Monday, Aug. 28, 2006 | 7:21 a.m.
The Harrah's casino in Reno expects to see one of its regulars in the next few days.
But this man won't receive the typical welcome when he walks through the door.
Instead, a Harrah's casino manager will approach him and bring up an unpleasant topic: recent comments the man made to a casino host about refinancing his house and gambling with his retirement money.
After expressing concern, the manager will give the man a problem-gambling hotline number and a chance to enter himself into a database that will stop mailers from being sent to his home, among other self-help services.
The unidentified man is an unwitting participant in a program that casino giant Harrah's Entertainment implemented several months ago that is believed to be the first and most aggressive problem gambling effort of its kind in the country.
The "ambassador" program - taking its name from the casino managers charged with approaching gamblers with information about programs many casinos have offered for years - has captured the attention of problem gambling treatment experts normally skeptical of casino efforts to help compulsive gamblers.
Casinos in Nevada and many other states are required by law to post problem gambling hotline numbers, offer self-help pamphlets and educate casino workers about warning signs. Harrah's also allows gamblers to sign up on a "self-exclusion" list that applies to all of its casinos nationwide. These efforts, which acknowledge problem gambling as a legitimate mental health disorder similar to alcoholism, require gamblers to take the first step themselves.
The Harrah's program is different, experts say, because it requires workers such as dealers and cashiers to notify a manager if they believe a person has a gambling problem. The manager then calls the "ambassador" on duty to handle the touchy task of sitting down with the customer.
Competitors say the responsibility to help gamblers already lies with every rank-and-file employee on the casino floor as part of state-mandated training programs.
In reality, problem gambling advocates say, workers are being told about the disease but are rarely taking the initiative to intercept people on the casino floor.
"Frankly, there's a lot of lip service at the corporate level that doesn't get translated down to the employees," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "I can't tell you the number of times I've gone into a casino and have found brochures tucked away and employees who don't know what their responsibilities are. There's a difference between having a program and making sure employees are comfortable enough to take action."
Previously, workers didn't feel at ease approaching people who probably needed help, said Andy Donato, a casino supervisor at Harrah's Reno and one of about 700 "ambassadors" who have volunteered for the added responsibility nationwide.
"This program reassures them that we really believe in this," Donato said.
The program requires employees to take action based on what a person says. Casinos and some treatment experts believe that unless a gambler's behavior is over the top, words are a more definitive indicator of a person's mental state.
There aren't any specific "trigger" phrases - that's left to employees' judgment. Workers receive several hours of training that includes watching instructional videos with interactions between employees and distraught customers.
"We don't want to shoehorn them into a box so that they're thinking, 'If I don't hear this phrase then I don't need to help the person,' " said Harrah's spokesman David Strow.
So far, about two to three such conversations have occurred at each Harrah's property per month. Gamblers don't appear to be resisting efforts to strike up a conversation, though in some cases, ambassadors find that the best time to approach them is not right away but after the person has had time to cool off from his last gambling session.
Some appreciate the information and concern but do not appear to need help, while others have been referred to treatment as a result of the program, Strow said.
Donato said he received input from outside problem gambling and human resources experts on how to approach people in a friendly way without making them feel defensive or combative.
For example, a Harrah's manager might approach a gambler and suggests a "timeout" over a drink or a meal.
"I've been with Harrah's almost 30 years, and over the years you hear all sorts of statements, like, 'My wife is going to kill me when I go home' to 'I'm having a bad day, I never should have come here,' " Donato said. "It's not easy to evaluate without talking to the person directly whether the person is serious."
Henry Lesieur, a staff psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital's gambling treatment program and one of the nation's foremost treatment experts, calls the effort "one of the most thought-out programs I've seen" from a casino company.
Lesieur, who co-authored the first definition of problem gambling included in the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual, said discussing self-help schemes with gamblers in the casino is an "improvement." However, he questions Harrah's commitment to maintaining a growing "watch" list documenting conversations and outcomes involving hundreds, even thousands of gamblers for years to come.
The program also is not going to catch each gambler who tries to re-enter casinos after requesting that they be excluded or refused service from Harrah's properties, he added.
Some problem gambling experts are skeptical that the program will make a difference for gamblers in the throes of addiction.
Robert Hunter, clinical director of the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas, said Harrah's may have trouble reasoning with addicts in a gambling environment.
"If someone at a bar has had too many drinks, that's not the time to talk to someone about their drinking," Hunter said. "I see folks who've already crossed the line into addiction. For them, this is not going to be much help. That said, I support any efforts to get people into recovery."
Carol O'Hare, director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, says the program still represents a "big step" for the industry because it aims to help people before they hit bottom.
Lesieur says the program is a sign that the industry is willing to face its Achilles heel head-on rather than be pummeled by critics.
Strow said the effort resulted from a policy of continuous evaluation and improvement based on new research. It is not a knee-jerk reaction or an admission of inadequacy of past programs, he said.
Lesieur, though, said the program does not go far enough.
The responsibility to be more proactive lies with state governments, not Harrah's, he said.
"Harrah's is in the business of making money," he said. "I don't expect them to have a hard sell. If any education of gambling is to be done, it needs to be done by the state."