St. John’s dean liked to gamble

December 11, 2012 9:13 am

A gripping yarn about a former St. John’s University dean who committed suicide, also details her penchant for gambling away thousands of dollars at a casino in Connecticut. The story underscores one of many tales of how casinos play a role in person’s downfall, leading to crimes, divorce and suicide.

According to The New York Times, Cecilia Chang, a dean at St. John’s University in New York, “associated with a whirlwind of characters: Catholic priests, Chinese gangsters, American lawmakers, a Taiwanese general and a fantastically corrupt city politician, to name a few. She had been married three times. One husband, she had told several people, was involved in organized crime; another told the police before succumbing to gunshot wounds that she was behind the attack.”

Despite her lofty title, Chang was no academic. Her role was to bring in millions of dollars in contributions to the university from her native Taiwan. But she also enjoyed the high life. To support her lavish lifestyle, federal prosecutors accused Chang of stealing over $1 million from the university and taking $250,000 from a Saudi prince to organize academic conferences that never happened.

According to Chang’s handwritten notes, she wrote that she once had an intimate relationship with then-St. John’s president Rev. Joseph T. Cahill that included another woman employed by the university. In addition to the sexual liaisons, Chang wrote that Father Cahill took her to the racetrack and to Atlantic City, usually removing his clerical garb, the Times reports. Father Cahill died in 2003 and a university official said there are no records to support Chang’s claim.

Chang’s embezzlement and fraud coincided with more frequent trips to gamble. “In 2001, she began spending more time at Foxwoods, where she found solace at the baccarat tables, drinking Hennessy at dinner and coffee at the high-stakes tables,” the Times reports. “A federal agent testified at her trial that Dr. Chang would call her office at St. John’s from a casino suite and request bank withdrawals just shy of $10,000, the amount at which financial institutions must report a transaction to the government. The agent, Kenneth Hosey, said that students would come to Connecticut to deliver the money, and that she subsequently bought into casino games for the same amounts. (Chang’s use of students as servants earned her the moniker Dean of Mean.)

“When a prosecutor asked her in court about the transactions, Dr. Chang said that they were intended to bring good fortune; the dollar amounts coincided with her lucky numbers: nine, eight and six. People at Foxwoods remembered that she lent as much as $30,000 to fellow gamblers, and that she favored a dubious wagering strategy: doubling her bet each time she lost.”

The day after her pathetic court testimony, Chang killed herself after first starting a fire in a bedroom fireplace and closing the flue. She then went downstairs to the kitchen and turned on the gas and then slit her wrists. Eventually, she took some speaker wire back upstairs, lowered an attic ladder, and hanged herself from it.

One more hidden gambling danger

July 6, 2012 9:50 am

A bus carrying gamblers that crashed in New York underscores one more danger for low-income people looking for a quick score.

The casino bus was taking gamblers from an Indian casino in Connecticut back to Queens when the driver lost control and crashed. Two dozen people were injured, including five who were seriously hurt. The casino bus was transporting mostly Asian immigrants. The so-called ‘budget buses’ have a history of safety trouble.

In May, the federal government shut down 26 budget bus operators. The buses operated out of Chinatown and traveled from New York to Florida. The buses were declared “imminent hazards to public safety.”

The crackdown followed a series of deadly crashes where drivers were not getting enough sleep and buses were not being properly maintained. Queens bus driver Kin Yiu Cheung was charged last year with four counts of involuntary manslaughter after he flipped his Chinatown-bound bus in Virginia. Two Queens women were among the four dead and police said Cheung, who was  driving despite being out on bail on a reckless driving charge, had been asleep  at the wheel.

Casino saturation?

May 24, 2012 11:38 am

The casinos in Massachusetts have yet to open and already some fear the market is becoming tapped out. Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi asks if casinos have become a risky bet.

Vennochi points to the increased competition plaguing the Foxwoods casino in nearby Connecticut and wonders if the market can support more casinos in Massachusetts. “Are there really enough gambling addicts, bored oldsters, and people in general who think it’s fun to watch their money melt away, to support multiple facilities?” Vennochi writes.

Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson passed on opening a casino in Massachusetts. Fellow Vegas mogul Steve Wynn left town after residents in Foxborough made it clear that they didn’t want a casino in their town. (So much for Gov. Deval Patrick’s “jackpot.”)

Meanwhile, Foxwoods is scrambling to offer new gimmicks to lure gamblers to its Connecticut casino. One scheme includes offering cheap gas to induce gamblers to drive further and bypass their local convenience casino. Another is a wellness center, a move that drips with irony considering casinos are one of the few indoor public spaces in the country that still allow smokers.

Guess desperate times call for desperate measure.

The fight to save Foxwoods

March 19, 2012 3:31 pm

I did a post last week on Michael Sokolove’s excellent cover story in The New York Times Magazine detailing the rise and fall of the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut. Now comes an interesting Q&A with Sokolove that offers some insight in the story behind the story.

Sokolove offers a great analogy of his personal interest in gambling, which equates with bowling: something to do about once a year. Sokolove is a terrific reporter and his treatment of Foxwoods was even handed but very revealing. But I take issue with his one statement that said most people in casinos are NOT problem gamblers.

The studies vary, but a number of them indicate that casinos do in fact get a large chunk of revenue from problem gamblers. The industry and lawmakers play down this fact or ignore it because who wants to admit they are in a business that thrives from addicts. But it is a hard reality that needs to be confronted as more states expand legalized gambling. (Don’t be fooled when gambling backers say 1 to 3 percent of the population has a gambling problem. That figure is misleading since that is measured against the entire population. The question to ask is this: how many regular casino customers have a gambling problem?)

Here are a couple of links worth reading here and here. Some highlights: Economist Earl Grinols calculated that 52 percent of casino revenues come from active problem and pathological gamblers. University of Minnesota researchers calculated that 2 percent of gamblers account for 63 percent of the money legally wagered in the state.

A thorough 2004 study by the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre asked participants to maintain a diary logging their gambling expenditures. The study estimated that 35 percent of Ontario casino revenues were derived from moderate to severe problem gamblers. Those gamblers accounted for 30 percent of revenue from table games and a whopping 62 percent of revenue from slot machines.

In other words, the business model for casinos depends on problem gamblers.

Foxwoods fights to stay afloat

March 14, 2012 1:32 pm

Michael Sokolove has a great piece in The New York Times Magazine about the financial struggles facing the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut.

The sprawling casino on an Indian reservation printed money for years, giving members of the tribe annual checks of $100,000. But Foxwoods grew too big too fast and took on a pile of debt to grow some more just before the economy tanked. That and increased competition from other states that are using gambling as a way to finance government operations has cut into Foxwoods’ bottom line. (Just wait until Massachusetts and New York open commercial casinos. The two Indian casinos in Connecticut could be in real peril then.)

The piece does a fine job of capturing the state of the gambling industry these days and how lawmakers and casino operators view the gambling public. Scott Butera, the new head of Foxwoods who was brought in to turn around the casino, is honest about how lawmakers view gambling.

“Few governors or senators or House members want to say, ‘I absolutely love having casinos in my market,’ ” he said. “It’s more like: ‘We can manage this. And here’s what we’ll do. We’ll put it in the right place, it won’t impact our society too much and we’ll make some money.’ ”

Butera also explains how casinos suck gamblers in and almost always win over time.

“The more hands a player is dealt, the better it is for us,” he said. Butera, who has an M.B.A. from N.Y.U., invoked a gambling term — “vig,” short for “vigorish,” meaning the house’s cut of the action. “The math is the math,” he said. “Over time, we’ll make our vig.”

Meanwhile, casino operators know that slot machines are even better bet for the house.

As Sokolove writes: “The difference between table games and slot machines is that slots are entirely predictable. They’re like A.T.M.’s, but in reverse — programmed to take money from players, usually about 9 cents of every dollar wagered, while producing frequent near misses, the illusion that a big jackpot was at hand if only, say, just one more overstuffed burger had landed on the pay line. The lower the house’s hold on a slot machine — and the higher the number of small payouts — the longer a player’s T.O.D. (time on device). It’s a fine balance. Casinos want customers to lose their money, but not so rapidly that they’ll feel the whole experience was a bummer and not want to return.”

Casinos saddled with debt

March 1, 2012 11:14 am

The steady growth in casinos across the country is beginning to weigh on some operators who are struggling with increased debt loads.

USA Today reports that several major casino companies are wrestling with debt burdens taken on before the recession.  The increased competition will only exacerbate the financial pressure on the bottom line for many casinos.

Some of the casino companies cited included Ceasars Entertainment and MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas and the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut. The paper also said casinos in the Atlantic City and Reno markets will also continue to face financial pressure from increased competition. One takeaway: the financial troubles facing many casinos is creating lucrative work for bankruptcy attorneys.

More broadly, the financial struggles of the casinos underscores how the growth in gambling in many states is unsustainable. States that rely on gambling revenue to fund operations will likely find a shrinking pot. The problem is there is only so much money states can take from gamblers. As more and more states legalize casinos and expand other gambling operations, look for the casinos to continue to cannabilize one another.