by Rosalind Dawson
When Adam Resnick gambled at the Horseshoe Casinoin Hammond, Ind., he got the VIP treatment. On this particular day in June 2002, he had an exclusive blackjack table – just him and the dealer in a back room. Mr. R, as the obliging casino personnel addressed him, had enough money in his pockets to buy a couple Chopard “Super Ice Cube” watches.
Provided for him were his usual props: antibacterial wipes to keep his hands clean between plays, Stridex pads to cool his shaved head under the fluorescent lighting, and a savvy dealer who could fire cards at lightning speed and understood the high-roller’s need for absolute quiet once he was in the zone.
Within an hour, Resnick had lost most of the $2.3 million he’d started out with. Then his luck started to change; the right cards began to fall. Resnick was soon up to $3.3 million and on the roll of his life, playing three, four, five, even six hands at a time, doubling down, splitting pairs, maxing wagers, commanding the blackjack spirits.
“I could’ve broken bricks with my concentration,” he says.
Within another couple hours, he’d added another $5 million, bringing his total winnings to $8.6 million. Staring at the mound of chips in front of him, Resnick had an epiphany. He could pay off the millions he owed his creditors from past gambling debts, keep the balance and run far, far away from the casino.
“This was God giving me the chance to stop,” Resnick would later write. “I shook my head at what a lucky bastard I was.”
But then he went right back to playing more blackjack. By the time he left the casino, he didn’t even have enough to tip the valet.
Resnick, a Milwaukeean who first learned the attraction of games of chance as a child, was a compulsive gambler with an addiction he couldn’t control. When he lost, he needed to gamble to win it back; when he won, he needed to win again and again.
Resnick’s story, of “arguably the biggest gambling addict on the planet,” as he puts it, is told in the book Bust: How I Gambled and Lost a Fortune, Brought Down a Bank – and Lived To Pay For It (William Morrow, 2007), a hellishly fast-paced roller-coaster ride into the gambling addiction abyss. His book was recently joined by UW-Madison professor Sandra Adell’s harrowing account of her own casino compulsion, Confessions of a Slot Machine Queen (EugeniaBooks, 2010).
The growth of gambling – at places like Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Bingo Casino, the Oneida Casino in Green Bay, or more than a dozen other casinos in Wisconsin – is helping turn ever more people into problem gamblers. More than 14,604 of them called the state hotline for help last year. The addiction ensnared Milwaukee County Supervisor Toni Clark, who pleaded guilty this year to using campaign funds to support her gambling habit and went to jail. Also facing prosecution was Paula Dorsey, a longtime, highly regarded union official who pleaded guilty to embezzling money from a union financial account she oversaw.
Mark Borowski, outreach speaker for the Wisconsin Council On Problem Gambling, separates troubled gamblers into two groups: problem and pathological. Problem gamblers undermine health, work, studies, finances and interpersonal relationships by gambling excessively. When problem gambling becomes an uncontrollable urge that erupts into full-scale obsession by any means and at any cost, it is pathological, he explains.
Lying to significant others, committing illegal acts, and feeling restless and irritable when trying to stop are just a few of the signals that a gambler is sliding into pathological addiction. But each case is a unique tragedy. This is the story of how Resnick, Adell, Dorsey and Clark were trapped by this powerful addiction.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Resnick grew up the second of three sons in the upscale home of a health services executive and his homemaker wife. Resnick recalls being excited about gambling from an early age, whether for Trident gum, “Snoopy dollars” or cash while playing cards with Grandpa Ruben and the other adults.
“I was the only kid invited to sit at the table with the adults,” he recalls in his memoir. “I went in on every pot.”
After graduating from high school, Resnick relocated to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona, admittedly to be close to Las Vegas. After blowing through “tens of thousands of dollars” in tuition money and student loans in three semesters, as Resnick once recalled it, he transferred to UW-Madison in search of a fresh start. How long did it last?
“About 24 hours,” he admits. Ho-Chunk Casino in Baraboo was like a second home.
Resnick’s future wife, Meredith, was also studying at UW. Soon after they started dating, Meredith noticed his excessive gambling. “You have a problem,” she said, as his book recounts. “You’re out of control for a kid in college. I don’t know anyone who even knows a bookie.”
Meredith convinced Resnick to attend his first and only Gamblers Anonymous gathering, but they left just several minutes after arriving. “I’m just not like those people in that room,” Resnick recalls telling Meredith. They were losers.
After dropping out of UW, Resnick moved to Chicago and found a job selling lymphedema pumps, devices that relieve the buildup of lymphatic fluids. Resnick was so adept at sales that he started his own business selling the pumps out of his Clark Street apartment. The business flourished, and soon Resnick was hiring subcontractors in multiple states. “Within a year, I’d made a fortune for a 22-year-old without a college degree,” he writes.
There were other jobs to follow, some even more lucrative. But he gambled away the proceeds as quickly as he earned them. And neither Meredith nor their two children could stop the urge.
By the time he was 30, he was hopelessly addicted, and “headed for a crash of epic proportions,” Resnick writes. He was leading something of a double life: the respectable husband, father and white-collar worker who secretly won and lost millions on blackjack and sports bets, and was a regular patron of casinos and bookies.
National data shows that 65 percent of compulsive gamblers commit crimes to finance their gambling. Resnick did so on a grand and complicated scale. He was writing bad checks and having problems getting a checking account anywhere when he befriended two insiders at Chicago’s Universal Federal Savings Bank. The three became involved in a check-kiting scheme that enabled Resnick to write rubber checks worth $10 million from Universal and one other bank to help finance his gambling habit.
Just before arriving at the Horseshoe Casino for his memorable boom-and-bust blackjack session, Resnick had picked up a call in his Mercedes from a lawyer who said he represented Universal. “We know there’s a problem with you and the bank account,” the caller said plainly. “We need you to deposit $3 million within [24 hours].”
Resnick was playing with $2.3 million, much of it phony money from rubber checks. “My heart was pounding,” Resnick recalls in his memoir. “I’d never played where I felt like I had to win. This was a first, and I didn’t like it.”
Resnick, gambling all day, through the night and into the next morning, won big, lost big and was soon after arrested by federal investigators. The check-kiting scheme led to the collapse of Universal Federal Savings Bank. But the carnage didn’t end there: Resnick’s two fellow conspirators in the scheme, who were children of the bank’s president, went down with him.
Resnick would write his friends and family an oddly corporate-sounding apology: “I want you all to know that I am cognizant of the impact my current situation has on all of you. … I will do my best to mitigate the preceding in any way possible.”
Resnick was indicted on a multicount felony charge, sentenced to 42 months in prison and ordered to pay $10.5 million in restitution. He ultimately served 25 months in federal prison and went on to use his insider knowledge to expose a kickback scheme between pharmacy Omnicare Inc. and Mariner Health Care Inc., a nursing home chain. His $2 million in rewards from the feds under its whistle-blowing laws will likely be applied toward the restitution he owes and a claim former Universal depositors have filed.
Resnick has also testified against Dominic Poeta, one of a host of bookies he used during his betting binges. Poeta received fraudulent payments from Resnick totaling $647,211. Meanwhile, the IRS recently brought a $1,449,614 tax liability claim against Resnick for tax years 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2002. It will be a long time before Resnick repays society for all the damage he caused.
Sandra Adell seemed to exhibit none of the signs of a compulsive gambler. The popular, tenured professor in UW-Madison’s Afro-American Studies Department, who grew up in Detroit, had no interest in gambling and routinely turned down invitations from friends to go to casinos. Adell had her first taste of slot machines on April 30, 2005, at Ho-Chunk Casino. It was a vulnerable time for her. Her longtime romantic partner – the Poet, as she calls him – had suddenly left her and she was dealing with that loss when she accompanied a friend to the casino.
It was the first win that snagged Adell. She played $100 at a slot machine and won $1,000. “It was amazing,” she says.
She had always believed people work for the money they get, and now she’d won a grand by merely lifting a finger. From there, the thirst for beating the odds was unquenchable, even while each subsequent visit was “draining my spirit and my soul.
“Slot machines do something to your brain,” she says. “They trigger you to keep playing. They trigger the reward system in the brain.”
Despite the addiction, Adell was able to fulfill her teaching and other responsibilities. But her upbeat persona belied the inner tumult: “I was dying inside and nobody knew it.”
Adell began to keep a journal of her casino visits and even researched the gambling industry. “There was a rational part of me trying to do some research,” she writes, “but part of it was to try and figure out what was happening to me.” The book-length memoir she eventually wrote covers Adell’s challenging rise from unwed teen pregnancy (at age 14) in Detroit through a later marriage, divorce, earning her GED, entering college and ultimately earning her doctorate in comparative literature. En route, she took side work as a model and actress. The book is a page-turner, the writing visual, profound and humorous. Adell candidly describes her addiction and the rapid downslide that finally got her arrested for drunken driving.
“I felt that my life was in danger,” she says. “Because I was gambling and couldn’t seem to stop, I was drinking more.”
Adell, who recently turned 64 and looks 40, was headed to Ho-Chunk Casino when law enforcement spotted her wavering vehicle on the night of July 10, 2009. She ended up arrested, handcuffed and taken to the Sauk County Jail. “I’m glad I was taken off the road. I could’ve killed myself or somebody else.”
After her release, she promptly called Gateway Recovery in Madison and started psychotherapy to help overcome her addiction.
Adell still doesn’t know why her gambling spun out of control. There were red flags along the way: her long-troubled romantic relationship, her past as an “unwed, uneducated” teen mother – a “stigma,” she says, “I’ve carried around with me my whole life.” She also cites the extreme expectations of her father, his disappointment with her pregnancy, and her dropping out of high school to work and support her kids.
“By age 19, I was raising three children,” she explains. “I have always lived with high levels of stress. Gambling brought a lot more of it.”
These days, Adell is minding her soul. With the help of therapy, friends and speaking out publicly on her blog (saadell.wordpress.com) about the negative socioeconomic effects of gambling, she has stood up to her addiction and stood up for other female gamblers.
“When I first started working on this book,” she writes, “I found few resources for women gamblers and there was almost nothing dealing with African-American women gamblers.”
All signs suggest gambling is on the rise in Wisconsin, particularly among women. The Wisconsin Council On Problem Gambling runs a 24-hour helpline (1-800-GAMBLE5), and calls to it have risen by 325 percent since 1996. In 2008, there were 12,946 callers, including 43 who had thought about, attempted or were in the process of committing suicide. In 2009, 14,604 called, including 54 engaged in a suicidal thought or act. By the end of June 2010, the numbers were already at 7,980 calls
(43 suicidal), far ahead of the 2009 pace.
Gambling by women has grown particularly fast. In 1996, the state helpline’s calls were 80 percent men. “Now the calls are about fifty-fifty men and women,” Borowski says.
One woman who fell hard was Milwaukee County Supervisor Toni Clark, charged early this year for submitting a false campaign finance report in January 2007.
Clark was elected to the Milwaukee County Board in a special election in 2003 and re-elected in 2004 and 2008.
The John Doe investigation of her found a Friends of Toni Clark campaign finance account was closed in 2005 and a personal account was then opened into which campaign contributions were deposited. Clark’s problem went on for years: She started fudging the books within three days of her election and had “unaddressed gambling and financial management problems” from 2003 to 2009, investigators found.
“What this case shows is a gambling addiction that has risen to the level over the years of starting to blow her life apart,” Clark’s attorney, Jeremy Levinson, told the media.
Clark broke down in tears as she pleaded guilty. She resigned her position in March 2010 and is serving a six-month prison term. She must also pay $5,100 in restitution.
According to records, Clark began psychotherapy for compulsive gambling in November at Shorehaven Behavioral Health Inc. “I hope she works through this, ” says assistant district attorney Bruce Landgraf, who prosecuted her. “She never tried to deny [the crime],” he notes. “She always owned up to her shortcomings.”
During the same years Clark was using her campaign funds to finance her gambling habit, Paula Dorsey was embezzling from a union treasury to finance her addiction. Dorsey – former president of District Council 48 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) – was a highly regarded mover and shaker in the labor movement.
It was a shock to those who knew her, such as Rich Abelson, District Council 48 executive director. “She was, quite frankly, a very powerful woman who did very phenomenal work for a long period of time,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Sitting in her modest, warmly decorated home in Sherman Park, Dorsey, an African-American woman like Adell and Clark, tries to understand how it happened. She is articulate, forthright and even chuckles as she tells her story. Yet you can see the sorrow in her eyes.
“I lost the respect of others,” she says. “I got myself into a mess and I can’t even explain how.”
According to court records, the “mess” began early in 2004. District Council 48 had received AFSCME funding to finance a program called Operation Big Vote aimed at increasing minority voter turnout. Dorsey, who had exclusive access to the funds, wasn’t accountable to anyone for how she used the money.
From roughly January 2004 through May 2009, Dorsey routinely used the OBV account at Associated Bank to write checks she deposited into her personal account (also at Associated), charge expenditures and withdraw cash to finance her addiction to the Potawatomi slot machines. Before the OBV withdrawals started, Dorsey says she had maxed out all of her personal resources, borrowed from family and was a regular at payday loan outlets.
Dorsey was busted on May 12, 2009, after Associated noticed the suspicious activity. She pleaded guilty and entered into an agreement with the court.
“We’re the best liars in the world,” she says of compulsive gamblers. “We’re very good at hiding it.”
So good, she says, many people reject the notion that it’s an illness. “People don’t believe gambling is a compulsive disorder because gambling addicts don’t look like other addicts. We’re not inhaling, drinking or shooting up. There are no physical characteristics that make it real for people. But inside, we’re dying.”
Like Adell, Dorsey doesn’t know when gambling took control of her life. She’d gambled with friends for years at Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi and in Las Vegas, and always enjoyed the excitement and camaraderie. But at some point, it became a compulsion, and the fun went away.
“You don’t know when you cross the line. You wonder, ‘How did I get myself like this?’ It’s shameful. You’re so sorry.”
Dorsey says she has been clean for more than a year. Officially retired, she is active in Gamblers Anonymous (GA), which she credits with helping turn her life around.
“This disease does not discriminate,” she says. “At GA, people come from all walks of life, all ages, races, job titles.”
When she went looking for a Milwaukee GA group, she was flabbergasted that she couldn’t find one. “I thought, ‘How can there not be a GA meeting here with a major casino located in the heart of the city?’ ”
So she started one. It meets at St. Joseph’s Hospital at 4 p.m. on Saturdays. She also chairs the Sunday 7 p.m. meetings at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital and sponsors new GA participants.
What hurt Dorsey most, she says, is the separation from people with whom she used to enjoy interacting: “People were told to not talk to me. That hurt.”
Dorsey hopes her life can be an example to others to avoid the mistakes she made. So what advice would she give to a first-time gambler heading to a casino?
“I’d tell them don’t go! And if that didn’t work, I’d say leave your credit cards and checkbook at home, and only take a small amount of cash.”
But what if a rookie hits it big, something gamblers knowingly refer to as beginner’s luck?
“Run! And don’t ever go back,” Dorsey warns, “ ’cause you can’t win forever!”
Rosalind Dawson is a freelance writer. Reach her at email@example.com.
Could you be a gambling addict?
Recreational gambling can turn into an addiction. Here are some signs to look out for:
* You struggle to accept the way things are. You gamble to escape.
* You gamble so others will think you’re a VIP.
* After you gamble, you feel you’re a bad person who deserves to be punished.
* You fantasize about the celebrity lifestyle you will lead after you hit it big.
* You gamble to pay rent, mortgage, utilities, child support and other primary expenses.
* Losing increases your anxiety to win back your losses.
* You lie about your gambling behavior to your spouse, partner, boss, kids, etc.
* You ask and expect others to finance your gambling habit.
* Winning increases your desire to win more.
* You gamble until your last dollar is gone.
* Arguments, disappointments and setbacks make you want to gamble more.
* You have committed crimes (forgery, fraud, theft, embezzlement) to finance gambling.
* You have jeopardized or lost a relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity due to gambling.
t* You feel restless and anxious when you try to cut down or stop gambling.