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Gambling is on the rise in Colorado. So are efforts to prevent addiction

Slot machines in the Monarch Casino in Black Hawk. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

When Coloradans voted to establish casinos in three historic struggling mining towns back in 1990, it was called “Limited Gaming.”

These days it’s not so limited.

The industry has rapidly expanded thanks to a large new hotel resort in Black Hawk and constitutional changes to the gambling laws, eliminating Colorado’s strict betting limits and adding table games like baccarat.

Table games and slot machine proceeds were $1.1 billion last fiscal year, up 30% from the 2018-2019 fiscal year, according to state figures. State tax collections last fiscal year were $173 million, that’s $48 million more than in 2018-2019.

That means less money going to Las Vegas, said Sean Demeule, General Manager at Ameristar Casino Resort Spa Black Hawk.

“With the new offerings, with the continued investment by the industry in Colorado, with these new games, with these new limits, there's absolutely more reason for Coloradans to stay in Colorado, play in Colorado, keep those tax dollars here in Colorado.”

Slot machines are still dominant, but table games are growing at twice the rate of slot machines in Colorado, thanks to the elimination of the $100 betting limit and the addition of baccarat in 2021, when voters approved Amendment 77.

Baccarat is an important new game for Colorado casinos, bringing in an entirely new customer. The origin of baccarat is contested by scholars, but there’s evidence that its roots go back to 15th-century Italy. Napoleon played a version of the game. It’s now popular around the world, but it’s dominant in Asia, accounting for most of the floor space in Macau casinos.

Sports betting, now in its fourth year in Colorado, has also seen substantial growth, particularly for the casino’s bottom line. This October, sports wagers brought in $47 million, after player payouts, a 30% increase from the same month last year.

Colorado, long a top market for Las Vegas, is now better positioned to compete for those gamblers. Amenities help too, including the expansion of the Monarch Casino Resort Spa in Black Hawk was completed in 2021, hundreds of new rooms.

David Farahi was the Chief Operating Officer for Monarch during the construction and opening of the new hotel and casino.

“If we can bring a Vegas-quality asset with Vegas-quality games to Colorado, we will steal trips from Las Vegas and we will grow the pie for the state of Colorado, and every indication is that has happened,” said Farahi, who left the company in 2021.

'Whenever you have an expansion of gaming … you're going to have an expansion of problem gambling'

Farahi is now an adjunct professor at the University of Denver, and he serves on the board of Kindbridge Behavioral Health, which offers programs to help people suffering with gambling addiction, what the industry calls “problem gambling.”

“Whenever you have an expansion of gaming,” Farahi said. “Especially one that is going to put sports betting in people's pockets, through their phones, you're going to have an expansion of problem gambling.”

Kindbridge was awarded a $264,265 grant from the Colorado Division of Gaming, to create an implementation strategy for treatment of “gambling disorder.” The grant was part of $1.6 million handed out for various problem gambling initiatives as part of a state law, passed in 2022.

It’s unclear currently the exact size of the problem in Colorado, but Farahi said generally only five percent of gamblers develop a problem. Still, it’s important to invest to help them.

“There are enough people that can have a healthy relationship with gambling for the industry to have a robust business,” said Farahi. “We do not need to be predatory.”

The state gave more than $1 million in grants to the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado, to create a drop-in center for people struggling with addiction and various awareness and education programs.

Peggy Brown is president of the Coalition, and has been with the organization for years. She said they used to have virtually no financial resources – she said Colorado’s investments in problem gambling are the largest in the state’s history.

“No longer can we have our heads in the sand,” Brown said. “We've got an issue here. We have a problem here.”

Brown was once a compulsive gambler herself, she knows how it preys on the minds of addicts. “One more flip of the card or spin of the roulette wheel or an all-in bet at the poker table can change your life,” she said.

The Coalition used to maintain a self-exclusion list, and casinos could voluntarily participate. Now the state has taken over the list, and casinos must participate.

“A very small percentage of guests develop a gambling problem,” Christopher Schroder, director for the Colorado Division of Gaming, said. “But we want to make sure that we give those individuals the resource they needed to make sound decisions and educated decisions for themselves.”

A gambler can exclude themselves for years at a time. Their access to the sports betting apps are shut off and aren’t allowed to play in the casinos. Offers from betting companies must stop.

The Problem Gaming Coalition of Colorado has fielded some reports from gamblers on the self-exclusion list who continued to get mail and offers from casinos.

“I think that there's always going to be accidents that happen. When we discover those accidents and those concerns, we work with those operators to ensure that that is prevented in the future,” Schroder said. He said when it comes to mail, there can be a slight delay.

On top of taking over the exclusion list and handing out grants to addiction resources, the state has hired a responsible gaming manager, reviews responsible gaming plans from operators, assists guests too.

“Colorado is really leading the nation in that kind of model,” said Farahi, the former casino executive. “Which I think is absolutely fantastic, and I think that more states will follow suit.”

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