The Numbers on Problem Gambling

Experts say that from 1 to 3 percent of all adult Americans have gambling problems. And they say the numbers are increasing as more and more cities and states turn to legalized gaming, like lotteries and casinos, to fill yawning budget gaps.

People who describe themselves as problem gamblers say they find it hard to resist the allure of the action, of risking a bet and breathlessly hoping against the odds to win and then bet again and again. They often talk about losing homes, dashing careers and even becoming suicidal while chasing the gambler's high.

"I loved the casinos and I loved to play the poker machines." Said Sue B., who described herself as a recovering compulsive gambler. In two years, she said, she went from someone who enjoyed an occasional trip to nearby Atlantic City to being obsessed with its casinos' glittery promise of cash and excitement.

Fortunately, Sue B. said, she pays what she can afford for her treatment and her insurance company pays the rest.

For Joe S., the son of an illegal bookmaker who died of a heart attack at 47, he said he had no doubt that gambling from him has been a disease. As proof, he turned to his tortured memories of late 1988.

That was the time he began his final plunge into what he now calls the "desperate stage" of his thirty years of gambling. Convinced that he was dying despite his successful heart bypass operation Mr. S. went on the worst gambling binge of his life.

In fifteen months, more than a million dollars passed through his stubby, working-class hands and into the clutches of illegal bookmakers, through the parimutuel windows of off-track betting parlors and horse racing tracks and into the bottomless coffers of Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos. All the while, Mr. S. said he could not manage his family's most basic expenses, such as regularly paying his household's electricity and telephone bills.

In many cases, the impulse to wager becomes overwhelming and uncontrollable. And, he said, he would do almost anything, including embezzling from the payroll of the company in which he worked, to get the money to make the next bet on a horse, a football game, a pair of dice, almost anything.

"But I was a big loser," he recalled. In less than two years, Mr. S. was arrested, convicted and sentenced to a New Jersey Prison for theft by deception. After serving nine months of his sentence, he was released under a special program that requires him to remain under care for his pathological gambling, he said.

Eileen A. Epstein is part of that care.

"One of the dynamics that all the compulsive gamblers I work with have in common is that there is very early deprivation for these people," said Dr. Epstein, a gambling counselor at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey. "There are emotional losses, these voids that go way, way back for them, never really feeling they are as special as they like to show people that they are."

"They want to be big shots," she said.