[Naomi Knoch] 'If people want to gamble, they'll find a way’: Retired casino operator Frank Sisson

[Naomi Knoch] ‘If people want to gamble, they’ll find a way’: Retired casino operator Frank Sisson

The State
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By Naomi Knoch, SEARCH Apprentice Writer

[TheChristians.com] Alberta is saturated with slot machines, bingo halls and casinos. It also has thousands of gambling addicts frequenting these venues. And now the provincial government, that relies heavily on the substantial revenues gambling generates, finds itself in a vicious cycle – trying to clean up after the very gambling addicts it enables, even as the money comes pouring in.

VIDEO: [United Artists] Gambling as we like to picture it: The opening sequence of Dr. No, in which James Bond (Sean Connery) delivers the iconic ‘Bond, James Bond’ introduction to Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). [1962]

Some argue that the government and casino proprietors shouldn’t baby-sit addicts, that freedom to make personal choices comes with responsibility to face the consequences.

But nevertheless, the Government of Alberta does help addicts control the impulses that damage their lives, offering treatment, counseling and a register where gambling addicts can put themselves on the self-exclusion list to be denied casino access.

Frank Sisson, who owned Calgary’s Silver Dollar Casino for 40 years, says it’s just as well.

“Folks who want to gamble will find a way. Better to do it in a controlled atmosphere where you know what’s happening with it. If you make it illegal, they’ll just go underground,” said Sisson.

Sisson, a legendary Calgary figure who named his business after a silver dollar he won as a boy at the Bassano rodeo, sold his casino in 2007. However, he remembers witnessing all levels of addiction. It concerned him: He was among the first to implement the Voluntary Self Exclusion program (VSE), when the Alberta government launched it in 2000.

Under the VSE, addicts sign up to be barred from establishments for up to five years. Participants found on the premises can be removed by security. Approximately 2,100 Albertans currently participate in the program.

But, says Sisson, the program is only valid if people abide by it. Gamblers he turned away simply visited other casinos.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) also offers confidential treatment programs for gambling addicts through the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC.) Sisson recalled trying to help addicted gamblers within the casino.

For example, he timed video lottery terminals (VLT’s) to shut down hourly, forcing players to pause, perhaps walk away.

He insisted managers take a course to understand gambling’s potential addictiveness.

And sometimes, he personally intervened, urging gamblers to take a break, go home or even quit altogether.

“There’s no perfect answer,” he reflects. “Sometimes we’d buy them lunch just to get them away from the machine. But some told us how they spent their money wasn’t our business. There’s only so much you can do.”

Still, he was a savvy businessman supplying a product people wanted.

And today, there are many more suppliers: Alberta has 6,000 VLT’s, 19 traditional casinos, 22 bingo facilities, four Racing Entertainment Centres (REC’s), five Host First Nation Casinos, 2,731 lottery ticket centres, and 14,160 casino gaming terminals in REC’s and casinos.

Together, in 2017/18 they generated $1.4 billion in gambling revenue for the government. Charities earned an additional $331 million.

Government, charities and jackpot winners all benefit from gaming. Said Sisson: “If it wasn’t for gambling we’d be paying more taxes, period, no question. In essence, gambling is a tax, but you can have fun doing it.”

Proprietors also profit. Is it purely a money grab?

It wasn’t for Sisson. His establishment offered community, good food and entertainment.

“The good casinos offer more than gambling,” said Sisson, whose promotions included giving away the first Smart car in Calgary as a prize draw and bringing in feature entertainment such as Billy Ray Cyrus and The Tragically Hip.

Sisson said despite harsh stories of despair, gaming pros far outweigh the cons.

One man died of a heart attack while sitting at a VLT. When Sisson approached his wife with condolences, she said her husband died doing what he wanted to do.

Another man won $100,000 on a nickel machine and never returned. A woman unknowingly won a $300,000 jackpot. Sisson noticed and ensured she got her money. “You have to have honesty.”

Gambling venues faced severe opposition in the late 90s when Calgary oilman Jim Gray led a campaign to oust VLT’s from Alberta. Gray and Sisson went head to head. “Jim Gray was an honest man. He still is. He had his vision of what he wanted to do and he went after it.”

Gray’s attempt to ban VLT’s was narrowly defeated – 45 to 55 per cent in favour of the machines remaining.

In 1997 tragedy struck when Sisson was shot in both legs and robbed on his way to deposit casino funds. “I’m still alive, so I figure I was pretty lucky.”

After a long recovery Sisson was back at it, for the love of his patrons.

“You have to look after the people and spend time to visit with them, it becomes more and more of a family all the time. The regulars made us who we were,” he said. “I don’t miss the 80 hours a week but I do miss the people.”

This is the fourth column in a series examining gambling in Alberta.

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