JEFFERSON CITY - For years, Missouri has ballyhooed its novel program allowing compulsive gamblers to ban themselves from casinos for life.
More than 14,000 people - including 5,313 in the St. Louis area - have signed up since the program began in 1996. They agreed to stay away from casinos and to be arrested for trespassing if caught on the premises.
But now, gambling counselors say more problem gamblers may be slipping in unnoticed. Since state voters got rid of the $500 loss limit last November, casinos no longer require all patrons to show an ID and get a boarding pass to enter.
"If you don't check ID, you don't know who's trying to get through or who got through," said Keith Spare, chairman of the Missouri Council on Problem Gambling Concerns.
State regulators say the program still works. Relapsed addicts are identified when they try to cash a check or get a cash advance on their credit card. They have to show a government-issued ID to the casino cashier for either transaction.
In a cruel twist, they also lose by winning big. To claim a large jackpot - more than $1,200 at the slots, for example - gamblers must file an IRS form. The cashier matches winners against the self-exclusion list. Banned gamblers not only are arrested; they forfeit the money.
Those methods are producing fewer arrests, though. Gaming agents at the state's 12 casinos arrested 480 people on the "disassociated persons list" in the first half of 2009, compared with 584 during the same period last year, according to the Missouri Highway Patrol's gaming division. That's a drop of nearly 18 percent.
Even so, the program's administrator, Melissa Stephens, said the lack of a mandatory boarding card hasn't harmed the effort.
"Ultimately, this is a program that is a tool for the individual, and it is for them to accept and take personal responsibility," she said.
Before loss limits were repealed, every gambler had to present a drivers license or some other form of state-issued ID with a photo, name, date of birth, address and Social Security number or drivers license number. The information was required to get the mandatory players card in Missouri.
But the Missouri Gaming Commission says the boarding passes were never an effective enforcement tool for catching banned gamblers because the gamblers often would use someone else's card. It wasn't until they won a large jackpot or tried to cash a check or get a cash advance that they were caught, said Clarence Greeno, assistant deputy director for enforcement for the commission.
Greeno said passage of Proposition A may have emboldened some addicts to go to casinos again.
Rick Cox, who counsels problem gamblers in St. Charles, said he has seen that happen. A man who had quit gambling returned to the casinos in November, telling Cox, "Once I found out that you didn't need a card anymore, it changed my thinking completely." The man gambled for months before being arrested.
Cox said problem gamblers aren't deterred by the knowledge that they can't keep large jackpots, which "really tells you about the nature of the addiction, because it's all about just playing."
Experts estimate that problem and pathological gambling affects from 2 percent to 4 percent of the adult population. Symptoms include being preoccupied with gambling, gambling to escape from problems and lying to family members to conceal the extent of gambling.
Missouri pioneered the self-banning program and has the largest program of roughly 13 states - including Illinois - that offer some type of self-banning.
The areas with the largest clusters of admitted problem gamblers are in St. Peters (63376), St. Charles (63303, 63301), Florissant (63031), and north St. Louis and St. Louis County (63136 - the Jennings area).
Those areas have easy access to casinos - Ameristar in St. Charles and Harrah's in Maryland Heights.
In Illinois, 6,846 people - including 1,562 from Missouri - have declared themselves problem gamblers.
Illinois came up with an innovative way to enforce its ban. Casinos pay $250 to each employee who finds an excluded gambler.
The casino that gives out the most money under the "bounty" system is the Casino Queen in East St. Louis. Employees there have caught 95 problem gamblers since the bounty program began three years ago.
"The Casino Queen takes this program very seriously," said Gene O'Shea, director of the Illinois self-exclusion program.
Employees at the Alton Belle have received bonuses for nabbing 33 problem gamblers.
Missouri casinos say they do all they can to police the self-banned list. Security officers are stationed at the electronic turnstiles, which count patrons as they enter. A count is required because casinos must pay $1 to the state and $1 to City Hall for each patron. The guards can ask for IDs.
While players cards aren't required, regular gamblers still use them because they want to get the complimentary meals and other rewards casinos offer in return for playing the games.
Troy Stremming, an executive with Ameristar Casinos Inc., said he's glad that the number of people on the banned list keeps growing.
"We don't want them in there" if they're problem gamblers, he said.