Slot Machines: The Big Gamble

Lesley Stahl Reports On The Debate Over New Slot Machines and Gambling Addiction

It wasn't that long ago that if you wanted to gamble, you had to travel a long way. Today, to shoot craps or play slots, all you have to do is get in your car: there's probably a casino in your state, or right next door.

There is now casino gambling now in 38 states, which use the revenue from gambling to help solve their bloated budget deficits.

The main attraction at these gambling halls is now the new slot machines - there are close to 850,000 of them in the United States, twice the number of ATMs.

We Americans spend more money on slots than on movies, baseball and theme parks combined.

But with the modern slot machines, there is a greater potential for a dangerous side effect: gambling addiction, as more people are addicted to slots than any other form of gambling.



Playing the Odds
If you're casino bound, remember, the house always has the upper hand, but there are ways to increase your odds of winning. And ways to avoid becoming a "problem gambler."


The Big Gamble
Extra: Slot Machines and "The Zone"
Extra: Slot Addicts' Burnout
Extra: Can Machines Cause Addiction?
Gamblers Anonymous
National Center for Responsible Gaming
Stop Predatory Gambling
Arnie & Sheila Wexler Associates

Old fashioned slot machines let gamblers pull the handle and hope for three of a kind, but the modern slots are like high tech video games that play music and scenes from TV shows.

You can play hundreds of lines at once and instead of pulling a handle, you bet by pushing buttons, which means each bet can be completed in as little as three and a half seconds. It looks like great fun, but it can be dangerously addictive.

"Whether or not it's their intention, the gambling industry is designing machines that can addict people," MIT anthropology Professor Natasha Schull told "60 Minutes" correspondent Lesley Stahl.

Schull has studied gambling addiction for over 15 years. She has interviewed gamblers, casino owners and slot machine designers.

"Do you think that most people would even think that a machine could addict you? That a machine could do the same thing that a drug could?" Stahl asked.

"What addiction really has to do is with the speed of rewards. And these machines, if they're packing 1,200 hands per hour into play, you could see that as being exposed to a higher dose," Schull said.

"A higher dose," says Schull, because all that speed means more bets and that means more excitement.

And no machine is better for that than the "penny slot," the most popular game on the casino floor. Because the bets are small, you can place hundreds of them at a time.

"Another core aspect of the addictiveness is their continuous nature. You're not interrupted by anything; you're not waiting for the horses to run, you're not waiting for the guy next to you to choose his card to put down; there's no roulette wheel spinning. It's just you and the machine. It's a continuous flow without interruption," Schull said.

"I found that the machines were wonderful. I loved the excitement. I loved the people, I loved the camaraderie, the high fives when you win. It was just very exciting," Sandi Hall told Stahl.

Hall lives only a short drive from thousands of slot machines in Rhode Island and Connecticut. Married with two daughters, she worked in a bookstore, and used to look at the casinos as an entertaining break. But eventually she was playing slots so much, she burned through her retirement funds.

"My every thought and every being, if I wasn't at the casino, I was figuring out how I was going to get there, where was I going to get the money," she remembered.

When Stahl pointed out she sounds like a heroin addict, Hall said, "It takes your soul, it takes your humanity. You drive home, pounding the steering wheel, promising yourself you're never going to go again, you're never going to do it again. And you know that you're going down, and you're going down, and you're going down. I became from a nice person, I became a manipulative, deceitful, lying person."

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