Confessions of a gambling addict 

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"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."



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