I am a compulsive gambler. At least that’s the opinion of the good folks at Gamblers Anonymous. The good news is — I’m thankful to finally have my “problem” diagnosed after so many years. I never even knew I had a problem. The bad news is — the American Psychiatric Association categorizes me as having a mental disorder. Presumably, I’m now lumped in with the crazies. And, I’m not alone. In fact, I’ll bet 90 percent of you reading this column are about to find yourselves burdened with the same ugly albatross. Oops, there I go….gambling again.
Compulsive gambling brings all kinds of unsavory images to mind. We are linked to delinquency. We are morally and ethically objectionable. Indeed, there seems to be precious little sympathy reserved for compulsive gamblers. By some accounts, it’s been estimated that among adults that gamble, about three percent have a gambling problem (a 1998 study conducted by Harvard Medical School estimated the number of true “compulsives” was 2.8 percent). Far greater percentages of adults have drug and alcohol problems, eating-related disorders, and other psychological problems. Even if three percent of all gamblers have serious problems, that means 97 percent of all gamblers do so responsibly. Show me a bar, a restaurant, or a shopping mall that can make that claim of its constituency using its products.
But, for some people — gambling is indeed a problem. A big problem. In response to the dangers posed by excessive gambling, a new organization was founded in Los Angeles, in 1957. Gamblers Anonymous (GA) was formed as a means for people with gambling-related problems to help themselves. GA’s methodology was patterned after the approach used with great success by Alcoholics Anonymous. Their cardinal routine is a 12-step program designed to support those who believe gambling adversely affects their lives. Identifying the compulsive gambler is but the first step. The second step is to assist the gambler in maintaining abstinence. In the last forty years, GA has helped thousands of people around the world, and has even saved many lives. My comments which follow are not intended to malign the fine work of this organization.
However, it appears GA may be undermining its own good intentions. Look at the way the organization introduces itself to the public in its literature. GA’s most persuasive manifesto is a brief test (presumably) designed to identify “compulsive gamblers.” The 20-question test is baffling in its composition, and by consequence — utterly worthless in its application. One day while doing research, I came across the list of questions; so I decided to take the test. What I learned was quite disturbing — not so much for what I learned about myself — but about how misleading these results might be in misrepresenting those who take calculated risks as a matter of routine in our daily lives.
If published nationwide, the results of this test would be staggering. I predict that if this test were administered on a large scale — millions of “normal” people would fail, including many people you wouldn’t normally think of as having gambling problems. The test suggests that if you answer yes to several of the questions, you might be a compulsive gambler. Brace yourselves for what I am about to say next. Almost without exception, every serious poker player will fail this test. We’re not alone. Most horse racing handicappers will fail this test. Most people who wager on sporting events will fail this test. Many professional golfers will fail this test. Many people who work on Wall Street will fail this test. Many entrepreneurs, and particularly those who are driven to succeed in their own businesses, will fail this test. If you think I’m exaggerating — take GA’s test for yourself. My comments will follow each question, with my response which is designed to show how misleading the results can be:
Did you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling?
Poker players with steady jobs may take time off from work occasionally, to attend a major poker tournament. Once a year, many players take a week off to attend the World Series of Poker. Thousands more regularly take three-day weekends to go to either Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Missing a work or school day to gamble hardly seems to be a cause for alarm. But according to the test, this puts you on the fast-track to becoming a compulsive gambler. My answer: YES
Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy?
Many players I’ve met revealed times in their personal lives when they experienced conflict with spouses or other family members. It’s a challenge to explain to those outside the world of gambling the pleasure and potential profitability of the activity. In my own life, I have always communicated openly with my family about my gambling endeavors. Accordingly, there was a period of adjustment in our lives before we reached a happy medium. Years later, one interesting caveat has been that gambling has actually made our home life happier — with additional income, the opportunity to travel to new places, and meeting many new friends. Unfortunately, these related benefits do not show up in the test. My answer: YES
Does gambling affect your reputation?
I certainly hope so! I am proud of the skills I have worked hard to attain. I’m proud to be affiliated with the poker industry. I’m proud to be known as one of sports gambling’s most widely-read handicappers (I have two columns on sports handicapping in major magazines, plus a website). I relish the idea of being thought of as a professional gambler. I certainly hope that my reputation has been affected by gambling. Of course, this is all perceived by GA as a big negative. My answer: YES
Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?
Absolutely! Who hasn’t? Since losing streaks are an inevitable part of poker playing and all gambling activities, feelings of remorse are quite natural. We all make mistakes — and feel remorse afterward. Then, we try to learn from these mistakes and move on. Being remorseful actually shows signs of maturity. If a gambler doesn’t feel remorse at some point, that’s a red flag. My answer: YES
Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?
Every single professional poker player will answer yes to this question. Every single one of them. That fact alone demonstrates the idiocy of this question. Over half of my income comes from gambling, so I obviously gamble “to pay debts.” My answer: YES
Does gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?
This question seems vague. I have never felt a loss of ambition due to gambling. However, after playing a marathon poker session, I may have lost some mental and physical efficiency, at least temporarily. So, how do I answer? And, what does this question have to do with compulsive gambling. My answer: YES
After losing, did you feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses?
I don’t think this is a serious issue with many poker players. Most don’t have a temptation to return to the table after a disastrous session. However, many players do experience a “tilt” factor — which is the general feeling that losses must be recouped immediately, resulting in more hands being played (and even greater losses). Again, we have a ambiguous question which is difficult to answer — even by the most knowledgeable among us. My answer: NO
After a win, did you have a strong urge to return and win more?
Absolutely! For example, I experienced a phenomenal run of good fortune at a recent poker tournament and won a large percentage of single-table satellites. The next morning — I didn’t walk — I RAN to the satellite area to sign-up for the first table. Place yourself in a similar scenario: You make $2,000 in a $20-40 game. You return the next day and see the same line-up again. Are you eager to play again? Sure, you are! Once again, close to 100 percent of the poker population will answer yes to this question. My answer: YES
Did you often gamble until your last dollar was gone?
I suppose the key word here is “often.” If you are lose often and are habitually broke, there is indeed a problem. Have I ever gambled until I was broke? Yes. Nevertheless, that doesn’t constitute being constantly broke. My answer: NO
Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling?
Have I ever borrowed money to gamble with before? Yes, I have. So have many top professional players. Johnny Moss walked into a bank one time and asked for a $10,000 loan. Was it a pattern for Moss? No. Is it a pattern for me? No. The key word here is “ever,” which is extremely disingenuous to most serious gamblers. There’s a big difference between borrowing money when you are occasionally short of cash — versus being a constant fixture on the rail trying to squeeze out a loan from your colleagues. But this question make no absolutely no distinction whatsoever. Yet another very poorly thought-out question by GA. My answer: YES
Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?
Have “ever” done such a thing. Yes, I have. During the 1984 NFL season I had to sell some personal items to pay-off a gambling debt. Oddly enough, if instead I would have stiffed my bookmaker and refused to pay my debts — I could proudly answer “no” to this question. My humble learning experience and honesty somehow places me in the same pool with someone who pawns his wedding ring and cashes his childrens’ college savings bond to gamble. So much for my responsible behavior. My answer: YES
Were you reluctant to use “gambling money” for normal expenditures?
Here, we have yet another ludicrous question. A bona fide poker player must save money to build a bankroll for the explicit purpose of playing poker. A poker bankroll is never to be used for “normal” expenses just a a plumber would not pawn off his tools. Money is a tool in gambling. It is a tool in any investment. Yet, because a player exercises sound money management principles, he or she is labeled as compulsive. Let me get this straight: Someone who blows a $30,000 gambling bankroll on a new car, is “normal” — while a poker player who shows discipline and doesn’t blow his bankroll is abnormal for sticking with his goal? My answer: YES
Did gambling make you care less of the welfare of your family?
I cannot say that I have ever “cared less” for my family. Most poker players will agree that family comes first. Poker and everything else comes second. My answer: NO
Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned?
Sure. This has happened to me dozens of times. You know the scenario: You enter a cardroom and plan on playing a few hours. You find yourself in a great game and you overstay your visit because you are having a very profitable night. Again, we have a question that will hit close to 100 percent of the poker playing population. My answer: YES
Have you ever gambled to escape worry or trouble?
I suppose my answer to this question, too is — yes. Although it’s uncommon, I’ve found myself absorbed in personal thoughts and taken a seat in the sportsbook, placed a wager, and watched a game for a few hours to escape from daily worries. Again, the question asks “ever,” which paints a very distorted picture . My answer: YES
Have you ever committed, or considered committing an illegal act to finance gambling?
I suppose that a small number of cardplayers get their money through illegal means. But most gamblers I’ve met are hardworking people with regular jobs. Most would never consider an illegal act — for any reason whatsoever — let alone gambling. My answer: NO
Did gambling cause you to have difficulty in sleeping?
An extremely ambiguous and annoying question. Who hasn’t had difficulty sleeping at one time or another? Anyone? Who is to say that gambling has anything to do with sleeping disorders? Sure, I’ve laid awake at night contemplating how to play A-Q off-suit in the later stages of a no-limit hold’em tournament, or I’ve thought about the Packers covering the pointspread. Does that qualify? Does that make me compulsive? My answer: YES
Do arguments, disappointments or frustration create within you an urge to gamble?
Yet another extremely open-ended question which reveals nothing meaningful. I have no idea how to answer this one. My answer: REFUSED
Did you ever have an urge to celebrate any good fortune by a few hours of gambling?
Yet another dumb question where probably 100 percent of the poker population will answer in the affirmative. When we are happy or have been blessed with good fortune, we are often at our physical and mental best. This is often the best state to be in when playing poker. My answer: YES
Have you ever considered self-destruction as a result of your gambling?
This is probably the only valid question on the entire test. If someone/anyone has considered suicide or some other means of harm to themselves or others because of gambling — answering YES to this question alone qualifies as needing treatment. In my opinion, you could answer yes to 19 of the 20 other questions — and if you say no to this one, that is not as alarming as answering no to 19 questions and yes only to this one. Think about it. I’m right. My answer: NO
Now, score your results. How many questions did you answer “yes?” I answered yes to 12 questions. Now, hold on to your seats.
According to GA, if you answered yes to more than seven questions — you have a problem. “Most compulsive gamblers will answer yes to at least seven of these questions,” so says GA.
This implication leads to another, far more disturbing discovery. Now, I’m classified as a “victim.” According to the American Psychiatric Association, I’m no longer responsible for my own actions. My behavior is caused by a chemical imbalance or a neurological disorder. Never mind that nothing has ever been found in any medical study to substantiate the claim that gambling addiction is an altered state of brain chemistry, the popular trend to classify ourselves as “victims” continues. If I lose all my money gambling, I’m not responsible because I have an illness. If I spend too much money on clothes, I’m a compulsive shopper. If I drive drunk and kill a carload of passengers, it’s not my fault — I have a compulsive-drinking disorder. It’s not my fault. Jump on the merry-go-round. There are plenty of seats.
Victimization means the charlatans profit. The medical establishment makes money because a whole queue of quacks get reimbursed by health coverage for listening to the bad beat stories of gamblers. Imagine being paid $250 an hour to listen to how someone’s pocket rockets lost to 5-2 off-suit. The “victims” profit because they are absolved from taking personal responsibility for their actions. It wasn’t their fault they lost money. The casino lured them to gamble. And of course, as is always the case in the United States of Litigation — the lawyers always win. That’s the con.
The lawsuits have already started. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed by supposed “compulsive gamblers” who claim they couldn’t control themselves and were taken advantage of by casinos. A few years ago, the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles sued an Atlantic City casino for giving him free drinks and extending a generous line of credit at the gaming tables. Last year, a Louisiana man sued several casinos for extending complementaries. Most recently, the announcer at the Meadowlands racetrack sued his employer for “failing to accommodate his disability (gambling addiction).” He suffered a relapse and thinks it’s the racetrack’s fault. It’s the same wacko mentality that blames tobacco companies for smoking-related deaths and gun manufacturers for violent crime. The country has turned into a madhouse run by fast-talking lawyers and lazy litigants trying to turn a fast buck by manipulating the system and screwing the truth.
I suppose what is most annoying is the silent presumption that gambling is an infirmity, and that a non-gambling life is preferable to a life with risks. GA’s test implies that gamblers are unhappier and less well-adjusted than non-gamblers. Yet every study I have seen suggests the opposite is true. It may be a common ambition to want to live in “Pleasantville” — where everything is perfect….white picket fences, families with 2.2 kids, a station wagon in the driveway, and a dog and a cat. But some people want more out of life. We thrive on challenges. We want to climb mountains and test our physical and mental dexterity. If that desire makes me a “compulsive gambler” — then I’m proud to be one. I know one thing for sure — I’ve got plenty of good company.