I have a friend whose life has been dominated by an addiction to gambling. You may well have one, too, although you may not know which person it is. The DSM-V recently re-classified gambling addiction from being a problem with impulse control to a full-blown addiction.
This is a good thing. More affordable and effective treatment is increasingly necessary because gambling is more acceptable and accessible than ever before. According to a study by Harvard Medical School, about 1.1 percent of Americans have a compulsive gambling disorder. Other estimates are as high as 2.3 percent (in 2008), down from 4.2 percent in 2001.
My buddy is smart and extremely funny, albeit in a way that makes people uncomfortable. He is good looking, dresses well, and gives off the air of someone well educated. He also has fucked up his life with gambling in a major way. He comes from money: His dad was a lawyer; his mother a judge. His betting started when he was a senior in high school. He picked Nebraska to win the Orange bowl, and won 100 bucks—and a huge rush of dopamine.
He didn’t place another bet for six years. He had graduated from college, moved to New York City, started law school. He was hanging out with guys who were all betting on Sportsbook.com. They would Western Union money to some dude in Antigua, and he would put money into their accounts, and the game was on. My friend followed suit, and was soon hooked.
I recently rapped with him about his life of gambling at his place in Maine, where he lives with his dog in a small apartment in a rundown neighborhood. “This gambling period in law school was my intro to the world of parleys and teasers,” he says. “I was winning a few hundred dollars a week, and soon $500 to $1,000 a week. I was losing too, but it all evened out. At the end of the semester, I took summer off and didn’t bet.”
“Gambling was all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to fuck and I didn’t want to work. I honestly didn’t even give a shit when I found out she was cheating on me. As broke as I was, I was still dropping two months’ rent on bets.”
“The next year I got back into it. I was betting around $1,000 a week and going to Atlantic city playing blackjack,” he says. “There were times that I won up to $6,000, but just as many times that I lost the same amount.” He recalls that when he went out to dinner with his girlfriend, he always picked a place with a TV that broadcast whatever game he had money on. “I would always sit where she was facing me and I faced the TV,” he says. Around the same time he found a local bar in Brooklyn where a bookie hung out, taking bets all weekend. “The guy looked like a low-level dude from Goodfellas, but not as well dressed,” he recalls.
He and his girlfriend moved to Indianapolis after he graduated from law school. He had a job at a small law firm. Severe depression started to set in. He hated his job almost as much as he hated Indiana. Soon he quit his job to gamble full-time, even though now he was losing. He went back to doing bets on Sportsbook.com, which now allowed bets to be placed through credit cards rather than solely through Western Union.
Unemployed, he was burning through his savings, maxing his credit cards, and asking his girlfriend if he could pay rent late. He borrowed $5,000 from his dad to keep his head above water. He started playing blackjack online. It was the classic cycle: The more stress and depression he experience, the more he gambled.
Of this time he says: “My girlfriend was going to graduate school and didn’t know I was doing this. I was outwardly nice to her, but I was anxious and depressed. Gambling was all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to fuck and I didn’t want to work. I honestly didn’t even give a shit when I found out she was cheating on me. As broke as I was, I was still dropping two months’ rent on bets.” When she found out he was gambling and saw the extent of it, she suggested he go to Gamblers Anonymous.
Instead, he lied and said he was going to quit on his own. Of course, she knew he was lying—your partners almost always do—and then it was just a matter of whether or not she wanted to act on it. She broke up with him.
“Betting is a feeling of pleasure better than sex, booze, drugs, anything,” my friend tells me. “It made the blood go to the tip of my cock. Betting on games when you don’t have the money is way better than betting when you do.”
He moved back to New Haven to live with his mom, who used her professional connections to get him a job clerking for a fellow judge. He mellowed on gambling for a while and instead started getting wasted.
He began going to Mohegan Sun, a massive casino-resort-spa in Connecticut, where he played poker; he also began playing a lot of blackjack online. He did well for several months, then lost about $16,000 over a five-month period. That felt to him like hitting bottom, but not for too long.
That’s when he moved up here to Maine, ostensibly to take care of his sick dad, but also to live rent-free. He was taking a break from gambling, working out, taking care of himself. But he never thought about quitting for good.
After his dad passed away, that responsibility was gone and he was adrift. A friend of his who was a former minor-league baseball player introduced him to a bookie. He would text his bet to the bookie, about $1,000 a week. He got introduced to another bookie and soon he was betting a couple thousand a week, more than he earned.
By 2011 he was still betting as much, partying excessively, and smoking a ton of weed. I would hang with him a lot back then, getting fucked up and drinking like crazy in bars. He would be glued to his phone checking scores the whole time.
I knew this chick who was smart, funny, charming, and cute, all of which masked the fact that she was also an abusive alcoholic and sometime prostitute with untreated mental illness. I introduced her to my friend and soon they got engaged. She dug the fact that my friend came from money, although she didn’t like the fact that he was spending it all on gambling rather than on her.
“The next year I kept betting the same amount, but I kept losing. I maxed my credit cards to about 30 grand. She took me to Jamaica, and paid for everything. All I bought the whole time was the cocaine. It was during Super Bowl season. I would wait for her to pass out and go down to the bar and watch games,” he recalls.
“I won three grand on the Broncos’ game and kicked ass the rest of the playoffs. I drank about 17 beers, my body was speeding, and the beers barely touched my anxiety. I was up around eight grand, things were good, but I lost 18 grand by the end of the NCAA tournament.”
“We got back and I won three grand the very next day on the Broncos’ game and kicked ass the rest of the playoffs. I drank about 17 beers; my body was speeding, and the beers barely touched my anxiety. I was up around eight grand, things were good, but then I lost that and another 10 grand by the end of the NCAA tournament,” he says.
“The next football season I was in debt to the bookie the entire time. He told me I wasn’t going to get my legs broken, so that was a relief. My credit became fucked completely, my work bonus went to my bookie. My girlfriend was constantly drunkenly screaming at me and hitting me with shit from our crappy apartment,” he says.
“I even started betting on baseball. And only idiots do that. I had no more money so I was betting 50 bucks here and there, like a heroin addict’s maintenance plan,” he says.
When he tells me the story of how he quit, he acts like it should be more exciting. Throughout our conversation he seems to wish that his story were better, almost as if he still doesn’t fully realize how apparent it is, what gambling has taken from him.
One day about a year and a half ago he went looking for a Gamblers Anonymous meeting that was being held in a local hospital. He got confused and went into an AA meeting down the hall by mistake. He decided he needed help with that too and decided to stay. That’s when he quit drinking and gambling, both at the same moment. He told his bookie that he was a gambling addict and not to take his bets anymore.
“Right now the idea of having a drink or placing a bet seems so foreign to me,” he says. “I promised important people in my life I would never gamble anymore and because of that so far I have kept my promise. With that said, gambling is fun, drinking isn’t. I still pick every NFL game every week. I play in a $25 pool that lasts all year.”
Although he doesn’t go to meetings anymore, he remains strong in not picking up a drink. He and I still hang out. He still smokes a ton of weed, works out like crazy, and is moving up at his job. The fiancée is long gone.
The prognosis for chronic problem gamblers is poor. As many as one out of five attempt suicide, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. Gambling has the highest rate of suicide of all addictions, and only schizophrenia has a higher rate among mental disorders.
“If at some point I started gambling again, I would enjoy it,” he says. “I wish I could just bet about $200 a week on the NFL and $200 on college. If I could just keep it to that much, I would be fine.”
I can tell he really believes that.