After this year’s NCAA basketball tournament teams are selected and announced on national television Sunday evening, millions of Americans will participate in a sports tradition unlike any other. They’ll fill out brackets online and on paper. They’ll be fully engaged in March Madness as they attempt to predict which teams will advance to the Final Four and win it all.
By Monday morning, everybody will be jumping into the pool—the office pool.
And while this will be a fun, harmless endeavor for the vast majority, for some this will be either an introduction to or a continuation of a life-altering gambling addiction.
“We’ll see a spike in calls to our 888-LAST-BET help hotline, and we’ll see a spike in the number of e-mails from people whose gambling has taken complete control of their lives or the lives of loved ones,’’ says Arnie Wexler via phone from Florida, where he and his wife, Sheila, run a national program that has helped thousands of compulsive gamblers through the decades. “This is the part of March Madness that nobody wants to talk about.’’
If there’s anyone who can speak to the devastation and despair wrought by compulsive gambling it is Arnie Wexler. His brutally honest book, “All Bets Are Off,” provides an unvarnished look at the disease’s viselike grip and how he lost all his money and nearly lost his family and his life.
“When an alcoholic takes that first drink, they have a different feeling than normal people,’’ says Wexler. “Same thing with a gambler when he places that first bet. Most people, when they win, they can put the money in their pocket and walk happily away. With a gambler, they have to feel that high again, so they don’t walk away. See, it’s not about the money; it’s about the high. When you win, it’s orgasmic, and you keep coming back for more, even if you have to beg, borrow or steal to get the money to feed your habit.”
Wexler first experienced that high while shooting marbles and flipping baseball cards with his neighborhood friends in Brooklyn in the early 1950s.
“Initially, I just thought I was hyper-competitive,’’ he says. “I loved that feeling of walking home with all my friends’ marbles or baseball cards.”
But it wasn’t until he made his first trip to a horse race track that he became fully invested. He was 14 years old and won $54.
“I was making 50 cents an hour sweeping floors and delivering packages in the garment district of New York, and when I won that money at the track I felt like a rich man,’’ he says. “I said to myself, ‘Wow! I could become a millionaire from gambling.’ That was the turning point. I was hooked.’’
Gambling soon took precedence over everything. He tells the story how his wife endured 37 hours of labor before delivering their first child and how he left the hospital three times to bet at local tracks. When the doctor informed him his wife had given birth, Wexler didn’t ask how she and the baby were doing, but rather how much his new daughter weighed.
“He says, ‘7 pounds, 1 ounce,’ so I immediately go to the pay phone and call my bookie to bet seven and one in the daily double at Roosevelt Raceway,’’ Wexler recalls. “And I won. So, now I’m saying to myself, ‘Wow! This a sign from God that my life is going to turn around and I’m going to be able to make a living gambling.’ That’s how sick I was.’’
And he would only grow sicker as his gambling debts mounted. Along the way, he would be forced to sell the family car and his retirement stocks, and he would steal and sell merchandise from the dress factory where he was the plant manager. Wexler bet on everything and anything. And he kept losing much more than he won. Suicide rates among compulsive gamblers are six times higher than they are for other addictions. Wexler came close to being one more victim.
“There were times after a bad night at the track when I was really tempted to drive my car full-speed into a telephone pole,’’ he says. “It’s a good thing I didn’t own a gun.”
On April 10, 1968, Wexler bet on two baseball games. He won the first and was on the verge of winning the second until the home team scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth. Wexler has a framed copy of that box score near his home computer. It serves as a reminder of the last time he placed a bet.
“That’s when the bubble finally burst,’’ he says. He was $16,000 in debt and at his boss’s urging had finally enrolled in a 12-step treatment program.
Quitting wasn’t easy. For several years, he fought powerful urges. He would wake up bathed in sweat after dreaming that he had just been at the track, betting again. Five months after his final wager, he spoke to a group of people who were in prison because of their gambling.
“I saw husbands and wives and kids kissing through a metal mesh fence,’’ he says. “I think that’s when it really hit home. That could have been me.”
Wexler and his wife have devoted their lives to helping others cope with the addiction that nearly ruined them. “Sadly, people still refuse to believe it’s a disease,’’ he says. “Unlike drugs and alcohol addiction, this one’s more hidden. I just heard from a woman whose husband went to jail for embezzling $600,000 to pay off gambling debts. They had been married for three decades. I asked her when she realized her husband had a problem. She said, “When he was arrested.” That’s how invisible it can be.”
And unlike other addictions, gambling is encouraged, often celebrated in our society. Just think about all the state-run lotteries, the easy accessibility to casinos and the constant references to point-spreads during sporting events. According to WalletHub, $8.9 billion was wagered illegally on March Madness last year. That number is expected to rise this year. As will the number of compulsive gamblers.
“From our end, it often feels like a losing battle, like we’re trying to hold back a tidal wave,’’ Wexler says. “You just try to help as many as you can.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.