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John Grochowski Reviews Owning Mahowny

26 August 2003

When I popped a preview copy of Owning Mahowny into my VCR, my mission was to see whether the gambling, and the portrayal of a problem gambler's descent into bank embezzlement to the tune of $10 million, rang true.

I knew it was based on a true story. In the early 1980s, Toronto banker Brian Molony supported his gambling habit with more than $10 million in fraudulent loans from his employer, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Molony's story was chronicled in Gary Stephen Ross' 1984 book Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony, which now is back in print. It is Molony on whom Philip Seymour Hoffman's character Dan Mahowny is based in the film "Owning Mahowny."

It didn't take too long for a nagging feeling to set in that there was something familiar about the story. That feeling reached a crescendo the first time Mahowny spoke the words, "I don't have a gambling problem. I have a financial problem."

Suddenly, I wasn't thinking about Dan Mahowny or Brian Molony, and I wasn't thinking about multimillion-dollar embezzlers. I was thinking about Carol O'Hare, and something she once told me.

"I was having financial difficulties, but I was able to convince myself that they weren't that great," she told me in 1995 as she described her personal nightmare with gambling. "Compulsive gamblers have a tremendous capacity for lying to ourselves. I told myself I enjoyed it, I had a good feeling. It took a while before I realized that good feeling didn't exist anymore. I was gambling to stop the pain, mostly from gambling the day before."

Since 1996, O'Hare has been executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. She put her life back together in a big way after being on the brink of suicide in 1991. With the help of a co-worker, she realized she needed help, went through a 12-step program and has been helping others practically ever since.

She didn't gamble at Molony/Mahowny's level. She played quarter and dollar video poker, not baccarat for tens of thousands of dollars a hand. But she found that compulsive gamblers have to hit bottom, much like alcoholics and drug addicts, and really understand that they NEED help before they can turn things around.

For Molony/Mahowny, the bottom was a long way down. In the film, the motivation behind the first fraudulent loan wasn't so much the $10,000 he owed his bookie for race and sports bets, but that the bookie wouldn't extend any more credit. Mahowny couldn't get back into action if he didn't pay the debt.

From that start, it's an easy slide through ever-bigger fraudulent loans; bigger, more reckless sports bets; trips to the blackjack, roulette, craps and baccarat tables of Atlantic City and Las Vegas, playing for an enormous stakes in the vain hope of winning everything back.

Is the gambling true to life? I can't really say. This is not a movie about whether Mahowny knows his basic strategy at blackjack or stays away from the sucker bets at craps. We don't see enough of the gambling to know whether Mahowny knows his stuff, or whether the dealers are following proper procedure.

But the descent, for a man who doesn't know his limits and doesn't know himself all that well, for whom the game is the thing and little else matters, that's all too realistic.

To the bitter end, Mahowny tells himself, "I don't have a gambling problem." And when he can't admit the problem to himself, he can't be helped.

Nearly all the players I know play for fun and stay within their limits. They're not losing their life savings and they're not stealing to play. They're spending a few bucks and having their day's entertainment.

But we can't stick our heads in the sand and pretend there aren't some who have a problem, who lose control in the casinos. For them, the first step is understanding they have a problem, that they aren't alone and that help is available. One second step is to call (800) 522-4700, the National Helpline for Problem and Compulsive Gambling.

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski