BALTIMORE — It had been three years since her husband died, and on Thanksgiving weekend, his widow sought relief from her heartache and dark, pandemic-induced loneliness in the bright glow and hubbub of a casino.
Huong Luong, 67, knew she shouldn’t be at a poker table inside Live Casino and Hotel Maryland in Hanover, where surveillance cameras showed she spent nearly 13 hours.
That’s because, in a moment of self-awareness and resolve a year earlier, the retired postal worker had signed a state document acknowledging “I have a problem with gambling” and pledging to stay out of the state’s six casinos — or risk being arrested for trespassing and stripped of any winnings, according to state and court records.
But like hundreds of self-barred Maryland gamblers during the coronavirus pandemic, Luong was drawn to casinos during the year-long period’s toxic mix of stress, boredom and isolation.
“I am doing what makes me feel alive,” said Luong, who lives in Centreville.
As the pandemic raged, Luong was among a record number of people charged at Maryland casinos during the last six months of 2020 with violating their “voluntary exclusion” agreements, according to state Lottery and Gaming Control records.
The 205 violations in the second half of the year represent a 61 percent increase over the 127 in the second half of 2019.
“Some of it is that people are struggling,” said Mary Drexler, program director for the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, which oversees a 24-hour help line (800-GAMBLER) and other support programs. “Some people think gambling is a way to make money.”
On the casino floors, with few windows or clocks, problem gamblers lose themselves in the rhythm of poker, slots, blackjack or other wagers, and a cacophony of pop music, shouts, beeps and chimes.
A review by the Baltimore Sun found that periodically, casinos did not adhere to state-mandated procedures designed to protect people with gambling issues from their worst impulses.
For example, Luong was permitted — 12 hours into her Nov. 29 visit to the Live Casino — to obtain a $1,000 advance from a casino cashier, allowing her to continue her poker binge. The transaction violated Maryland regulations and the casino’s policy because she was on the prohibited list, according to an incident report by state casino compliance officers.
Live Casino spokeswoman Dara Cohen wouldn’t talk about what happened, but said in a statement that the casino has worked to better detect patrons with gambling disorders.
“The safety and security of our guests and Team Members are our highest priority at Live! Casino, and that includes those in the [Voluntary Exclusion Program],” Cohen said.
“We are always augmenting our procedures as part of our mission to lead the market. In late 2019, we added industry-leading technology to improve even further early detection of VEP participants.” She declined to describe the technology.
The state allowed casinos to reopen at 50 percent capacity in June after being ordered closed three months earlier by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to help curb the spread of the virus.
The closures created “pent-up demand among recreational gamblers, but also pent-up desperation among problem gamblers,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “They get such a surge of adrenaline and endorphins — the sights, the sounds, the music. That’s when they feel lucky and alive and valued.”
Gamblers can ban themselves — either for two years or for life — at any casino or at the offices of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency in Baltimore. Those with two-year bans can get agency permission to withdraw from the program after an assessment by a licensed counselor. Otherwise, they remain on the list indefinitely.
The program “is a successful self-help tool for people who want to make a change,” said Gordon Medenica, the lottery and gaming director.
In July, the casinos’ first full month back after the closure, 38 self-excluded gamblers — including 26 at Live Casino — were charged with trespassing for violating their agreements. That was the highest monthly figure ever in Maryland, where the first casino, Hollywood Casino Perryville, opened in 2010. The total rose to 47 the following month and remained significantly above average the rest of 2020.
Luong and other defendants face a maximum sentence of three months in jail and a $500 fine if convicted of a first offense. Many such cases end with a sentence of community service or counseling, however.
A hearing in her case is scheduled for May 5.
The Sun examined police and District Court records and dozens of casino incident reports obtained from the Lottery and Gaming Control Agency through public records requests. Defendants’ names are redacted in the incident reports, but appear in police charging documents.
The records showed that what happened to Luong was a variation of a scene repeated, most commonly at Live but also at Horseshoe Baltimore Casino, MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Hollywood Casino Perryville and Ocean Downs Casino near Ocean City. Rocky Gap Casino Resort, near Cumberland, was the only state casino not to report any banned gamblers last year.
In a typical case, the player is spotted — sometimes after spending thousands of dollars or winning four-figure jackpots — and quietly led from the glitzy casino floor to a drab hallway where police are summoned. After being charged, the gamblers usually leave through a back door.
Sometimes, security staff catch prohibited players before they set foot on the gambling floor. Many casinos use scanning equipment that saves information from driver’s licenses, so the data can be quickly checked against the lists of banned gamblers.
But casinos, which operate extensive surveillance systems, don’t consider it necessary to check every guest’s ID, as long as the visitor looks 21 or older. That’s Maryland’s legal gambling age.
Alan Woinski, CEO of Gaming USA Corp., which publishes industry newsletters, said it is not the industry’s job “to police self-banned players.” While casinos are obligated to evict self-barred players, checking the ID of every gambler at the door would create long lines, Woinski added.
“Obviously, if they know there is a person there that is self-banned, they are obligated to get them out of there,” he said. “But they are in the business of providing entertainment.”
Benjamin Herbst, a Baltimore lawyer, has represented more than 20 gamblers on the exclusion list.
“Most of the people that hire me are professionals that have college degrees,” Herbst said. “I’ve got guys with security clearances, with professional licenses. I’ve had multiple people who have received two or three of these [trespassing citations] in a year.”
Luong thought her gambling issues were in check when she signed up for the exclusion program in January 2020.
She said she had gambled for years with her husband (“the love of my life”) around the time of past Thanksgiving holidays. Casinos remain a connection to the man she lost to bladder cancer complications in 2017.
And so, on Thanksgiving weekend 2020 — feeling isolated by the pandemic — Luong slipped.
“Loneliness is dangerous,” she said.
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