Why I Quit Gambling

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I’ve bet on the Kentucky Derby every year since I was 18 years old (the legal age for betting on horse races). Usually, by this time of year, I’m ankle-deep in research and racing forms. I’m looking for value, I’m looking for edges. I’m reading as many articles as I can about every horse, just to see if something is mentioned that makes me reconsider a bet. I once hit a 24/1 shot at the Belmont Stakes because an article mentioned the horse’s high red blood count. That horse was Ruler on Ice. This year, I don’t even know the names of the horses running. Today is the Kentucky Derby. I’ll be doing anything but visiting the OTB or tvg.com. This will disappoint some friends as much as it disappoints me. We won’t be sharing the camaraderie of the gamble -- wherein we tease that each other’s horse is a donkey; or upon losing a bet that our horse, no matter their prior record, is a “real piece a shit;” nor will we accuse each other of desperately “whistling in a canyon” just before the race bell; and we definitely won’t, as was the rare case with Ruler on Ice, be sharing in victory. I won’t even be hosting a Derby Party.

I feel embarrassed to say I have a gambling problem because I have friends that struggle with addiction -- alcohol, heroin, etc. To put something as seemingly trivial as gambling in the same boat as chemical dependency feels wrong, like I’m cheapening their struggles. Do I really have the balls to say, “You might be shooting junk into your body, but I’ll stand at a roulette table until I’m completely broke.” Even the DSM-IV, released in 1994, classified gambling problems under “impulse control disorders not elsewhere classified” alongside things like compulsive hair-pulling, kleptomania, and pyromania. It wasn’t until the DSM-V, released in 2013, that gambling problems were categorized within Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders.

Of course, it’s not really up to me to tell you how a gambling problem is, or should be, classified. I can only tell you what it feels like on my end.

I can tell you that while writing the first paragraph of this essay I kept thinking, “What’s the harm, really, if I just take a peek at the names of the horses?” I can tell you winning a bet doesn’t feel as good as simply playing. In fact, winning can often feel disappointing. Yes, there is the initial thrill of hitting a big bet -- but, the crash comes quick to the tune of a little nagging voice saying, “I should have bet more.” I can tell you it feels like you can learn from this voice, that betting more the next time is the solution. I can tell you betting more is never enough. I can tell you that I could make the biggest bet of my life, with all cash on hand, hit big, and still think, “Why didn’t I sell my car first?” I can tell you my options were always one of two: leaving a gambling establishment with no money, or near nothing; or winning and returning the next day to blow it all. I can tell you that while losing is frustrating and depressing, in many ways it’s better -- because it produces a logical reason to keep playing: to get even. And I can tell you what it felt like the first, and only time, I went to Las Vegas.

It was last July 2016. I was there because my dad and stepmom were renewing their vows at a famous Elvis Chapel (which is really fun, by the way). The lore of Vegas exists in the minds of all gamblers. It’s our Xanadu, our Emerald City. With glitz and plastic charm the city exists without time nor logic, only the elusive Bacchanalia that come from the promise of winning big. In Vegas the electricity I always felt in my knees when entering a casino or OTB was amplified. There it swelled to frenzy. Every snap of a card, every shuffled stack of checks, every slot bell was a siren song. One night, watching Jersey Boys on stage, as I sat in the audience with my family, I felt the weight of the chips in my pocket. I checked often to be sure they hadn’t fallen out, that a hole hadn’t developed as I sat there. With a hand on my thigh I felt the ridges of the chips through my pant leg. I counted them in my head. Fidgeting with them. The One Ring, calling. While I enjoyed the show, my attention was split between the performance and forming a strategy on how to get to the roulette table closest to the venue doors. I thought, the show will end and I'll make a beeline to the table and make two quick bets on RED32 -- one of only two numbers I played ever since they hit it a decade before. No one will mind, I thought. I’ll be quick.

That’s exactly what I did. And the worst thing happened: RED32 hit twice in a row. The adrenaline surged. I hit peak excitement. I wanted to keep playing. I forgot I was there with family and my future wife. It was just me for a moment, and when my family objected to me playing more, I snapped: “For fuck’s sake, I haven’t told anyone what to do, or what not to do, so why can’t I just do what I feel like for once?!” I was impervious to reason. The crash was coming. The frenzy. My family went off to the SkyVue Wheel (the height of which legitimately terrifies me, which was a convenient excuse not to join them), and I found a blackjack table. I sat next to couple from New Zealand who told me they love Americans, that we’re all so nice. They smoked cigarettes as we chatted, my chip stack ever-shrinking. By the time I got a text message that my family was off the SkyVue, I was sitting on a garden wall waiting. I’d lost everything won at the roulette table.

Over the course of three days, I spent every spare moment, between family activities, gambling. When it was time to move on to a new activity my mind whispered, "Just one more bet." When I lost that bet, it meant the next one was a sure thing; when I won, it was a sign to continue. When I was up, I increased my bets. When I was down I bet even bigger. When I was tapped, I hit the ATM. The closest I came to clarity was as I sat on a stool at the $15-per-hand swim-up blackjack table at Caesar’s. There I asked myself, "How much can you possibly win? What kind of a streak would you have to go on to break even?" The path to that end was improbable -- impossible. But, as I sat there thinking this -- knowing that I could never win back what I lost -- my hands continued to push the chips forward.

By the end of the trip, I'd gambled every penny I had. The second leg of our trip was in California. My parents were meeting my girlfriend’s parents for the first time and I was broke. My dad, knowing me well, saw something was wrong and I told him I’d lost all my money in Las Vegas. He bailed me out. What’s worse, our parents were meeting for the first time because they knew, two months later, Julie would propose to me and surprise me with a wedding. And there I was, a selfish heel, under the influence of some ridiculous compulsion.

At Thanksgiving a few months later I played poker with my closest friends -- my family. Some people will tell you that poker “isn’t gambling. It’s a skill game.” It’s both. To say it isn’t gambling is misleading because no matter how good you are at playing odds or reading opponents, you’re still making wagers. You’re still reaching into your own pocket with the risk of losing what you take out. That night I had moments of playing well, but not many. I dipped into my pocket repeatedly, long into the wee hours, until nothing was left. It wasn’t a lot of money, but I remember the feeling. Me against the chips. My opponents could have been ghosts. All I knew was I had to keep playing. I needed the chips back.

A few times in this article I’ve mentioned that what I lost “wasn’t a lot of money.” This is because I didn’t have much to begin with. What scares me is this: if losing a few thousand doesn’t bother me, why would more? It wouldn’t. Being married, knowing what we share, who knows how quickly I may delve into that pot? As much as I know I wouldn’t consciously betray or steal from someone I love, I also know how deep desperation can run in moments when the urge requires me to act outside responsibility. It’s better not to put myself in that position.My goal is to never gamble again.

In the months since being in Las Vegas, I’ve developed a strong interest in tabletop gaming and designing. I haven’t looked to see if there is any documented connection between gambling addiction and tabletop gaming, but it’s clear enough: the new interest satisfies the prior. I enjoy playing games and the only thing I lose is the cost of the game itself. You could count time as a resource lost, but one of the nicest things about tabletop gaming is it's social. It brings people, sometimes strangers or very new friends, together to share an experience. In that sense, it echoes my love of cinema, making time a pleasantly spent coin. Playing and designing games has satisfied my creative needs, and helped redirect the urge to wager into something far less damaging.

Today is the real test. I just Googled “Kentucky Derby Post Time,” because I want to know for the sake of this article what time the race goes off. As the site loaded, and last year’s race video played automatically, I felt a tingle. I felt my posture change. I felt the swell of anxiety and the whisper of, “What’s one bet?” I got the information I wanted and closed the browser tab. Today’s race goes off at 6:34 ET.

I’m an advocate of change, and understand its mechanics. While we all fall into habits and patterns, change can occur in moments when we have the option to choose X over our standard course of action. In doing so, we change a pattern and make the conscious choice to start down a new path.The trick is catching ourselves when the adrenaline runs high. To breathe and use our mind. Today, when the starting bell goes off for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby, and I find myself without a ticket in my pocket for the first time in twenty years, it’ll not only be a small victory, but a relief.

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