District of Columbia have lotteries, and 28 states have commercial or Indian casinos. In 1997, Americans spent more than $47 billion of their leisure activity money on gambling, the report found.

Unfortunately, the study included no racial breakdowns that might have shed light on what many people instinctually perceive: that risks of compulsive gambling are especially dire for Asian Americans.

Other studies and a growing concern within some local communities have caused organizations to take notice. According to the October 1997 issue of The Wager, a newsletter issued by the Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions and the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, Asian Americans have added plenty to the kitties of casinos along Las Vegas’ famous Strip. In high-stakes games, such as baccarat, Asian or Asian American players put in 80 percent of all revenues, while other races made up 20 percent. In table revenue, on the other hand, Asian players contributed 17 percent, compared to 83 percent contributed by other races.

A 1997 study by the umbrella group NICOS found that 70 percent of 1,800 Chinese Americans surveyed in San Francisco believed that gambling was a serious problem in their community.

“We had an inkling that gambling was a problem … But even were surprised that 70 percent [of Chinese Americans] considered it a serious problem. It was an overwhelming response,” said NICOS leader Woo. “These studies only highlight how destructive a force gambling is in our community.”

Though it is difficult to create a profile of the “typical” Asian American gambler, another study that the group released last month helped shed some light on Asian American gamblers and the impact gambling has had on Chinese Americans in San Francisco.

The study, conducted by two U.C. Berkeley students, found that 30 percent of Chinese Americans surveyed said they gambled once a week or more, 14.7 percent identified themselves as problem gamblers, and 21 percent of survey respondents met criteria for pathologic gambling.

The study, which surveyed over 150 people in San Francisco Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square, found that Chinese Americans who gambled more than once a week were more likely to be male, at least 55 years old, and married or in a common-law marriage. Those in that category were also more likely than other respondents to have a limited education, at least 20 years of residency in the United States and an annual household income of $40,000 or less.

Those who self-identified as problem gamblers, however, were more likely than others to be men between 18 and 34 or over 65 and to have a college or graduate level education. They were likely to be working full-time or unemployed, and married or in common-law marriages.

Evelyn Lee, executive director at RAMS, a San Francisco organization that provides social services to recent immigrants, believes that gambling is growing, in part because of the ease at which an individual can now place a bet.

“Unlike many years ago where we played mah jongg and pai gow, gambling is now becoming more complicated. Now there is sports gambling, there is Internet gambling, stock market gambling,” said Lee, adding that there are still charter buses that will take individuals from Chinatown in San Francisco to casinos in Reno and Las Vegas.

“Before people would say they’d wait until their day off to gamble,” Lee said. “But now people have many different ways they can gamble, where they can bet on sports every minute. All they have to do is make a phone call.”


Lee stressed that her efforts aren’t aimed against recreational gambling, which can often be as innocent as Saturday afternoon mah-jongg get-togethers. Rather, her program is designed to help individuals recognize when recreational gambling starts to become compulsive or pathological-when people begin to lose control.

“We’re concerned about people who have lost everything,” said Lee. “We’re concerned about those who are addicted.”

Those people are the most likely to end up hurting others, she said.

“You hear story after story about how a wife is being abused by gambling and how children are being abused by problem gambling,” Lee said. “We’ve seen lots of families come in for divorce, for marital problems and the root of things would often be gambling.”

Counselor Tina Shum has also seen scores of Asian American families affected by gambling through her social work at Chinatown’s Cameron House, which is just one of many San Francisco organizations collaborating on the project.

“As a social worker handling domestic violence cases, I’d say …approximately one-third to a quarter of all family problems were some how related to gambling,” Shum said. “It is a big problem in Asian American and Chinese communities.”

Through the training program, Shum says she now understands that gambling is a mental disease that can be cured. She can also identify problem gambling and now knows how to treat family members of gamblers.


While most support groups are patterned on the 12 steps that Alcoholics Anonymous made famous decades ago, such a model often fails to address cultural issues and nuances of concern to many Asian Americans.

One tradition — the introduction of oneself as a sufferer of an addiction — might be especially painful, Lee said. “There are a lot of cultural differences that make this difficult,” Lee said. “There is still lots of shame involved here.”

Asian Americans “like more structure, and we have to build trust,” Lee said, adding, “Alcoholics Anonymous bases their model on God, but lots of people don’t believe in a higher power.”

Mark agreed, saying the AA-based Gamblers Anonymous model doesn’t work for all Asian Americans.

“I can say that the majority of Gambler Anonymous members are Caucasians or non-Asians, and that is probably because there is a certain amount of uncomfortableness when you go into a meeting and when [the majority] are Caucasians, the need to speak up is minimized because you feel this uncomfortableness or discrimination of some kind.”

Lee added that cultural issues should cut across all forms of treatment. She recalls one Asian American’s description of the “high” he felt after winning.

“I remember one person told me that no matter how badly you’re treated, or in spite of the racism you may have experienced, when you pull $400,000 on a card table, you’re treated the same as everyone else. You’re treated well,” Lee said. “There is almost a power you can gain as a minority group.”


In San Francisco, Richmond Area Multi Services (RAMS) and NICOS have begun a gambling program that they hope will help stem excessive gambling among Asian Americans.

The Chinese Community Problem Gambling Project receives $50,000 from the San Francisco Department of Public Health, which is half of what it needs. Organizers hope to get the remaining $50,000 from private foundations.

The program, which so far only serves about a dozen people, is modeled after a Toronto-based program created in 1994 to help Chinese Canadian compulsive gamblers. Recently, it finished training nearly three dozen counselors on techniques for treating gamblers and their families. The program just launched a hot-line that accommodates Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Russian speakers.

Although the program centers heavily around treatment, organizers also plan to concentrate on community outreach and education, such as the distribution of educational videotapes and brochures in Asian languages, as well as the continuation of research.

“Here in the U.S., we talk a great deal about substance abuse and alcohol abuse, but not about gambling,” said Lee. “You have one million gamblers in California, and each of those gamblers affect 10 to 23 other people? Gambling is a severe problem that we need to pay attention to.”

Lee stressed that the program aims to treat both the family and gambler equally. This is particularly important when treating Asian Americans, agreed Mark, because family members are often the ones to bail out the problem gambler. “It’s almost as if families need to be treated alongside the gambler, because it’s the family that keeps the gambler from getting help, or getting out.”

Mark’s own parents knew of his gambling problem, but were kept in the dark when he was convicted of embezzlement.

“In the Asian culture everything gets swept under the carpet,” he said. “As serious as it has been, it’s kind of the philosophy of ‘My kids could never do wrong.’

“Yeah, there was a problem, but it was out of sight out of mind …In the Asian community that’s just how it is, and it’s not the most productive or normal way of handling things, but that’s the way it is,” he added.

“Until there is violence or incarceration or some really bad things happen, the families don’t get involved and look the other way,” Mark said. “In the Asian community there is a lot of dollars there and bailouts also happen. If someone gets in trouble and money is owed, the family bails them out, only to the detriment of the gambler.”

Mark, who hasn’t placed a bet in seven years and considers himself a recovered compulsive gambler, feels especially bad about the damage caused to his family.

Mark, who sees his children on occasion and continues to support them, is optimistic that this program will help gamblers identify and overcome their gambling problems and hopefully spare them the same losses he has been forced to endure over the past 20 years.

“I can replace the money I’ve lost and certain friendships, but not the time, and I’ve lost a lot of time with my kids,” he said. “Any program, whether it helps Asian Americans or non-Asians, helps everyone.”

The hot-line number for The Chinese Community Problem Gambling Project is (415) 668-5955.

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