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Hooked for life
'I don't do cocaine, but I'm getting the same kind of rush,' Trailer Park Boys star John Dunsworth says. A new documentary highlights his gambling addiction
Photo   John Dunsworth, a.k.a. Mr. Lahey, opens up about his video lottery terminal addiction in CBC Newsworld's Playing the Machines.
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GAYLE MacDONALD
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

When he's in a conservative mood, Trailer Park Boys' John Dunsworth figures he's lost $50,000 on the video lottery terminals scattered through pubs, corner stores and casinos in his home province of Nova Scotia.

When he's feeling more, well, realistic, Dunsworth, who played Mr. Lahey on the hit Showcase TV series, admits his VLT losses are probably closer to $100,000 – or more.

This five-year addiction – which has both run and ruined his life, and which he shares with hundreds of thousands of other Canadians – is the reason Dunsworth is part of a new documentary, Playing The Machines, airing tonight on CBC Newsworld.

“These machines stimulate the same area of the brain as cocaine,” asserts Dunsworth, speaking from his hotel room in Edmonton where he's currently on tour with another Trailer Park boy, Randy (Patrick Roach). “I don't do cocaine, but I'm getting the same kind of rush.

“I'm a compulsive kind of guy. I like to be busy all the time. The machines give me an outlet,” he says, adding he's managed so far to avoid the VLTs in Alberta. “I'm still hooked. I was one of the unfortunate ones who won the first, the second and the third times I played. With that kind of reinforcement, you know there's a devil afoot.”

“Like most players, I don't take the winnings out. If I win $300, it goes immediately back into the machines because then I'm playing for free. … Trust me, it's a sickness that governments don't give a crap about as long as they keep getting the revenues.”

A few years ago, Dunsworth formed a group, Game Over VLTs, that has been trying to draw attention to the machines' power over people , who often lose their homes, their families, even their lives to the machine. (The documentary estimates there are close to 300 gambling-related suicides in Canada a year.)

He says it was a “no-brainer” to sign on to participate in Newfoundland-based director Barbara Doran's documentary, which tells the stories of three people: Dunsworth; Susan Piercey (a 31-year-old woman from Corner Brook, Nfld., who started gambling at 18 and ended up committing suicide), and Garnet Rhyno of Halifax (who lost up to $300,000, remortgaged his family's home several times, and finally took his life).

Doran started working on the documentary, narrated by Gordon Pinsent, three years after reading a newspaper article about Piercey in The Telegram. She rounded up money, and started a project that took her and her crew to Las Vegas, South Carolina, Halifax and her home town of St. John's.

Over the course of her travels, Doran interviewed scores of gaming experts and addicts. She also spoke with Newfoundland lawyer Ches Crosbie, who is leading a class-action lawsuit against the Atlantic Lotto Corp., which includes Keith Piercey's case about his daughter's suicide. The documentary also interviews attorney Richard Gergel, who won the fight to ban VLTs in South Carolina.

In an interview, Doran said that the Atlantic Lotto Corp. and various provincial governments refused to be interviewed for the documentary.

“And except for John – who gave us 200 per cent – it was difficult finding subjects,” she adds. “Gamblers can hide their addictions for years. It's much easier for them than for an alcoholic or heavy drug users.

“Gamblers are reluctant to talk because of their shame and guilt. Many refused to talk because they are trying to hang onto their lives and their families.” says Doran.

“My hope with Playing The Machines is that some VLT addicts will see it, and realize there's a lot of people out there like them. And a lot of money at stake. It's difficult, however, to bring about any kind of change. The Atlantic Lottery Corp. – along with provincial governments across this country – own and regulate these machines. They also collect the revenues so there is no third-party accountability. In effect, the fox is guarding the hen house.”

Dunsworth adds that he believes it's the ubiquity of the machines that makes them so tempting. “I'm still addicted. I haven't played the month of March. But I know I'm not done.”

Playing The Machines airs Tuesday on The Lens at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBC Newsworld.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.