Historical novel details gambling impact on state

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Thompson - posted Wed., Jul. 17, 2013
Author Robert Steele will speak about his book, 'The Curse,' at the Thompson Public Library on July 17 at 6:30 p.m. Courtesy photo. - Contributed Photo

When ex-chairman Michael Thomas goes on trial in late July for allegedly stealing $100,000 from the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, it will be one more chapter in a complex and ironic situation involving the the small tribe that owns Foxwoods, one of the largest casinos in the world.

A whole different chapter could be written about Thomas' brother, Steven, who is alleged to have stolen $700,000 from the tribe between 2005 and 2009 when he was tribal treasurer.

Each case taken separately involves large sums of money, but together they represent just a fraction of the dollars that change hands at Foxwoods. The explosive revenues generated by the games and slot machines have brought with them a curse of sorts, one that extends throughout the state. It's been felt by Connecticut government officials, its residents, the gamblers enticed with hopes of big wins, and even by the tribe itself.

The story of Foxwoods is similar to the story of the Mohegan Sun, another of the world's largest casinos. Less than 10 miles from each other, they combine for nine casinos, hundreds of gaming tables, and more than five million square feet of space devoted to gaming. How the tribes received federal recognition, negotiated with the state to pay it 25 percent of all slot revenues and built their financial empires - all since 1983 - would be as story in itself. But the history of the tribes, their animosity towards one another and their near extinction during King Philip's War in 1675 adds a whole different dimension to the story.

All of it is covered in Robert Steele's book, "The Curse." Steele had a front row seat to the development of Foxwoods Casino and Mohegan Sun as a Ledyard resident. He writes about it in his historical novel.

“It's an unbelievable story,” Steele said. “It brings up a lot of important issues. I wanted to dramatize it in a novel.”

Those issues include the reliance of state government on money generated by the casinos, the legislative machinations that have ensured the casinos' operation, the rise in crime associated with them and the social costs of gambling. Steele's novel presents those issues in compelling ways, using flesh and blood characters as well as historical fact. And the book is coming out just as several New England states are considering opening up their own casinos.

The promise of easy money is hard for people to resist, but it's also hard for governments to resist, even when there are reams of information that the cost-to-benefit ratio weighs heavily against casinos.  It's true that both casinos have added millions to the state treasury. According to Steele, at their peak, slot payouts to the state were $430 million a year. Since 1992, the state has taken in $6 million in slot revenue. But Connecticut was the only state that registered negative economic growth in 2012, and it has the highest debt load per capita.

The money has brought its own share of troubles to the Mohegans and Pequots. Just last week the Pequots made an agreement with creditors to reduce their $2.2 billion debt by $500 million. Yet they want to build a $1 billion casino in Milford, Mass.

Where has all that casino money gone? Steele's novel doesn't answer that question, but it does provide the story of the casinos against a backdrop of human drama. The story is a cautionary tale about battle lines drawn, families torn apart and the dark side of gambling.
Steele spent six years writing the book. His research was taken from town and state historical records, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, the Bettor Choice Compulsive Gambling Treatment Program and the Connecticut State Police.

The book spans more than 350 years. It opens with a particularly brutal attack on a settler, and the subsequent massacre that was part retribution, part military campaign to rid the area of native Americans. That massacre was fact. So were the parts of his book that dealt with the recognition process that both Pequots and Mohegans went through, the negotiations that gave them favored gaming status in the state, and the public debate that surrounded the casino developments.

Story is sometimes more compelling when it comes to examining the human costs involved in gaming. It gives the facts flesh and blood. So it is with Steele's protagonist Josh Williams, who suffers the loss of his business, his son's gambling addiction and his wife's tragic accident. Steele's characters include a gamut of people lured by the money, men and women who risk reputations and livelihoods for gambling's elusive and improbable payouts, and college students who fall deeply in debt. And it shows in heartbreakingly clear ways, how the dark side of gaming impacts us all.

Steele will speak at the Thompson Public Library on July 17, at 6:30 p.m.

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