Bill Kearney remembers the moment he knew his gambling addiction had gotten the best of him. It came when he had his own wife thrown out of the casino rather than stop playing.
In the 1980s, Kearney says he wagered millions in Atlantic City -- mainly playing blackjack. He was at the table, in fact, when a deputy came to his home and told his wife the furnishings were going to be sold to satisfy Kearney's debts. His wife came to the casino, screaming at him to come home.
"I told the pit boss to get her the hell out of here, and she's screaming, 'I'm his wife!'" Kearney recalls. "The pit boss asked if she was. I told him, 'I don't know who the hell she is, but either she's leaving or I'm leaving.' They didn't want to lose my action, so they threw her out."
As the new Rivers Casino prepares to open Aug. 9, gambling critics like Kearny and addiction counselors say they expect a rise in such dysfunctional behavior.
"If we never had liquor stores, would we ever have had people with alcohol problems?" asks Arthur Merrell, who runs an addiction counseling center in the South Side.
The expansion of gambling is already leading to a spike in calls for help. In the last 10 months of 2007, the hotline for the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania handled 966 calls. In 2008 -- when Pennsylvania was operating seven casinos out of the 11 slated to open, the calls numbered 4,557.
"There was a time when we hardly had any calls form Erie County," says Jim Pappas, director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania. But since the new Presque Isle Downs racetrack and casino opened there, "It's now a top county."
Stacy Kriedeman, spokesperson for the state Department of Health, says there are roughly 40 providers statewide certified by the state to treat problem gambling. Those include 11 in Allegheny County and six in Washington County, where the Meadows racetrack and slots parlor is located.
When Harrisburg approved slots gambling, in 2004, the legislation included a provision that would allow any state resident to be treated for gambling problems. The counseling is available free of charge to those who can't afford it.
The list of providers is available by calling Pappas' group at 1-800-GAMBLER or the Department of Health's help line at 877-565-2112, or by checking its Web site, www.dsf.health.state.pa.us. So far, Kriedeman says, 50 people across the state have sought help through state-approved counselors. Thirty-one of those were from Allegheny County, before Pittsburgh's casino even opened.
Merrell, one of the licensed gambling-addiction counselors, says his clinic, Positive Pathways, has seen a spike in business since the Meadows opened its slots facility.
"The magic number seems to be six months," says Merrell. "It usually takes six months [for gambling addicts] to see their checkbook is empty and their credit card is maxed out. And then they get into problems."
According to the American Psychiatric Association, signs of problem gambling include: needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement; unsuccessful efforts at cutting down on gambling; using gambling as a way to escape problems; lying to conceal the extent of gambling; and jeopardizing a significant relationship or job opportunity.
If someone has a gambling problem or is worried about developing one, they can have themselves put on a self-exclusion list, which would bar their entry into the casino. According to Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the state Gaming Control Board, as of June 2009 there were 750 Pennsylvanians on the list. But of those on the list, only 37 percent have ever sought treatment for problem gambling.
Senior citizens are especially susceptible to the lure of gambling, say Merrell and others. At a meeting on gambling last year, Merrell says, Washington County officials told counselors about increasing reports of elderly citizens falling behind in their bills.
"It turns out they were all going down to the Meadows," says Merrell. "Friends die, family moves away, and they're feeling a little lonely."
Kearney agrees. On several trips to Philadelphia area casinos, Kearney has observed busloads of seniors filing in to play slot machines.
"This is our greatest generation, people in their 60s, 70s and 80s sitting at these machines," says Kearney. "They put in one bill after another -- and the casino does nothing to stop them."
News Intern Brian Tierney contributed to this report.