Mark would play online blackjack on his iPhone anywhere, anytime — sitting near colleagues at work, chowing down in a restaurant, even when behind the wheel driving around Pittsburgh.
He’d often combine it with sports betting, only by using illegal offshore gambling sites in his 20s instead of the local bookie he’d started with in high school.
He’d check the progress of a game while conversing at home with his mother or father, or during the middle of a golf round, or even lying in a hospital bed with a life-threatening illness.
Mark spent more than a decade of his young life indulging his gambling habit by spending every dollar of his income and, when that ran out, stealing from his well-off family.
It all came to a screeching halt last August. After discovering another theft by use of their credit cards, his parents had had enough of enabling their 27-year-old only son and delivered an ultimatum: Get help.
He began treatment sessions with a certified gambling counselor whose client base increasingly consists of young men like Mark. They’ve become hooked on online gambling, usually sports but other forms as well, as was the case with Mark.
He could be the poster child for the 2020 version of problem gambling. In fact, that’s what he wants to be, trying to educate others by sharing his own cautionary tale, as for this article.
If you think you have a problem, you do
“There’s no such thing as winning once you’re a problem gambler,” Mark explains from his own life’s lesson. “There is no giving advice to someone who doesn’t think they have a problem, because they won’t listen.
“But if someone is in the beginning stages of thinking they have a problem, my advice is you’re done, you can’t gamble anymore, you’re wasting money and ruining relationships and your career. Don’t be scared to reach out for help.”
It is typically estimated that 1 to 2% of the U.S. population has a gambling problem they cannot control. Only a small fraction pursue treatment. Some can stop on their own, but odds are against them.
In the 20th century, smoky Gamblers Anonymous meetings were often full of older men who had been habitues of racetracks or card dens and women who couldn’t tear themselves away from bingo halls except to buy a lottery ticket.
Those kinds of pathological gamblers still exist, but many newcomers to the addiction are attached to the rise of internet gambling in the new millennium — first only illegally, and now increasingly under state-approved regulation in states such as Pennsylvania.
Mark (not his real name, but his identity is being withheld to protect his career and privacy and that of his family) could be playing blackjack right now via any one of eight legal iCasino sites in Pennsylvania. Or he could be betting on a game — coronavirus interruptions aside — through one of nine online sportsbooks.
But he doesn’t blame the spread of legalization for his troubles, which long predated society’s growing acceptance. He believes advertising of gambling sites has over-saturated the media, but he understands the benefits of government taxation and regulations.
The pace and convenience of internet gambling though — now that’s an issue for someone like him.
Online gambling is a whole different ballgame
“I definitely would still have had issues [if unable to wager on a smartphone], but I do think the accessibility of online gambling allowed for an increase in the frequency, which made it a lot worse over time. I had an issue before online gambling came into my life, but it definitely helped take me to a new level.”
That’s a common theme heard by Mark’s Pittsburgh therapist, Jody Bechtold, who has been internationally certified in compulsive gambling treatment since 2007.
“The online is just a totally different animal because it’s 24/7,” she notes. “You don’t have to go anywhere, it’s in the privacy of your home, and you can do it on the phone in front of other people who don’t even know what you’re doing.”
Mark’s entry into addiction started as it has for many young men, regardless of the technology available at the time.
He had a passion for sports in high school, as did his closest buddies, and they thought they knew a lot about it. An older student started taking bets from them, commonly for $10 or $20.
That student moved on and Mark’s circle found a real bookie to take their action. They were smart enough to use internet sites and ESPN channels to educate themselves about teams and trends. The size of their wagers increased. That wasn’t so smart.
“A lot of the time we bet way more than we ever had. … We thought we had all the analytics and every obscure statistic that meant something,” he recalled in one of a series of interviews done by phone instead of in person, due to the recent warnings about personal encounters during the COVID-19 health pandemic.
He learned early to shrug off consequences
The bookmaker’s advantage being what it is, due to the 10% vig, the boys were in over their heads by the time they finished high school. Jointly, they owed thousands of dollars. They made partial payment and walked away from the rest of the debt, scattering their separate ways after graduation.
There were no repercussions from the bookie for what they still owed. That was a lesson Mark would embrace later in life as well when amassing debts through gambling. Whether bookmakers or non-U.S. internet operators, he owed money to many he stopped using. Some had also cut him off for his unpaid debt.
“There’s probably never going to be physical violence,” he learned. “These are the last people, the last debts, you should ever consider paying. Pay off everything else, that’s what I’ve been doing. I have paid a lot of money to a lot of bookies over time, and one of the things that keeps people gambling is the unpaid debt and temptation to get that off their back, but eventually, you’ve got to just let these people go by the wayside.”
Mark spent his early 20s back and forth between Pittsburgh and the Southwest, gambling away whatever money he made through most of those years.
The low point was when his father offered to fund a post-college educational program for him that was going to cost more than $20,000. Once the money was in his account, and before the program started, Mark raided it for gambling and lost it all in a month’s time, in December 2014.
“It was blackjack, sports betting, everything. … The initial thought was I would pull out $500 of it to gamble, win something, and put it back in. Obviously, it didn’t work out that way.”
The hardest thing is stopping when ahead
It’s not that he can’t win gambling, Mark says — it’s that he doesn’t know how to stop when he’s ahead. And if he loses his winnings, he starts increasing the size of wagers to make it up. So he’d lose hundreds of dollars on a blackjack hand, thousands of dollars in a session — whether in a casino or online — when he never anticipated risking so much.
“Each time it was really hopeful, like this is all going to be fine, and invariably changes as you lose — the anxiety and the anger at yourself. I’ve seen people really angry at casinos, but I was fairly reserved. Inside, though, I was very anxious.”
His father ended up bankrolling that post-graduate program again under tighter restrictions, and Mark completed it. But his father’s lenience and generosity, he said, was also part of a pattern by his parents of helping him overlook the consequences of his behavior.
“Without trying to place any blame on them, I was always kind of enabled by my family. They continued to pay for things for me” whenever he ran out of his money from the decent-paying jobs he’s had since college.
And he also frequently tapped into their credit cards without their knowledge at the time.
No one factor explains a problem gambler
Bechtold said there’s no one reason why Mark, and others like him, fall so deeply into uncontrollable gambling, damaging their relationships with loved ones and setting themselves up for financial ruin.
Some individuals are more susceptible genetically and have more addictive personalities. It can depend on how someone is raised and whom they surround themselves with as a peer group. Some people use gambling, alcohol, or drugs (Mark has occasionally had problems with both of those as well, which is not uncommon for pathological gamblers) to compensate for other troubles in life.
And increasingly with sports gambling, Bechtold said, “it’s just so socially acceptable” that it’s hard for an individual or those around him to see a dangerous threshold of volume being crossed.
Males in their 20s make up seven of the 15-plus clients she is currently treating for gambling addiction. About half of her clients’ problems are tied to online gambling. Mark’s story of reliance on his parents is not unusual for the ones his age.
He has frequently lived with either his mother or father, who are divorced, so his own living expenses have always been minimal. He acknowledges he has never really learned how to handle money properly.
“His parents failed to launch him into adulthood successfully,” Bechtold explains. “When he got into trouble, he had financial bailouts over and over again from the family, and I see that a lot. Getting the parents to stop supporting him so that he has to feel those full consequences is equally as challenging as is working with him.”
Other GA attendees didn’t look like Mark
Mark’s first attempt to stop gambling came when deeply in debt to bookies while living in the Southwest a few years ago. He met with a therapist, but one with no expertise in gambling treatment. The pause in his habits was short-lived.
Living again in Pittsburgh in 2017, gambling heavily at the Rivers Casino and online, he was persuaded by his parents to seek local help. It was a more knowledgeable therapist this time, one who suggested he also attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
He joined a meeting in a church several times, speaking occasionally about his travails but not really embracing the group.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be and had some merit, but a lot of people were older and had a different type of gambling than I did,” he recalls. “A lot didn’t have any idea what internet gambling was.”
And then an unexpected, serious health problem struck. He was hospitalized for long stretches in 2018. Attempts at gambling treatment stopped. He was back at online blackjack and sports betting, even from his hospital room, as a distraction from physical ailments.
After he was mostly recovered, working again and living with his mother, the gambling continued. He was sneaking money out of her accounts, and she got fed up.
“It pushed everyone over the edge, and it’s obviously something I feel really guilty about” ever since, Mark says. “My mother wanted me to go to an inpatient place, but I wasn’t ready for that.”
They ended up finding Bechtold, one of the most prominent gambling treatment counselors in Pennsylvania, who trains other therapists and often leads workshops on the topic.
It’s about closing the doors to access
This is how Mark’s access to gambling has changed as a result of meetings with Bechtold once or twice weekly since August:
- The money he makes from a job in the real estate field now goes into a bank account controlled by his father. Mark receives $175 a week to use for his general expenses.
- His iPhone has software called Gamban loaded onto it that blocks his access to gambling sites and apps.
- He enrolled himself on Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board self-exclusion lists that bar him from entering a casino or playing a legal online site.
- Instead of trying Gamblers Anonymous again, he is doing an alternative form of peer discussions that take place among problem gamblers online. There are many more people his age in that format than at the GA meetings.
The overall thrust, Bechtold explains, is to limit access to both gambling and money and to encourage clients to find new ways to spend time productively.
“I refer to it as trying to close as many doors as possible so their addiction doesn’t have access,” she says. “They really have to be working a recovery program in all three of these areas — access, money, and time. Otherwise, the odorless, colorless gas [of gambling], you start inhaling it again and it sets you up for a potential relapse.”
Few solve their problem quickly
Mark did relapse, which is not uncommon.
Aside from his usual income, controlled in the one bank account by his father, his job had provided some secondary payments Mark stashed in a separate account.
In February, six months after starting treatment and going longer than any period since high school without gambling, he deposited that money in one of the unregulated offshore accounts and squandered it in a few days.
Yes, the Gamban software on his phone was supposed to prevent that, but anyone has the ability to remove the software. It’s just an obstacle to make them think twice and slow them down. Mark removed the gambling block, for reasons that make him feel sick today.
“Nothing can prevent it if I want to do it,” he says. “I looked at my bank account one day and something in me felt I could make money gambling. It was real hard afterward, because I lost the trust of my family again, after they thought I was done and it was over. Just like that, you throw away all the progress.”
Relapses occur frequently among those seeking recovery in the addiction field, whether gambling or anything else. Bechtold said there’s no set percentage for it, but in Mark’s case this time, he benefited from only relapsing for a few days and then acknowledging it.
Mark says he has not gambled since. He says he knows he can’t use an excuse like “everyone relapses” to justify his behavior. He has to be mindful of the possibility, he says, and focus each new day on avoiding it because he’s doubtful of ever being able to place a small wager without falling in deeper.
While he may not ever be able to gamble responsibly, he figures with the current treatment he will eventually be able to take control of his own finances. He is learning to navigate relationships better and has a girlfriend now, which would have been difficult for him in the throes of his addiction.
“I’m trying not to be confident or cocky” about being cured, he says. “What I recognize is day by day you have to really work at this thing, especially the further away you get from it. It’s important to do things like go to GA meetings or speak about it, like I’m doing now, to remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
Resources to get help
Resources for those who may be gambling too much:
- The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has a broad new website, responsibleplay.pa.gov, to help identify the extent of a problem and explain options for help, including state-subsidized treatment for those without insurance or funds.
- Individuals can sign up for state self-exclusion lists intended to deny them access to casinos or legal online gambling sites.
- 1-800-GAMBLER is a 24/7 help line in use in Pennsylvania and nationally to call for guidance on problems and treatment.
- Gamblers Anonymous provides regular meetings around the state and nation for peer support.