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September 23, 2014

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March means madness for problem gamblers, experts say

Problem gambling in the United States

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling:

6 to 9 million Americans — roughly 2 to 3 percent of the population — have had a gambling problem.

Typical addicts have a gambling debt twice their yearly income.

By the time problem gamblers seek help, 75 percent have committed a white-collar crime such as embezzlement, check kiting or other types of fraud to finance their habit.

Almost half of all problem gamblers who seek treatment either have attempted or seriously contemplated suicide.

More than 313,000 people called the National Council on Problem Gambling’s hot line number last year, the highest yearly number on record.

About 50 million people worldwide gamble at least once a month on the Internet.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Frank should be retired by now, enjoying the fruits of his labor on an island somewhere while sipping an umbrella drink. After all, the Kansas City man saved a tidy sum for his golden years in his IRA and 401(k).

Until he gambled it away.

All of it. Half a million dollars.

Now 75, Frank can’t afford to retire.

Worse, six years into his recovery as a compulsive gambler, and after declaring bankruptcy, he still feels the seductive tug — the urge, he calls it — of high-stakes wagering.

Especially in March.

“I’ve always said March is the hardest to get through because of the tournament,” said Frank, a member of a local Gamblers Anonymous group who, as such, prefers to go by only his first name.

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C., sees the struggle every year at the peak of college basketball season. That’s a big reason March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month.

“For a recovering sports gambler, March Madness provides madness in a very real sense of the word,” Whyte said. “The incessant talk of brackets and relentless media coverage can be an irresistible trigger. For the problem gambler, the psychology is they are only one bet away from winning everything back.”

This year, bettors will drop an estimated $120 million on March Madness games in Las Vegas alone, topping the record $98.5 million wagered this year on the Super Bowl, said Jimmy Vaccaro, oddsmaker and spokesman for William Hill U.S., which controls more than 100 sports books in Nevada. But for many problem gamblers, betting is not primarily about the money.

“March Madness’ biggest attraction is the multiplicity of chances you have to compete against so many different people,” Frank said. “That feeling of being in the action is one of the things that really gets the adrenaline flowing.”

Frank’s gambling started nearly 50 years ago with college football pools at work. In 1990, he made his first big score — $10,000 — by playing stock market options.

He was hooked. He got into sports betting, casino betting and lottery tickets — anything that would bring the rush he craved.

March Madness gave it to him. Now he knows better.

“I can’t gamble on anything,” he said. “A lot of people this time of year will say, ‘Well, brackets are not really gambling.’ But when you put money down, even in an office bracket pool, it’s gambling, and that can suck you right back in.”

But, in a way, Frank is one of the lucky ones. He is still healthy enough to work. Although his addiction stressed his marriage, it did not end it. And through Gamblers Anonymous, he got the support to help him control his addiction.

Still, it’s not easy.

Rich, a Kansas Citian who has been a member of Gamblers Anonymous for 15 years and often answers the local hot line, said this time of year is hell for many gamblers.

“I hear them talking about not sleeping and not eating,” he said. “It’s a constant struggle. They talk about the endless possibilities to place their bets and the hundreds of games being played. And (these days) you can bet any amount of money on the Internet.”

The Internet has immeasurably worsened problem gambling, Whyte said. It brings round-the-clock access to any kind of gambling to anyone, anywhere at any time — directly into the home.

“It’s literally just a mouse click away,” he said.

Internet gambling is illegal in most states. There’s also a federal law that makes paying for it, with a credit card or a debit card, illegal. But dozens of offshore sites have found ways around the restrictions, allowing bettors to purchase “phone cards” or other bogus products that can be turned into untraceable electronic cash.

“How is your bank supposed to know what you’re really buying?” Whyte said.

The result: Internet gambling laws are practically unenforceable.

Again, the temptation is greatest during March.

“Years back we had a member who would quit going to meetings at the end of February, then come back at the end of April,” said Rich, who also asked to use only his first name. “He did that for four or five years. Leading up to March Madness he would say how he didn’t want to do it, he didn’t want to do it, but then he would eventually succumb to the obsession. It was that strong a pull.”

Now Frank and Rich are hoping to help problem gamblers having a hard time resisting the madness of March.

“I remember a person who came into a meeting so hungry to find help because they had lost all their paychecks (to gambling),” Frank said. “They had even gone to an emergency room. The person at the emergency room really didn’t know what to do.

“I think there are a lot of people out there like I was. They don’t like to talk about it. But they need to know that there is help.”

Two national sources for getting help are: Gamblers Anonymous: 888-424-3577 or here and the National Council on Problem Gambling: 800-522-4700 or here.

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