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Against the Odds

Referendum E is a sucker bet, but the state's hooked on lottery games.

For Josh, a 21-year-old waiter and GA member, the lottery offered something no casino could: easy access. Four years ago, he would have been bounced out of any slot palace in the state for being underage. Technically, he was too young for the lottery, too, but with scratch ticket vending machines conveniently located in supermarkets, the action was as close as his next shopping trip.

A large, soft-spoken young man who describes himself as "a compulsive person by nature," Josh played the scratch games off and on as a kid, usually when some older relative bought him a ticket. By his late teens, though, he was buying the tickets himself -- and dropping entire paychecks in a fruitless quest to hit a big score.

"I got kind of a rush from scratching the ticket off," he says. "I'd go in and buy ten. Go across the street and scratch them. Maybe win two dollars. Go back and get two more tickets. Scratch those off. And just go back and forth. I remember one day, I went to my bank thirteen, fourteen times to get money for scratch tickets. I was taking twenty dollars at a time, and each time, I was sure it was going to be the last time. The teller finally said, 'Why don't you just make one withdrawal?'"

Josh knew the odds were not only against him but downright impossible. He knew that a roll of 400 tickets could be expected to have, at most, one big winner -- if, that is, your notion of a "big winner" is a prize worth fifty bucks or so, which would invariably be used to buy more tickets. (The current Sizzling Sevens game, which has been promoted heavily and whose sales, Lisa Murray says, are "blowing the doors off the barn," offers 569-to-1 odds that a two-dollar ticket will yield a $77 prize. The odds of winning $777 are 8,000 to 1; in other words, if you spend $16,000 on tickets, you just might hit one of those triple-seven payoffs.) He knew it, but that didn't matter.

"That's the sick part," he says. "I knew they weren't out to give money away. But I thought somehow I could buck the odds. It really wasn't the money. I'd settle for twenty so I could get twenty more."

The magical thinking persisted for months. If someone at work boasted of having bought a $50 winner, he'd want to buy a ticket for the same game right away. If a clerk asked for ID, he'd say he forgot it, and sometimes they'd sell to him anyway. His mother told the local 7-Eleven clerks not to sell tickets to him, and he got banned from a King Soopers store after they caught him shoving money into the ticket machine, but soon he was eighteen, and nobody could stop him.

Finally, he was arrested for stealing a bottle of vodka from a liquor store, which he planned to sell to a friend to get five dollars for tickets. He wound up in Gamblers Anonymous, working on his urges. He's been clean for eighteen months. "I'm still addicted to them," he says. "I just don't buy them anymore."

All the time he's been in GA, Josh says, he's met only one other person who has a problem with scratch tickets. The overwhelming majority of the people at his meeting are slot players, and the rest are card or bingo players; it comes down to one's disaster of choice. Gamblers Anonymous takes no public position on government-sponsored gambling or particular initiatives such as Referendum E, and neither does Josh. "My thing was instant gratification, not Lotto," Josh says. "But if we do get Powerball, GA will probably get more people."

Other than GA, there are few resources for compulsive gamblers in Colorado. Because health insurance doesn't usually cover treatment and most compulsive gamblers don't have the money to pay for it, few therapists bother to undergo the specialized training required to be certified in the area. At present there are no more than six certified therapists in the state, says Renee Rupe, president of the Colorado Council on Compulsive Gambling.

"Treatment is the area where we're really lacking," Rupe says. "Even with the training, the success rate is very low. The suicide rate is high. The financial devastation is unbelievable. It blows my mind how much debt, how much trouble, how many lawsuits can result from this, at all income levels."

The CCCG is an all-volunteer effort made up of therapists, gaming-industry representatives, mental-health experts and do-gooders such as Rupe, whose background is in consumer credit counseling. The group operates a toll-free hotline (1-800-522-4700) funded by casino owners and the Colorado Lottery. The lottery prints the phone number on every Lotto and scratch ticket. But the calls are actually answered by a better-staffed council in Texas, and the list of possible local sources for referrals is a short one. Until a recent fundraiser, the council's annual budget was less than $5,000 a year.

Fewer than 10 percent of those who called the hotline in the past year identified their problem as "lottery-related"; slot machines and video poker account for nearly two-thirds of the calls. "But it's all relative," Rupe says. "A person making $10,000 a year who is spending ten or fifteen dollars a week on the lottery is overspending his budget. That money came from the food budget. Then you have people making $100,000 a year who are spending more than that at the casinos. The disease is the same."

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