Confessions of a gambling addict 

I'm a decorated United States Navy vet and a well-published writer whose last book had a full-page review in The New York Times, has gone paperback, and has been translated into seven languages including Chinese, Russian and German. Formally educated at the universities of Michigan, Georgetown and Stanford, I've lectured at several schools including the University of Washington. My raw I.Q. has been measured at two standard deviations above the norm (100)—three deviations denote genius—which does not mean I don't do some pretty stupid ass things.

I woke up one early morning not too long ago, laying in the brush next to the Clark Fork, across from Safeway, after a fitful night's sleep out in the open—no tent or bed roll. The idiot I had lost my rent money, had lost my food money, and had lost all the rest of my other money playing poker. It was cool and breezy enough that no bugs were bugging me, yet a curious otter kept swimming by, looking at me, wondering what I was. I could have told him, "I'm a gambling addict. I have a hole in my soul that I throw money into. I need to get over it, otter. I need help. With casinos seemingly on every corner, Missoula thrives on addicts like me. Where can I get help in Missoula?" In any event, the otter said nothing and swam away. I stood up, brushed myself off, and walked up and out of the bank to find some answers.

•••

Let me explain. I started gambling in middle school, flipping coins and winning by declaring even or odd. In high school I regularly played poker with friends, oftentimes running out of money and writing IOUs that were used as chips. Playing poker, I saw myself as the dashing Rhett Butler, Steve McQueen's driven Cincinnati Kid or, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack Dawson, who you may recall won his ticket on the Titanic in a poker game. Steinbeck wrote, "I suppose a man's capacity for self-delusion is boundless."

click to enlarge While bars are required to stop serving those who’ve had too much to drink, casinos rarely kick folks out who are gambling too much—unless they’re winning. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • While bars are required to stop serving those who’ve had too much to drink, casinos rarely kick folks out who are gambling too much—unless they’re winning.

I joined the service, got married, and my gambling was at bay until a few months before my enlistment was up and my replacement arrived two months early. I went to the horse track every afternoon for 60 days, winning a net of $400.

Gambling subsided in college, but for a graduation present my wife and I rewarded ourselves with a trip to Atlantic City, where I played cards for 12–14 hours a day and left a few hundred dollars up. After we divorced I found solace in many a card game or casino, including down in Florida with so-named "boats that don't go anywhere" (they sail out past the three-mile boundary to gamble legally). I was living with a warm, giving but high-maintenance woman at the time. When that ended, she said, sadly, "You gambled away our love." I did.

And so I entered one of the only public inpatient gambling rehabilitation programs in the country, a Department of Veteran's Affairs (VA) facility in Brecksville, Ohio (440-526-3030). During my three weeks there I met many folks far sicker than I—a fellow patient won $62,000 on a slot machine and continued to play minutes after they gave him the check. Another talked of stealing company funds. More than a few others told of how they lost their wife and children to their addiction.

I'd heard or read many similar stories. I found a study that contends 50 percent of casino profits come from us addicts, and that in the 1990s gambling interests hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to conduct surveys of how the industry could be better viewed. Many took his advice that the term "gambling" be changed to "gaming." Then in 1999, responding to a petition by New Orleans gambling interests, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law restricting gambling advertising as a violation of the First Amendment. (I'm almost a First Amendment absolutist, but in this case make an exception). I wonder if the Supremes would rule that Pavlov has an unfettered right to ring his bells?

I thought I was "cured," but soon went back to my old ways. When I got my first book contract—and a $40,000 signing advance—I set a few records: I won over $4,000 on one hand (four kings; when I saw the fourth I screamed like a Klaxon), came home with $8,500 cash another night, but in the end lost about $20,000, simply because I did not know when to quit. In fact, a kind family lent me their cabin on Rock Creek to write the book. My addiction was so strong that I actually pawned their generator to play. And lost. (I got it out of hock when I eventually got more cash). I'd forced myself to live on about $100 a week until the book was finished and accepted some 18 months later. This self-inflicted poverty burned so deep that I stayed away from casinos when my next milestone payments totaling $60,000 arrived.

Flash-forward to the present and my addiction is active again, and I need help.

•••

I walked into the Vet Center on N. Higgins Avenue (721-4918), announced that I'm a gambling addict, and asked for assistance. The staff didn't know of any Gambling Anonymous groups in town, but gave me two bus passes so I could get to the VA Outpatient Clinic on Palmer Street (829-5400) and meet with Meaghan Lee, an addictions counselor. This I did. She listened and listened and listened. She understood. And she referred me to a therapist named Quinton Hehn (544-5041). He actually makes house calls. He picked me up at the outpatient clinic and we drove to his office on West Central where he helped me reconnect with the do-not-gamble process.

click to enlarge Various studies show between 2 and 5 percent of adults are gambling addicts. Some experts claim that after gambling is added in an area, addiction rates can climb as high as 11 percent. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Various studies show between 2 and 5 percent of adults are gambling addicts. Some experts claim that after gambling is added in an area, addiction rates can climb as high as 11 percent.

I told him that I'd outed myself as a gambling addict to my close friend, Zac, who I told never to lend me any more money. Hehn—who goes by the folksy "Dr. Q," as his license plate reflects, or simply "Q"—said he'd like to see gambling addicts wearing signs announcing our affliction and talk with others about it. Talking is a powerful antidote to this so-named "hidden disease."

He noted that somewhere between 2 and 5 percent of adults are addicts, and that some experts claim that after gambling is added in an area, addiction rates can climb as high as 11 percent. In fact, Dr. Q argues that the state of Montana itself is addicted to gambling revenues. He notes that research in Minnesota revealed that the actual cost of gambling to a state is 45 percent of the gross rather than the 15 percent tax Montana charges.

"Thus [Montana] collects $50 million a year," contends Dr. Q, "rather than the needed $150 million a year. The state is addicted to gambling, and is losing."

Dr. Q told me that there are over 16,000 video poker and keno machines in Montana as of 2008, and recently it was found that each one made an average of $342 per week, of which the state receives that 15 percent tax, and to which the state contributes nothing for addiction treatment. Zero. Not one penny. Nothing. [Insert expletive here].

Instead, a Billings counselor established the Montana Council on Problem Gambling, funded (rather meagerly) by some gambling establishments, to pay for awareness and treatment programs.

I found the council contracts with a firm in Delaware that runs a 24/7 gambling addiction help line (1-888-900-9979). The operators conduct a quick screening to see if the caller is suicidal—thoughts of offing oneself come to many gambling addicts, which some act on—then they steer the caller toward help in whatever Montana town they're in.

According to its federal tax return, the Montana Council on Problem Gambling raised $206,000 in 2008, the latest year figures are available, and spent about three quarters of this on addictions counseling. This is less than 25 cents, less than two bits, for each Montanan. Seriously. And that's not counting the summer residents who are people, too.

The Montana Council on Problem Gambling's website (mtcpgambling.com) could be much better—I was unable to download studies it links to—but it does a good job of relaying the history of gambling in the state. It was outlawed in the original 1889 Constitution, but the 1937 Hickey Act allowed table games in various locations. In 1950, slot machines were ruled illegal by the state Supreme Court. Thirty-five years later, the Legislature passed the Video Poker Machine Act, allowing five poker machines per liquor license and unlimited keno machines. The next year voters approved the Montana lottery.

In reality, gambling has been part of Montana's heritage long before we were a state. In fact, one of Missoula's best-known fictional characters, Paul Maclean, played by Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It, was a gambling addict. It killed him.

•••

I'm not alone as a gambling addict. Some are quite famous. As far as other authors, the truly great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky penned his most autobiographical work about his affliction, aptly titled The Gambler. He wrote that while gambling "some kind of strange sensation built up in me, a kind of challenge to fate, a kind of desire to give it a flick on the nose or stick my tongue out at it." I can relate. Then there's a well-to-do former computer software entrepreneur named Bill Gates. Yep, that Bill Gates.

As relayed in a few of his biographies, the autistic-like Gates was a social outcast at Harvard, in part because he neglected to bathe regularly or treat his schoolmates well. At his dorm, Currier House, in his sophomore—and last—year at Harvard, he lost so much money at the poker table that they called him the "Gates' Gravy Train." He'd often go into hall-mate Steve Ballmer's room in the middle of the night to get the checkbook he'd given to Ballmer so he wouldn't lose so much of his reportedly million-dollar trust fund. The charisma-free Gates intellectualized his losses and, with the help of math prodigy Ballmer, channeled his addiction into game theory, upon which more than a few mathematicians and physicists have based their careers; one, John Nash (A Beautiful Mind), won the Nobel Prize for his study. (At the core, game theory details what even Homer Simpson knows—that your best chance of winning is to eliminate all competition).

Dr. Q pointed out that if I wanted to, there were gambling addiction group meetings around town: Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the Valor House (829-3928; 2820 Great Northern Loop); Wednesday morning with a group called Courage to Change (1119 W. Kent Avenue; 728-5224); and Thursday and Sunday evenings at the Providence Center (902 N. Orange Street; 543-7271). Dr. Q also runs a group Tuesday afternoons at 5:30. All except Dr. Q's and Courage to Change's groups are based on the Gamblers Anonymous 12-step program.

As a practicing agnostic, I don't respond well to 12-stepping. I see its message as Stop Gambling! Find God! Zeig Heil! However, a story in the June issue of Wired magazine by Brendan I. Koerner details how the mother of all 12-steps, AA, "doesn't work for the vast majority of people who try it...and there is evidence that a big part of AA's effectiveness may have nothing to do with the actual steps. It may derive from something more fundamental: The power of groups." I totally agree.

Dr. Q also pointed out that people are most vulnerable to gambling addiction when they're feeling lonely, angry, depressed and under stress. He noted that there are several types of therapy, including those geared toward the emotional, the spiritual, the religious, and even some relatively new drugs, Naltrexone and Nalmafene, that can help one resist the cravings. Most of all, Dr. Q emphasizes common sense.

"You—and all gambling addicts—need to get to a safe place when those cravings hit," he says.

click to enlarge Quinton Hehn, a local therapist specializing in gambling addiction, says Montana needs to invest more in helping addicts by tripling what it taxes on gambling. “The state is addicted to gambling, and is losing,” he says. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Quinton Hehn, a local therapist specializing in gambling addiction, says Montana needs to invest more in helping addicts by tripling what it taxes on gambling. “The state is addicted to gambling, and is losing,” he says.

He also explained that a few professionals in town, like Marty Brown (721-3000), will help you organize and control your finances, to the point of becoming your "payee." In other words, they'll get your paycheck, pay all your bills and give you an allowance. Both Dr. Q and Meaghan Lee from the VA clinic strongly recommend this step as you get treatment.

•••

I found the help I need and, with the exception of one relapse, have totally stopped my gambling. What slapped me down one side of this Fred's head and up the other was that I'd been less-than-honest with some friends, especially (and ironically) a professional fundraiser. The latter had helped me out of another tough spot to the point that I sleep on the sheets she gave me, wear the clothes she provided, and cook with her pots. She gave me the funds to pull myself back up from that bank at the Clark Fork, yet I'd betrayed her trust, the basis for any healthy relationship. It's just her kind nature that saw her rip up the check I sent to repay her. All I can do is hope that Laura reads this and understands and, most importantly, forgives.

I'll admit that I'm lucky. I've picked up enough social skills and positive personality traits that I have more than a few very good friends. Most compulsive gamblers don't. Instead, they surround themselves with themselves while being pulled into gambling's black hole, unable to muster the strength to resist.

If I were appointed Missoula's gambling czar, I'd make many changes. I'd demand that the 24/7 help-line number—again, 1-888-900-9979—be plastered on every video poker and keno game in town. I'd explain how you'd help someone who broke a leg get up and get care, yet openly wonder why you balk at helping gambling addicts. I'd tell you that you already pay for the thefts, the embezzlement that some compulsive gamblers instigate to get their latest fix. I'd extol the virtues of offering a strong hand up via quality treatment, and make sure that every gambler knows how to get it. Maybe the rest of Montana, especially the more backward parts, can be content with being latter-day highwaymen, holding up travelers for their funds then letting them hobble away, but that's not the Missoula that's close to my heart—or yours. I'd set up a Missoula Gambling Council to lead the way toward a healthier city and, by example, show the rest of the state how to solve a problem about which the status quo is in denial.

One more thing. Though the world of gambling can be exciting and fun entertainment, and a good diversion, in the long run the house will win; the odds are in their favor. If you think you're different, that you're the exception, you'd do well to remember the words of Frank Zappa when he said, "In a fight between you and the world, bet on the world."



Are you addicted to gambling?

Many clinics follow a survey similar to this South Oaks Gambling Screen, which is reprinted here with permission.



1. Please indicate which of the following types of gambling you have done in your lifetime. For each type, mark one answer: "Not at All," "Less than Once a Week," or "Once a Week or More."

a. Played cards for money.

b. Bet on horses, dogs, or other animals (at OTB, the track, or with a bookie).

c. Bet on sports (parlay cards, with bookie, at Jai Alai).

d. Played dice games, including craps, over and under or other dice games.

e. Gone to casinos (legal or otherwise).

f. Played the numbers or lotteries.

g. Played bingo.

h. Played the stock and/or commodities market.

i. Played slot machines, poker machines, or other gambling machines.

j. Bowled, shot pool, played golf, or some other game of skill for money.

k. Played pull tabs or "paper" games other than lotteries

l. Some form of gambling not listed above (please specify):



2. What is the largest amount of money you have ever gambled with on any one-day?

Never Gambled

$ 1 or less

More than $1 up to $10

More than $10 up to $100

More than $100 up to $1,000

More than $1,000 up to $10,000

More than $10,000



3. Check which of the following people in your life has (or had) a gambling problem.

Father

Mother

Brother/Sister

My spouse/partner

My child(ren)

Another relative

A friend or someone important in my life



4. When you gamble, how often do you go back another day to win back money you have lost?

Never

Some of the time (less than half the time I lose)

Most of the time

Every time that I lose



5. Have you ever claimed to be winning money gambling, but weren't really? In fact you lost?

Never

Yes, less than half the time I lost

Yes, most of the time



6. Do you feel you have ever had a problem with betting or money gambling?

No

Yes

Yes, in the past, but not now.



7. Did you ever gamble more than you intended to?

Yes or No



click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

8. Have people criticized your betting or told you that you had a problem, regardless of whether or not you thought it was true?

Yes or No



9. Have you ever felt guilty about the way you gamble, or what happens when you gamble?

Yes or No



10. Have you ever felt like you would like to stop betting money on gambling, but did not think that you could?

Yes or No



11. Have you ever hidden betting slips, lottery tickets, gambling money, IOUs, or other signs of betting or gambling from your spouse, children or other important people in your life?

Yes or No



12. Have you ever argued with people you live with over how you handle money?

Yes or No



13. (If you answered "yes" to question 12) Have money arguments ever centered on your gambling?

Yes or No



14. Have you ever borrowed from someone and not paid them back as a result of your gambling?

Yes or No



15. Have you ever lost time from work (or school) due to betting money or gambling?

Yes or No



16. If you borrowed money to gamble or to pay gambling debts, who or where did you borrow from (check "Yes" or "No" on each):

a. From household money

b. From your spouse/partner

c. From relatives or in-laws

d. From banks or loan companies

e. From credit cards

f. From loan sharks

g. You cashed in stocks or bonds

h. You sold personal property

i. You borrowed on your checking accounts (passed bad checks)

j. You have (had) a credit line with a bookie or casino



Scoring: Discount questions 1, 2, 3, 12 and 16J. For the others, count one for each "Yes" answer. With questions 4, 5 and 6, count one for any answer other than "Never," "No" or "Some of the time." Maximum score: 20. From 1 to 4 "Yes" answers: Some problems with gambling. Five or more "Yes" answers: Probable pathological gambler.

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