MB March | When a Casino becomes home

Lei and Wah have different lives and motivations but they share something in common: at certain points in their lives they spent more time gambling in casinos than they did with their families and friends. They both borrowed money, owed large debts, created strategies to access more gambling money, pawned important assets and became estranged from their nearest and dearest. Now in active recovery, the two ‘croupiers’ have a clear message: it’s better to not even start gambling, especially because in Macau it is hard to be isolated from what ignited the addiction in the first place.

By: Inês Almeida with Rima Cui 

One initially goes to a casino for fun or to try to earn some money. Then, you go back because you were lucky the first time and hope that luck stays with you. You try a third time because you lost and you’re trying to recover the money. After that, it’s hard to get out. This is how many life stories blighted by gambling begin. Even when the addiction is overcome, the destruction left behind often includes family relationships, friendships, financial stability and even emotional balance. 

This is precisely what happened to Lei (not her real name), a 41-year old croupier who is now a frequent presence at the Firm Will House run by the Social Welfare Bureau (IAS). Lei still visits the House twice a month because debts still need to be dealt with despite not having gambled for six months. 

“I haven’t gambled since August last year but I still have debts to pay. I tried to quit in November 2016, but I went back in August 2017. I’ve been receiving support from the House until now”, Lei told Tribuna de Macau. “I still owe 30,000 renminbi in China and I owe money to several banks in Macau. I owe 140,000 patacas to one bank, 28,000 to another and 11,000 to a third bank. I also borrowed from people – about 80,000 – but I managed to pay that back already”, she says with a very serious expression in her eyes. 

The problems started ten years ago.  

“I came to Macau in 2008 because my parents live here. At the time, I had a safe passage document only, not the Macau ID (BIR). I used to transport goods across the border, but I didn’t earn enough money doing that”. 

Lei mainly transported baby formula to the Mainland but “the Chinese authorities usually caught people like me because I used to transport large quantities, exceeding the legal limit. There was a legal limit but we had to transport more than that, so we could make more money”, she explains. 

“I didn’t earn enough doing that. When I arrived at Portas do Cerco border, I looked at the casino shuttle buses and when I had enough money I would get on one and go to a casino. Every time I had money, I would go to a casino to gamble”, she confesses. 

That’s how she started frequenting casinos on a regular basis.  

“I would be happy when I won but when I lost I would gamble more to recover my losses. I just felt the need to gamble more and more. I was gambling every day”. 

It did not take long for the financial troubles to appear.  

“When I couldn’t go to the casino, I felt uncomfortable and I started asking my friends for money. I pawned a smartphone, necklaces, jade jewellery, a gold bracelet I wore at my wedding and some other things that were important, like wedding gifts”.  

On some occasions she also borrowed from members of the family, who have also suffered from her addiction. 

“I have two daughters – one from my ex-husband; she’s 19 years old and goes to high school. The other is younger, just two years old. Many members of my family are aware of my addiction”, says Lei, while confessing that her present relationship with several relatives is still uneasy. 

“My mother helped me pay about 100,000 patacas of debt I had but gaming has affected my relationship with my brothers, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. They were all mad at me because I was always asking them for money. I asked once, twice, three times and they got angry because they knew I would gamble the money away”, she says with her head slightly bowed and sadness in her eyes. 

“My older brother works in the same company as me and he still refuses to talk to me. On several occasions, I borrowed money from my family and even today we are unable to resolve our relationship problems. I have an older sister who still speaks to me, but barely. Her husband doesn’t talk to me at all”. 

Her marriage is also going through a very rough time due to financial troubles.  

“My husband lives in Mainland China and we fight a lot via WeChat because of money. We see each other once a week. Sometimes, two or three times a month. We’re still paying off the loan for our house in Tan Zhou, Zhuhai, which amounts to HK$5,000”, she explains.  

The power of fear 

Lei quit gambling because she was afraid of the more serious consequences of her addiction. The decision to seek help happened at a peculiar time of her life.  

“People came knocking at my door, asking for the money I had borrowed from them. They were loan sharks. When they went to my home, I asked for help from my family to help repay 70,000 patacas”. 

In just a split second, lei’s expression changes dramatically, reflecting the fear she felt at the time. “I felt overwhelmed by the fact they had visited me at my house and I was afraid they would show up at the casino where I work. It would be very easy for them to do that. So, I surrendered to their pressure and asked my family for help to pay that debt”. 

That was when she decided to seek help. Today, she says gambling is in the past, but she still faces many problems: “I don’t obsess about gambling like I used to. I still have debts to pay but I try to live a normal life”. 

In order to achieve that she resorted to the casino ban process in 2016, with her husband’s help. The staff at the Firm Will House also advised her to engage in other activities, to fill her time, and to “stop thinking about gambling like before . . . I bought a TV, for example, and when I have time I go to China to be with my daughter . . . The most important factor was starting working during the night shift, so that when I finish working I’m sleepy and go home to rest and I don’t think about casinos . . . All of this helps me deal with my problems”. 

Now in full recovery, she would like to get back some of the objects she pawned although she knows it will be hard to achieve since pawnshops can sell items three months after they are pawned.  

“Surely the gold has already been sold to someone else”, she says. Today, after everything she has gone through, her advice is simple: “Don’t gamble”. 

Common message 

Wah is 50 years old and also works as a croupier. He gives the exact same advice as Lei. He has had a long life of ups and downs related to gambling, both inside and outside the casinos.  

“I started gambling when I was 13. There was a game with six players, three pairs, and the first team to reach five points would win some money. For a long time I used to play that with friends”, he told Tribuna de Macau. 

Besides, “at that time, we could buy betting cards in shops. Every week, my parents gave me some money and I used that to gamble. I often won so I could sustain my own gaming with my friends”. 

From small bets, Wah graduated to casinos when he was 16. “Mostly, I played dice and Big and Small. In the beginning, I went to the casinos once or twice a month because I didn’t have enough money. Then, I started going once or twice a week. When I started working and realised how hard it was to earn money I cut down my casino visits”, he says with a laugh. 

“In my free time, I used to play mahjong and I lost some money. When that happened, I wanted to recover my losses in another way, so I started going to casinos when I was just over 20”, he says, revealing that that was when he started hatching schemes to find gambling money. 

“Currently, I am employed in a casino, but I used to work in another company. Once, I was asked to deposit some company money in the bank but I used it all on the gaming tables. Next day, I asked my friend for help and he loaned me the money, so my boss never found out”, he says. 

Some time later, Wah started working in an insurance company.  

“I took money from clients to pay their insurance policies and I also used that money to gamble. Eventually, the clients found out but they pitied me and didn’t go to the police. They just demanded their money back. The amount was between 10 and 20,000 patacas and at the time I earned only 2,000 to 3,000 patacas per month”, he explains. Wah stopped playing “for a while”. 

“Meanwhile, I got a job in Mainland China with a garment factory and everything was going well”, Wah recalls. “I had a nice salary, double what I earned in Macau. I had lots of money, but there wasn’t enough entertainment in the Mainland then so I started playing mahjong and card games with my work colleagues”. 

“Sometimes, I went back to Macau just to gamble. Because I earned so much, I didn’t care if I won or lost. Either way, I never lost too much money and I never borrowed”. 

Turning point in 2007 

All that changed 11 years ago.  

“In 2007, many qualified staff were trained on the Mainland. Workers there became more competent and workers like me were no longer needed, so I had to return to Macau”, Wah explained. 

“When I returned, there were no job opportunities for me because there were no garment factories left in Macau. I ended up working as a croupier”, he recalls, noting that the change from a management position to a lower function had a strong impact upon his monthly salary.  

“Before, I was managing a factory but in the casino my position was very low. I used to vent my frustrations on my subordinates in the China factory, but now I was a low ranking worker. To deal with stress, I started gambling more often”. 

Upon reflection, Wah is certain of one thing: “My addiction started well before 2007, but that was the year I really became dependent upon gambling”.  

Before that, he used to frequent casinos three times a week, at most, but then he began gambling two or three times a day. He was playing to earn money.  

“I was also playing to regain a sense of pride and grandeur, like before when I held an important post. Win or lose, I had money to compensate for my losses, so I didn’t care”. 

Around this time, the debts started piling up.  

“I was often in debt and I was asking my friends for money and selling valuable objects in pawnshops just to raise around 10,000 patacas. I also borrowed from a bank, around 300,000 patacas. I did that several times, both with banks and financial companies. I borrowed money, paid it back, borrowed again and so on”. He never resorted to loan sharks and insists that he paid everything back. 

Wah is divorced with two youngsters who are almost 20. All the family knows about his gambling problem.  

At the height of his addiction, he says, “my house wasn’t my house, just a hotel to sleep in. The casino was my house and to this day my ex-wife hasn’t forgiven me”, he regrets. “My kids more or less understood the problem and I believe they have forgiven me. They pay special attention to all gambling signs and I know they will never do it”. 

“There were two situations that motivated me to gamble: when I was sadder because I had just had a fight with my family, and when the deadline to pay back debts was approaching”. 

During the more active gambling years his family stopped being a priority.  

“The wellbeing of my children was absolutely in peril. I had no time to take care of them. I know it’s shameful to admit but this one time my daughter had a fever and I left for a casino after she fell asleep. I didn’t even bother to take her to hospital”, he recalls. 

Since 2014, Wah only enters a casino for his work.  

“For gambling, never again”, he guarantees. “It’s hard to work in a casino but I am more determined now because I had to deal with the consequences of a gambling addiction. The divorce was the worst of all, but also all the debts to my company. Those two things marked me the most”.  

Today, he would like to restart a relationship with his former wife, but “she doesn’t want to”. 

In active recovery for over three years, he feels that the environment in the Macau SAR is the biggest obstacle to recovery.  

“Macau has many casinos and it’s hard to isolate yourself from that,” he says. “It’s too easy to enter a casino. Although I tried many times to beat the addiction, it was very difficult . . . The self-exclusion system provided by the Gaming Inspection and Co-ordination Bureau (DICJ) is not the solution”. 

“The self-exclusion system doesn’t work. I know of its existence, but it’s useless. I still got into casinos many times because the casinos have so many customers; it’s easy to get in. At the same time, the security staff don’t really look at the documentation. All they worry about is not letting children in. They’ll never know who is in the system”, he says. 

Today, his biggest wish is to have a relationship with his family again. Besides that – “if possible” – he would like to use his experience to warn other people about the dangers of gambling, saying, “I want to have a new life and be completely isolated from gambling. It is necessary but nearly impossible”. 

Wah co-operates with responsible gaming promotional activities, working side by side with social workers and gives interviews to “share experiences”.  

“After getting help from the centre (Gaming Employees Home) I realised there are many wrong notions about gambling. When we win, we want to keep on winning and that is wrong. I didn’t know that then, but now I know it’s a problematical attitude”. 

“The addiction doesn’t happen suddenly. It’s a gradual process that creeps up on you. It’s very hard to stay away from gambling in Macau, but we need to set clear boundaries. We must not lower our guard”, he feels. “We have this idea that if we don’t borrow money, it’s okay to gamble, but that’s not true. We should always be alert”.  

Regardless, he warns: “The best thing is never to gamble”. 

* Exclusive JTM/Macau Business