Gambling and Gambling Addiction (part one)

For those on the path toward any addiction there are thrilling moments of anticipation that are a minor high in and of themselves. It’s hard to miss the excitement of a guy who’s on his way to buy an 8 ball of cocaine. The obvious eagerness in an opiate abuser grinding up a pill looks like it should result in carpal tunnel. The budding alcoholic longs for the first drink of the day and the endorphin rush that comes just before the first swallow. The brain knows that good stuff is on the way and it rewards us with a neuro chemical cocktail.

For the gambling addict – anticipation is the addiction.

There are moments of breathless expectation in every real game of chance and that’s what the addict loves. There’s hope, fear, and adrenaline in those moments. In one of the few great movies about gambling, Two For The Money, Al Pacino’s character explains that there is a time when the dice are still rolling, the wheel is still spinning, or the final card is yet to come, and that’s what we live for. It’s all or nothing. You either win or you lose. If you win it’s a conquest and if you lose it’s a punch in the gut.

Everybody loves a winner. Sure…our egos love winning…but we often don’t cash out when we should and we wear our losses like a bizarre badge of honor. We’re proud of our tolerance for losing just like some folks are proud that they can drink you under the table. We get angry about what we see as bad beats (losing when the odds were in your favor). In truth, that anger is usually a cover for disappointment.
Just gambling a lot doesn’t make you an addict. The key to determining an addiction is – does it cause any problems in your life? Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, sex, food, or gambling, here’s the problematic scenario: You have to be honest with yourself about whether or not it’s a problem and the closer you move toward addiction, the less honest you are with yourself.

Those who gamble a lot are either successful, responsible, on their way to addiction, or addicts. I like playing Texas Hold ‘Em. I play sometimes with guys who seem to never leave the casino. These people most often have a large stack of chips in front of them. They’re successful because they’ve studied the game. They know the odds in any given situation and they adhere to them. More importantly, successful gamblers study people. They know when you’re second guessing your hand, when you’re intimidated, and they can interpret your betting as a bluff or too clear a sign of confidence. Most of all they know when you’re a donkey (person who loses more and more because they can’t bring themselves to stop).

The thing about Donkeys is that Donkeys get fleeced. It’s fascinating and horrible to watch. It’s written all over their face as they run to the ATM. The key is to never be one. It’s common sense that you should decide how much you’re willing to lose before entering any gambling establishment. Unfortunately, the emotional experience of winning and losing threatens the resolve of even the best of us.

Gambling is about self discipline, which requires accountability to self. Most people enjoy some form of risk. We love lottery & scratch off tickets, football pools at work and Beano/Bingo because it’s low cost with potentially high payoffs. We like betting a few bucks on local horse racing and poker night at home with friends.

Maybe you prefer slot machines, roulette, or craps – these games are only “luck” and how much you lose depends entirely on when you stop and your good fortune. Everyone knows casinos make money. When I play cards I only play against other players. People can be beaten and casinos can’t.

Gambling addictions are very similar to every other type of addiction: no one develops them on purpose. Addiction requires self deception. Enjoy your games and be true to yourself.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.