Tales of a Gambling Addict

I am an addict.

It's not easy to say these words. I -- am -- an -- addict. A screw-up. A sucker. A sicko. I cannot be trusted. I need help. I cannot help myself.

These were a few of the topics kicked around recently when my wife and my father came at me with a sort of mini-intervention -- like a surprise party, but with self-help books instead of balloons. There were cups of tea involved, a lot of whys and how could yous. There was talk of "healing" and "support." It would have been laughable if it weren't so final.

See, I didn't want to stop. Didn't even want to think about it. But I didn't have much choice in the matter. I'm an addict, and addicts don't choose.

I used to feel a certain amount of pride in being a gambler. I imagined it gave my life a touch of glamour, a bit of danger. And I loved it. Some of the happiest nights of my life have been spent in Reno and Vegas and Deadwood, South Dakota. I have visited ratty two-table shanties and wandered the glistening halls of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. I have dreamed of shooting craps in Monte Carlo, a martini in hand, a mountain of multicolored chips before me. I would register massive shifts in fortune with a cocked eyebrow. Maybe I would draw a crowd.

Even penny-ante games get me going -- the rounds of cribbage, gin, and liar's poker at my local bar. I have gambled on soccer matches, horse races, card cuts, coin tosses, and games of pool. I once bet on who could hold a lit match the longest. The game doesn't matter, nor the venue, nor the stake. What matters is the chase, pitting myself against the unfathomable forces of luck. It's almost a spiritual thing.

My office contains a little of shrine to gambling. I have ashtrays and cocktail trays emblazoned with hearts and diamonds, clubs and spades. I have an antique roulette wheel. A mug with a picture of a guy chasing a donkey: I LOST MY ASS IN VEGAS. A key ring that says CRAZY FOR CRAPS. I have Bakelite chips, novelty playing cards, and dice, dice, dice. One Christmas, my mother-in-law bought me a book, The Quotable Gambler. I already owned it. Gambling isn't just a passion, it's part of who I am. It's me.

Despite all this, the gambling never felt out of control. At least not until I started playing scratch tickets. That was when I set out on the road to feckless, lolloping loserdom. That was when I started jerking my friends around -- standing them up because I'd lost all my money, or borrowing cash, or cadging drinks. That was when I started lying to my wife. Scratch tickets ate up the rent money and earned me a reputation as a flake. Scratch tickets had me banging my head against walls, gurgling with remorse. Scratch tickets.

Monte Carlo seems a long way off now. I'm a scratcher, and there's not much glamour in that. Ever see James Bond huddled in the corner of a 7-Eleven, working away at a Bonus Millions? Omar Sharif nicking the surface of a Set for Life? Did Fyodor Dostoyevsky sneak out in the middle of the night to procure a bundle of Rubles Galore? Of course not. Scratch tickets are a mug's game. And I am the mug.

There's a hierarchy in the gaming world -- a gambler's caste system. People who play poker look down on people who play blackjack who look down on people who go to the track who look down on people who play slots who look down on people who play Keno who look down on people who play scratch tickets who look down on ... bingo players? Perhaps. As a scratch addict, I'm pretty much at the bottom of the heap. Hey, Grandma, why don't you play a real game?

But as David Nibert points out in his recent book Hitting the Lottery Jackpot: State Governments and the Taxing of Dreams (Monthly Review Press, 2000), scratch tickets are a particularly insidious game. They are lovely to look at, they are easily accessible, they allow rapid-fire betting, and, as Nibert writes, they offer people with limited prospects "a new opportunity for individual economic advancement."

The most dangerous thing about these tickets, though, is that they don't really feel like gambling. They certainly don't feel like the life-crushers they can become. In fact, you're doing a good thing by playing them. State lotteries dole out billions a year in aid to local cities and towns. Buy a loaf of bread and a Winning Streak, and a bridge gets fixed. No smoky casino to go to, no grim-faced bookie. How bad could it be?

Actually, pretty bad. The one- and two-dollar tickets have given way to three- and five-dollar tickets, which in turn have given way to the mighty 10-bucker. Scratch tickets, regardless of their shiny, just-a-bit-of-fun veneer, are high-stakes gambling. At $10 a pop, you could be down $100 in the space of a cigarette. I, of all people, should know.

The day before I was so lovingly shanghaied by my family, I'd hit rock bottom with my habit. At least I hope so. Any lower and I'd taste oil. It was a Friday afternoon. I was scratching, as I often do on Friday afternoons, flush with the spoils of direct deposit, eager to escape the stresses and responsibilities the work week. I'd had bad gambling bouts before. I'd bitched my way through spells of deplorable luck. But this one was different. Something snapped.

I was playing the $10 Spectaculars, and losing at a rat-a-tat rate. I wasn't having fun. This wasn't a "bit of a flutter." Word was that the Spectaculars offered the best odds ever of getting a big hit. My reasoning -- if you can call it that -- was that before I quit these damn things for good, I'd have one last shot at getting back the thousands of dollars I'd squandered in the past. I wanted closure. And once I started, I couldn't stop. I was having what the experts call a "manic episode." I couldn't stop.

I'd say the $200 mark was the point where common sense and desire finally parted company. I took out another hundred, then another. I couldn't have been any less in control if I'd swallowed a fistful of acid and washed it down with a bottle of tequila. My head had been shot from a cannon. My will was a wet rag snagged on the bumper of a bus. I was heading straight for Brokesville and there wasn't a thing I could do about it.

Looking back on that episode now is like trying to watch a tennis match through a keyhole. The picture's blurry and incomplete. I know that I was hot-faced, fizzing. I know I fumbled the last crinkly 10-spot from my pocket and handed it over to the guy behind the counter. I know the guy was bald. My last 10 bucks. But imagine -- imagine! -- if I had scored. I could have had a happy ending. I handed the money over. I remember that.

It was an ending all right, but not a happy one. Broke, I called my dad and asked for a loan. I said something about needing to pay off some debts. I promised I'd pay him back. I all but begged him to lend me the money. I all but wept. When he said no, I slammed down the phone. I called him back. I slammed down the phone. I called him back. I told him I needed help. I said it: I am an addict.

Aren't I?

I am now the owner of a Gamblers Anonymous handbook, a little yellow pamphlet with that "God grant me the serenity" poem printed on the cover. "How can you tell whether you are a compulsive gambler?" the handbook asks. It goes on to list 20 questions: "Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?" -- yes -- "Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned?" -- yes -- "Did you often gamble until your last dollar was gone?" -- hell, yes. If you answer in the affirmative to seven of the 20 questions, you are probably a compulsive gambler. My score is 15.

Okay, so how did I get to this point?

Since that spectacularly grim day, I've done some research. Turns out, the path I took to addiction is a well-worn one. If you were to chart the route to compulsive gambling, it might go something like this:

* The Joy Luck Club. You tee-hee your way through a few bucks here and there. Win a little, lose a little -- no big deal.

* The Bait. About 50 percent of problem gamblers report getting a big win early on in their gambling careers. Tee-hees turn to knee-trembling oh-jeezes.

* The Bite. Eager to relive the rush of that early win, Gambler starts laying bigger bets with more frequency. Losses are brushed aside in anticipation of the next delicious hit.

* Momentum. As losses begin to accumulate, Gambler stops playing to recapture past glory and starts playing catch-up. Anticipation gives way to a creeping sense of desperation.

* Free Fall. Ever-larger bets are placed in an effort to recoup losses. When the all-important wins fail to materialize, Gambler responds with self-loathing, anger, and manic determination.

* The Monster. The habit grows to unmanageable proportions. Gambler starts borrowing from friends and family, devising elaborate lies to cover up losses. Gambler rationalizes. Can stop any time.

* The Felon. Unable to wring any more money from friends, family, and colleagues, Gambler engages in fraud, theft, and other illegal acts. Borrows from loan sharks.

* The Bust. Gambler's relationships start to break down. Loved ones lay down ultimatums, or just pack up and leave. Lonely and racked with guilt, Gambler gets sick, depressed.

* Endgame. Gambler gets caught cheating or stealing. Facing prison, divorce, and perhaps broken legs, Gambler hits rock bottom, considers ending it all. Twenty percent of card-carrying problem gamblers say they have attempted suicide.

I cringe when I think how closely this model applies to my story -- right down to the early hit ($1000 on a $2 ticket). The discovery that I'm not alone should be comforting. It isn't. The fact that my sky-lowering drama is so run-of-the-mill, so predictable, is somehow even more demeaning.

At the same time, I'm grateful that I stopped when I did (edging into the "Monster" stage). There are gamblers out there who make my habit look like a penchant for coin collecting: the guy who stole money from his daughter's piggy bank; the guy who went to the racetrack on the day his wife died of cancer; the guy who stole $300,000 from his law firm, got caught, and killed himself on the eve of his son's 11th birthday. There is some comfort in the thought that I wasn't that bad.

On the other hand, I was pretty bad.

The scariest moment of my brush with ruin came when I began to entertain thoughts of committing a crime. I wasn't about to rob a bank, mug an old lady, or start giving hand jobs at my local bus terminal, but I had eyed a thick stack of Spectaculars at a convenience store, and I had thought how nice it would be if I could only ... It was the if that saved me. That and a big fat yellow streak.

When people associate addiction with crime, they tend to think of sweat-slick crackheads lifting Pampers from Stop & Shops, cankerous junkies pulling blades in gloomy alleyways, or bloated alcos kicking the crap out of each other in parking lots. But hard-line gamblers are as likely to resort to crime as any drug addict. In fact, given the limitless amounts of money that can be poured into their addiction, they may be even more so.

Forty-seven percent of people in Gamblers Anonymous (GA), for instance, say that they have engaged in fraud or theft. Thirty-two percent of prison inmates acknowledge having a gambling problem. David Nibert, citing a nationwide study on state-sponsored gambling, writes that "states with lotteries had a rate of property crimes about 3 percent higher than states without, a statistically significant finding." Yet it's unlikely that someone who discovers his car missing or her house burgled will spit out, "Damn scratch addicts!"

Part of this misconception stems from the fact that many people have trouble thinking of gambling as an addiction at all. It's something you do, not something you take. A recent study at Harvard Medical School, however, found that a gambler's brain responds to a bet in much the same way a drug user's responds to a line of coke. The hormones released during a gambling bout produce a real chemical high. But you don't have to be a neurologist to know this. All you need is to have slapped down a 10-spot on an all-or-nothing Spectacular.

But where's the buzz in that? How could I possibly get a kick out of frittering my money away? Questions like these point to another error non-gamblers make when trying to understand people like me. The true gambler gets a rush just from laying down a bet, or even thinking of laying down a bet. And perversely, or maybe inevitably, losing makes winning all the more enjoyable.

The tail end of a losing streak is a place of great possibility. For all the sobbing and whining, the loser knows this -- at least on a subconscious level. You know that by unloading a boatload of cash you are setting yourself up for the most delirious rush a gambler can experience. And you know that the longer a losing streak lasts, the bigger the rush will be when the streak breaks.

There's an old saying among gamblers: "The biggest bet I ever made was my last two dollars." The eye-popping, heart-stopping action doesn't come when the shipping magnate slaps down a hundred thou on the spin of a roulette wheel; it comes when some poor slob hands over the dregs of a stake on a lousy ace-high. To come from behind, to pull yourself back from the brink of ruin -- that is pure rocket fuel.

Herein lies the gambler's Catch-22: if you quit in the midst of a losing streak, you're denying yourself the Big Bang that comes when you finally break out of it. And if you're on a winning streak -- well, what kind of idiot stops in the middle of a winning streak? Couple this dilemma with the physical addiction of gambling, and it's clear why, according to some estimates, as many as 92 percent of addicts suffer at least one relapse.

But not me. I'm stopping.

However, I am planning one last ritual.

I will go into my back yard, take a dollar bill from my pocket, and set it on fire. As I watch the bill burn, I'll say a few words for all the money I've spent on gambling in the last few years. Ashes to ashes, scratch to scratch. This private ceremony, I hope, will help me break the spell once and for all.

For me, the hardest part of quitting has been coming to terms with a single, simple fact: the money I've lost is money I've lost. It's not money I've yet to win back. It's not money I've invested. I haven't been putting good luck aside on the layaway plan. There will be no redress, no redeeming hit. This is a most excruciating thing to do, to let go of hope like that. It's the hardest part.

About a month after I stopped gambling, my wife and I went to see a movie. I didn't try to wriggle out of paying for the tickets. I bought the candy and the soda. I remember thinking, "That's a bloody stupid thing to be proud of." Anyway, it was a far cry from the Thames-side penthouse I'd hoped to own, or the round-the-world trip I'd hoped to go on. Then, as the lights dimmed and the movie started, my wife gave my hand a little squeeze. I will never win the $4 million jackpot. I will never go to Monte Carlo. There are other things to hope for.

Chris Wright can be reached at cwright@phx.com.


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