Keno arrived in Maryland bars, restaurants and bowling alley Jan. 4. Nine days later, somebody was already hooked.
The first panicked call to the hot line at the National Center for Pathological Gambling in Baltimore came Jan. 13 from a city man who said his 39-year-old wife was consumed by the state's fast-paced, computerized numbers game.
In the first four months since the Schaefer administration initiated keno, the center has received calls from 35 men and women who can't shake their desire to play it.
"That tells us this is the fastest addiction to hit ever," says Valerie Lorenz, director of the gambling center, a nonprofit clinic at 924 E. Baltimore St. that counsels people who uncontrollably spend their life's savings betting on everything from horses to football and baseball games, video poker, and even the state lottery.
Ms. Lorenz acknowledges that 35 is not a large number compared with the thousands who have played keno. But what is striking, she says, is how soon after the game was started that the calls started pouring in.
"Keno addicts seem to get out of control within two to three weeks," she says, noting by contrast that gamblers who become addicted to horse racing typically go to the races for two to five years before getting hooked.
(That, too, is likely to change, she predicts, as intertrack betting and simulcast racing from other tracks dramatically increase the hours and opportunities horse players have to bet.)
William F. Rochford, director of the State Lottery Agency, says that officials knew there were bound to be some compulsive gamblers.
"We're not ostriches with our heads in the sand who would tell you that no one will become compulsive [about keno.] There will be some folks who will become compulsive about anything -- eating, drinking," he says.
"But we have not had any indication that [compulsive keno playing] was in such an amount as to cause us alarm. . . . We monitor it. We talk to our agents at agent meetings, and so far we haven't had any complaints [about keno addicts]."
Kay, a compulsive gambler who agreed to talk about her addiction as long as her last name was not used, says she was hooked within a month after keno was installed in the corner market near her home in the Washington suburbs.
'Slot machine on every corner'
"It is like having a slot machine right at your disposal at every corner. For a compulsive gambler, it is hard to walk away from," she says.
By the time Kay cried out for help, her keno losses had put her family nearly $20,000 in debt and three months behind on the mortgage.
Already a regular player of the state's other lottery games, Kay says she was "terrified" the first time she heard keno was coming. She knew she wouldn't be able to resist a game that offers players a chance to win every five minutes, all day long, seven days a week.
Apart from her compulsiveness, Kay pretty much epitomizes the kind of player the State Lottery Agency envisioned when it decided last year to offer keno as a way of boosting sagging lottery revenues. She's 40, from Montgomery County, works as "an administrator" and describes her family as middle-income. Middle-age, middle-income and suburban.
But, unlike most keno players, Kay couldn't quit. She discovered she could not even drive by the market where the new keno game had been installed.
"I couldn't go by that place without stopping. The second I saw it, I would be in there," she says. "The only thing pulling me away was when I knew I would be late for work, or someone would be looking for me."
Ms. Lorenz says that most hot line callers (1 800 332-0402) are white males in their late 30s to mid-40s. The calls have come from Baltimore, Westminster, Glen Burnie, Annapolis, Ellicott City, Hagerstown, Hyattsville, Lansdowne, St. Leonard, Shady Side and elsewhere. Callers say their gambling has caused marital problems, wiped out their savings, caused them to start drinking again -- even to consider killing themselves.
Some anguished callers, she says, complain "I just blew my paycheck" on keno.
Kay says she would blow $100 to $150 a day, sometimes writing checks to cover losses that the market would hold until they were good. She says she would play "in the morning, in the afternoon, on breaks -- whenever I could find a few minutes to get away."
Dr. Rachel Volberg, a sociologist from Albany, N.Y., has been studying compulsive gamblers since 1985. She says there are no good national statistics on the addictive effects of keno. But the pace of keno, she says, is typical of the national trend toward "rapidly cycling games," such as video poker, which are creating problem gamblers in other states. "The shorter you make the interval between when you stake your money and how quickly the play takes place, the more addictive the game is," Dr. Volberg says, adding that she was "not terribly surprised" some Maryland keno players are already complaining they're hooked.
Money vs. morality