Sunday, January 11, 2004

Win or lose, they crave the action

For addicts, every day can be a gamble

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

People blame lots of problems for gambling addictions. In My Prison Without Bars, Pete Rose blames a chemical deficiency in his brain, an attention deficit disorder, double-crossing baseball executives and a host of media sharks for his fall from grace.

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From the moment he woke up each morning, Fred's day was all about gambling.

First the 58-year-old from Northern Kentucky checked the late sports scores on TV and added up his wins and losses. Then he called his bookie with bets for that night's games.

By late morning, he'd head out to the track to bet the horses, or to a poker game with some friends. If it was a weekend, he might drive to the casinos in Atlantic City.

By nightfall he was back in front of a TV, watching the games he'd bet on.

When he finally quit gambling 14 years ago, Fred had lost his house, his business and more than $100,000. He'd even considered suicide, figuring it was the only way to be sure he'd never gamble again.

"It was all day, seven days a week," says Fred, who asked that his full name not be used. "The gambling was more important to me than anything."

As Pete Rose makes headlines and hawks books about his sports betting, millions of Americans like Fred struggle in silence every day with the same destructive compulsion to gamble.

They risk retirement funds, mortgage payments, credit ratings, marriages and even their lives in pursuit of a drug-like high they say they get only from gambling.

Those who study and treat compulsive gamblers estimate that about 6 million to 8 million adults in the United States have serious problems with gambling. Though hard-core gamblers often do not seek help, recent studies suggest their numbers are growing.

The reason is as obvious as the big casino boats docked along Indiana's riverfront: Gambling has never been more available, popular or widely accepted than it is today.

"It's never been that hard to get down a bet," says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "Now it's easier than ever."

Cincinnati proves his point.

The city is an hour's drive from three riverboat casinos. Horse racing is even closer, with tracks in Ohio and Kentucky. Internet gaming is a mouse click away. And lower-stakes games, from church bingo to the state lottery, can be found almost everywhere.

"The game of chance is very much a part of American culture," says Dr. Walter Smitson, director of Cincinnati's Central Clinic, which treats and evaluates mental health disorders.

Billions won and lost

It's an expensive one, too. An estimated $900 billion was bet legally in the United States last year.

Most in the gaming industry expect that number to rise as new casinos and online gaming bring high-stakes gambling into every corner of the nation.

"We know it's a problem," says Dr. Susan McElroy, a psychiatry professor at the University of Cincinnati who treats compulsive gamblers. "In general, when you increase access to something that's abuseable, you see an increase in the problem."

A University of Chicago study supports that contention, finding that people gambled more often and spent more money doing it in 1998 than in 1975.

Gambling expenditures had increased from 0.30 percent of personal income to 0.74 percent, and the percentage of adults who had gambled in their lifetime rose from 68 percent to 86 percent.

Other evidence is anecdotal, but researchers say it suggests a growing problem.

The number of weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings in Greater Cincinnati now stands at 10, double five years ago. The same is true in Kentucky, where some 20 meetings take place each week from Louisville to Lexington.

"There's a growing opportunity for people to gamble," said Mike Stone, director of the Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling. "More people are surfacing for treatment."

Money problems grow

A study conducted for lending institutions in 2000 found that bankruptcy rates were an average of 18 percent higher in counties that had casinos or gaming halls than in counties that did not.

Gaming industry officials dispute those findings, saying there are many other causes for America's rising bankruptcy rates. But a bankruptcy trustee in Cincinnati has noticed a change since the riverboat casinos came to Indiana.

"We have seen an increase in the problem," says Eric Goering, who hears bankruptcy cases as a trustee and whose firm handles up to 10 cases a week. He says gambling is a factor in at least 10 percent of bankruptcies.

"Going to the casinos, it's easy to lose $1,000 or $2,000," Goering says. "When you're already living beyond your means, that could put you over the edge."

Gaming industry officials say the problem is not as severe as some make it out to be, but that they're doing their part to help compulsive gamblers.

Ten percent of admission fees at the Indiana boats go to education and treatment programs for compulsive gamblers. The casinos also post signs urging problem gamblers to call a hot line for help, and they enforce voluntary bans on gamblers struggling to stay away.

"We as an industry take this issue seriously," says Mike Smith, executive director of the Casino Association of Indiana. "I don't know any other industry that does this."

An intoxicating effect

Most adults - about 95 percent - have no problem gambling. They can have fun at a casino or bingo hall without risking the kids' college fund.

But those who do have a problem have a significant impact. A federal commission in 1999 estimated that gambling costs the country about $5 billion in bankruptcies, lost productivity and other social costs each year.

"It can affect all areas of life," says McElroy.

She says the definition of a problem gambler is someone who continues to gamble even though it interferes with jobs, relationships and finances. The "action" keeps them coming back for more.

When McElroy asks her patients whether they prefer drugs or gambling, they almost always choose gambling. "The more money someone gambles, the bigger the high," she says. "You're not gambling for fun. You're gambling for the intoxicating effects."

Fred, the former gambler from Northern Kentucky, knows the feeling well. He first felt the thrill while flipping baseball cards and coins as a kid. He soon moved on to horses, sports and casino games.

"We get the excitement from making the bets. That's our drug of choice," Fred says. "It gets to the point where it doesn't matter if you win or lose. It's the action. That's the high."

As with drugs and alcohol, the hangover can be severe.

For years, Fred devoted almost every waking hour to gambling. He owned a business but spent most of his time calling his bookie, playing cards or hanging out at the track.

Eventually, the debt and stress took a toll. He lost his business, his house and his savings. He started having a nightmare in which he was in a casino, losing again and again.

To Fred, suicide seemed the only way to ensure he'd no longer risk his family's money. He says a 30-day stint in a psychiatric hospital and membership in Gamblers Anonymous saved his life.

Other members of Gamblers Anonymous tell similar tales. One says she became "a basket case" as she stole from her husband to feed her addiction to bingo and scratch-off lottery tickets.

Another describes spending night after night at the riverboat casinos, running up credit card debts. "I didn't do anything with my life but work and go to the casino," she recalls. "I didn't buy my grandchildren birthday gifts because all my money had to go to the casino."

'A legitimate disorder'

Experts on problem gambling say they aren't out to ban betting. Even Gamblers Anonymous does not take a position on whether it's inherently good or bad.

What's needed, experts say, is a greater public awareness that compulsive gambling is a serious problem. They want more treatment options, more public education and a greater emphasis on the need to get help before it's too late.

"There's still that barrier there in people's minds toward accepting this as a legitimate disorder," Whyte says. "It hinders efforts to encourage people to seek help."

Whyte and others hope Pete Rose's public struggle will lead to a better understanding of compulsive gambling, even if Rose himself seems unconvinced he has a problem.

More than a decade after he gave up gambling, Fred has no doubt about the seriousness of his problem. He still goes to Gamblers Anonymous meetings, and he still hears the horror stories from gamblers as desperate as he once was.

Not long ago, Fred went to a riverboat casino. He knows he shouldn't have, but some friends wanted to go so he tagged along.

He didn't gamble, but he did see a lot of people who reminded him of his old self.

He recognized the look in their eyes as they played the slots or blackjack. He watched them fight with their spouses over money and rush to the ATM for more cash.

"I could tell the compulsive gamblers," he says. "They can't stop. It's an addiction."


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