GPSOLO October/November 2009
The biggest lie that gamblers tell is that they won money. The second biggest lie is when they tell people they broke even. Gamblers lose. Gamblers must lose. The more they gamble, the more they lose. Every game in the casino is subject to the certainty known as the house edge. The casino has a mathematical advantage in all table games, an advantage known as odds. The odds, a statistical certainty, always favor the house . Any person can beat the odds in the short term, but if a person plays that game over a sustained period of time, the house must win. It is this critical truism that escapes the compulsive gambler. If there ever came a time when the casino discovered the house edge was no longer in their favor, that game would be stopped immediately. It’s that simple.
The mechanical games such as slots are controlled by a computer chip. The casino determines what amount of money will be paid out by each machine and what amount will be retained by the casino. Today, 70 percent of the casino’s profits come from the slot machines. These machines are developed by people who are experts in the field of psychology. They understand what they have to create to appeal to the gambler to keep him or her playing.
Most compulsive gamblers have two traits in common. First, they believe they are smarter than anyone else and possess a knowledge and understanding of the game that is far superior to that of other gamblers. Second, they believe they have been blessed with the glorious gift they choose to call “luck,” which guarantees riches beyond their wildest imaginations. For the gambler who spends considerable amounts of time at the casino, these traits are reinforced continually by events of the day. Problem gamblers all have a “system” for beating the house. In the rare instances when the gambler does win, that event serves to reinforce his or her belief that the system works.
I personally have witnessed unexplainable runs of luck. These are the episodes the gambler chooses to remember and to tell everyone. Gamblers avoid discussing times when they have lost everything—they suffer from an affliction known as selective memory. If gamblers are honest with their friends and loved ones and tell them that they had been losing money day after day at the casino, those friends and loved ones are likely to suggest that the gambler stop going to the casino. No matter how deep the hole, the gambler always believes there is the possibility of a win big enough to cure the problems created by the gambling. It was this dream that allowed me to return to the casino day after day, regardless of the fact that I lost the majority of the times I gambled.
One year, [my wife] Jane and I were invited to a New Year’s celebration at the Hilton in Las Vegas. The idea of spending New Year’s Eve in Vegas was very exciting, and we jumped at the invitation. The Hilton actually was located quite far off the Strip, making it very difficult to walk to any other casino from there. It is a huge facility, probably best known as the venue where Elvis performed. On New Year’s Eve, high rollers fly in from around the world and converge for a night of gambling and partying, a great night to be in Las Vegas.
On New Year’s Eve, the blackjack tables were divided into groupings, and each had a minimum bet amount, ranging from $100 all the way to no limit. The smallest bet that could be placed in the casino that night was $100. The women dressed in beautiful evening gowns and furs and the men dressed in tuxedos. Every table in the casino was packed with players, and every person was there by invitation only. As guests checked in, they were given a Sony Watchman television as a gift from the hotel. My most vivid memory is that I couldn’t do anything right at the blackjack tables. I kept losing hand after hand. I did not have one single run of good luck the entire time we were there. I felt as though I was trapped in the Hilton for the entire weekend and could not escape to any other casino. I took a major beating. After we returned home, my wife prominently displayed the little Sony TV we had been given. For years, I had to endure looking at that thing every time I walked into the den—of course, I was the only one who knew that our “free” gift actually cost $10,000.
We also were invited to vacation at a casino on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. The island was spectacular, the ocean beautiful, and the weather sunny and warm. Everything was perfect except my luck at the blackjack tables. By the second day of our trip, I was tapped out, so I called our bank back home to ask them to wire me money. As it turned out, I eventually lost most of the money that had been wired that day.
As we were leaving to go home, the casino accounting department notified me that I had not played the requisite number of hours a day to receive a comp and therefore I would be expected to pay all the expenses we incurred while in the Bahamas. They explained their comps were based solely on time played, and not on money lost. I was livid.
There was a very interesting law in effect on the island at that time: No resident was allowed to gamble in the casino. I was told they did this to protect their own people. What do they know in the Bahamas that we don’t know here?
Immediately after Casino Windsor opened in 1994, I started making a couple of trips a week to Canada to gamble. Normally, I would take $200 to $300 a trip. It was easy to convince myself that I could afford to spend this at the casino because I was making a good living and did not see my gambling as a problem. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation was much different from my fantasy world. I was losing $600 a week; that works out to more than $30,000 a year. Like any other addiction, I had to gamble more to attain the same high. After three or four years, I found myself in an unbelievable situation. As a direct result of my many trips to the casino, I was broke. I had maxed out all my credit cards, had secretly mortgaged our house, and was heavily in debt to my bank. I was even making a point to come home at noon so I could get to the mailbox and remove any suspicious bills or those that could not logically be explained.
My solution was to contact an old client and try to borrow some money. I had represented a couple who had won a state lottery and did not want that information made public. I established a blind partnership that could receive proceeds each year for 20 years. After receiving the monies, the partnership would pay all the taxes, put some of the money in an investment account, and pay the rest over to my clients. This was the perfect solution because no one would ever know they had won the lottery. I told them I was having financial problems and needed to borrow $75,000. There was not one second of hesitation. They told me they understood and not to worry, and they wrote out the check. The only thing they asked in return was a simple promissory note.
It was the first of many occasions on which I took advantage of my position as friend and counselor to obtain money with which to gamble. I did use some of this money to get the wolves off my back, but a good part of it was lost at the casino. I now was entering the phase of gambling known as chasing , meaning that I was attempting to win back the money that I lost at the casino. A few months after that loan was made, the same clients came to see me because they wanted a divorce. I agreed to handle it for them. When they divided their property, the wife ended up taking the promissory note I had signed. She knew I was having financial troubles, so she always gave me money. She said being able to help me out financially made her feel good. I took the money every time. She had no idea that I was gambling or that I was shamefully taking advantage of her generosity.
This deceit continued for nine months until she finally realized that I was unable to pay her back. She became furious, and I did not think I would ever hear from her again, but that was not the case. A few weeks later, I received a call from an attorney in another city. He informed me that he was now representing my former client, and that they demanded to see me the following day at 4:30 pm in his office to discuss the $300,000 I had stolen from her. I had absolutely no idea how much she had given me over the past nine months because my only concern when I got the money was to obtain as much as I could to continue my gambling. As I walked into his office the following day, she was sitting at the conference table with her attorney. To this day, I remember my righteous indignation as I explained I had never stolen anything; the money had been a gift. The attorney looked at me and smiled. He told me we wouldn’t have to worry about that because his client would file a grievance with the state bar and they could make the determination of how I obtained my client’s funds. He also informed me he was going to file a suit on behalf of his client to recover the $300,000, and that the local paper would have a field day with such a good story. I became aware right then that I would have to work out some type of arrangement or my life as I knew it would come to an end.
Over the next few months, we arrived at an agreement wherein I would pay my client the sum of $100,000 up front and the balance at the rate of $15,000 twice a year until paid in full. My immediate problem was that I didn’t have any money, and there was no way I could borrow $100,000. The only place I could obtain that amount of money was from my clients’ trust accounts, made up of funds from divorces, personal injury actions, and estates. Every attorney knows that under no circumstances can a client’s funds be removed from that account without the client’s express permission. To do so is illegal and a violation of the lawyer’s oath. Like the majority of compulsive gamblers, I committed a crime to get money because of the problems my gambling had caused. I wrote the check out of a client’s trust account to make the initial payment of $100,000. I told myself that I was simply borrowing the money and that I would return it as soon as I could. I had no intention of depriving my clients of any money! I simply needed to use it for a short time until I could replace it. Of course, there was no place that I could come up with that type of money except back at the casino. Because I had no money of my own with which to gamble, it meant I would have to keep taking more out of the trust account until I was able to repay the account with my winnings. During the next two years, I cashed hundreds of checks from that account to finance my gambling. I was constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul. The clients who complained the most were paid their money. I would settle a case and use a part of those funds to pay off some other client I owed, and I would use the rest to gamble in the hopes of winning enough to repay the funds taken out of the trust account.
Inside the casino, the VIP slot area was bright and alive with the promise of hope and a chance for redemption. The room glowed with colorful lights, and the clanging of bells rang out with the possibility of future jackpots for all who played. Players sat at different machines with their good luck charms in full display—from a rabbit’s foot to a picture of a grandchild. The extremely pious taped religious relics to their favorite one-armed bandits. A simple pull of the lever created an opportunity to win back all money lost. As long as the player had tokens, the player had hope.
Only one carrousel offered $100 slot machines, and there were five machines on that carrousel. I had hit jackpots on three of them and was playing a fourth while waiting to be paid my $120,000.
Hitting each jackpot only kindled my craving for more. While waiting for the payout, I put in two tokens at a time, pulling the lever as fast as I could. A casino host who knew me well approached from behind. He knew that I had been losing heavily for months and wanted to encourage me to win even more on this day. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Remember, Burke, it’s never enough.” He had uttered the single greatest truth faced by all addicts.
Michael J. Burke practiced law for 25 years in Howell, Michigan. On June 18, 2001, he was sentenced to three to ten years in prison and ordered to pay $1.6 million in restitution to his client-victims. He is a compulsive gambler. After spending 32 months in prison, he began traveling extensively, giving presentations on compulsively gambling. He has made presentations to compulsive gamblers, families of compulsive gamblers, law schools, the Michigan Bar Association, the American Bar Association, university classes, service organizations, rehabilitation centers, and churches. This article is an excerpt from his book Never Enough (ABA, 2008). For information on ordering the book, go to www.ababooks.org.