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Gamblers Lose $30 Billion Over 15 Years in Atlantic City

May 23, 1993

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) _ $30 billion.

With that much money, a person could rent 10 billion videos, enjoy 1 billion days at Disney World or take 7.5 million weeklong Caribbean cruises. Or pay the New Jersey state budget for two years.

In Atlantic City, $30 billion is what gamblers have lost at craps, blackjack, baccarat, roulette and slot machines since the casino industry was reborn in this once-fading resort 15 years ago this week.

Inside some of the town’s 12 casinos, players said recently that they don’t want to know about losses - theirs or anybody else’s.

″It would make me sick,″ said William Bush, 79, of Garfield, N.J.

Bush, who is retired from the luncheonette business, said he’s been coming to Atlantic City to play blackjack once a week since the first casino opened on May 26, 1978.

″I should be broke,″ he said.

New Jersey voters legalized gambling in the hopes the industry would help revive a decaying Atlantic City and boost revenues for the town and the state.

The debate on the success of the move continues - within sight of the glitzy casinos there are still run-down buildings and boarded-up storefronts. But inside the casinos, gamblers concentrate only on the present: this roll of the dice or the next spin of the roulette wheel.

Bush and other patrons at Trump’s Castle and Trump Plaza said despite their losses, they continue to gamble simply because it’s fun.

″I can’t even tell you. I have no answer. It’s just exciting,″ said New Yorker Natalie Heifetz, 50, as she fed money into a video poker machine.

Heifetz, a city employee who limits herself to $500 on her twice-monthly gambling trips, said she doesn’t look back.

″I never think about what I’ve done,″ she said.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Heifetz was joined by row after row of people, most of them elderly, participating in what industry observers say is the fastest growing form of entertainment in America.

The gamblers sit at hundreds of one-armed bandits - the slots - or stand at felt-covered tables on windowless casino floors lit with multicolored neon and flashing lights amid an electronic din emitted from the slot machines.

Glum, intent expressions belie gamblers’ claims that they’re enjoying themselves. But there are exceptions, including one beaming 23-year-old who has just won a bundle.

″I hit for $1,079 today on the progressive jackpot at the Showboat (casino),″ said John Kalivretenos of Alexandria, Va.

″I bought this watch, these shoes, these shorts, this shirt, this bracelet,″ he said, pointing to each new item, ″and gave my parents a whole bunch of money.″

But to Arnold Wexler, founder of the Council of Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, the casinos are a potential danger to those who flock here by the busload.

Wexler, a recovering compulsive gambler, said it ″offers a harmless and entertaining diversion from everyday life,″ for many. But for the growing number of compulsive gamblers, it’s an addiction similar to alcohol or drugs.

Wexler said calls to his group’s hotline doubled between 1991 and 1992 to 22,640.

He said a caller’s average gambling debt was $34,244 - while their average annual income was $36,944. Some of them seek help at the 50 weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings around the state, he said.

Wexler recognizes, however, that a losing gambler is not necessarily an addicted gambler.

″Absolutely.″ he said. ″There are people who can go into a bar and have a few drinks and go home and it doesn’t destroy their lives. For most people it is recreation.″

Maria Jaffe, 66, of New York said she knows the odds and ″doesn’t overdo it or sacrifice myself for it.″

The retired textile worker takes a practical approach during bimonthly trips to Atlantic City casinos, heading first to a restaurant for a solid meal.

″Then if I get broke, at least I’m not hungry,″ she said.

But she added a warning echoed by many: ″In the end you always lose.″

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