Playing catch-up Once behind, gambler finds self on fast track to desperation

January 22, 1991|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Evening Sun Staff

Wearing a blue sweat suit, "Jim" walked into a room at the National Center for Pathological Gambling on Washington Boulevard. He looked forlorn.

Jim (not his real name) is 35, married with two kids, and until a few weeks ago was an assistant manager of a Baltimore finance company. That was when he informed the company he was being treated for compulsive gambling. Two days later, he was dismissed.

This is the worst time of year for a compulsive gambler. He is coming off the holiday season, which was an ordeal because he felt guilty and depressed that he didn't have enough money for Christmas presents for his family.

Many gamblers delude themselves into thinking that they will recover their losses now by making and winning longshot bets on pro football. It is playoff time in the NFL, and the biggest game of all, the Super Bowl, is this Sunday.

Some 52,000 people, 1.5 percent of the adult population of Maryland, are compulsive gamblers, according to Valerie Lorenz, executive director of the National Center for Pathological Gambling. The cost of compulsive gambling in the state in terms of work productivity and money lost is $1.5 billion a year.

"It starts with people studying odds and making bets," said Lorenz, who has spent 19 years in the compulsive gamblers treatment field, the last eight in Baltimore. "When they get desperate, they make longshot bets to try to recoup their losses."

In a few weeks, the first compulsive gambling rehabilitation center in the country is scheduled to open at 900 E. Baltimore St. There are presently more than 20 gamblers receiving therapy at the center on Washington Boulevard. Some of them, like Jim, gamble on sports.

"My father was a race track goer and we went together when I was a teen-ager," Jim said. "I picked it up again when I was 24, and the last 11 years I've been out of control. I've been drinking, too."

During the last 10 years, Jim says he has lost $50,000 at the track, $20,000 of it in the last two years. Now he's $13,000 in the hole. He took out a second mortgage on his house for $9,000, planning to consolidate bills, but slowly he used it to gamble.

"There's never enough money to go around," Jim said. "My career was at a stalemate and I was tired of working all the time.

"At the track, I was in control for 10 races a day, without a boss, without anyone telling me what to do. I'd always take about $500 to the track, and usually lose it. I'd get down on myself, realizing I couldn't win, but I kept doing it."

Jim has been at the center for more than two weeks. Lorenz says Jim already has made marked improvement; at first, he HTC didn't look at her when he talked, instead staring at the floor.

"I came here because I didn't want to go under and face all that shame," Jim said. "I have to stop gambling and I need support. I don't want to lose my wife and I love my kids."

Lorenz says most compulsive gamblers can recall details of a game they bet on 10 years ago in the most minute detail.

"It's uncanny," she said. "They're like walking encyclopedias. And they don't just bet on games. We were treating a 27-year-old state prison guard who was so frenzied about it that he bet on an inning, an at-bat, even a pitch."

Lorenz's fear is that the Maryland lottery will take another step like the one in Oregon did. In that state, there is a state-operated system in which citizens can bet on NFL games.

"Our governments are telling us to gamble," Lorenz said disapprovingly.

To support their addiction, compulsive gamblers are known to lie, cheat, steal or con. Studies show that between 10 and 25 percent reach the point where they attempt suicide.

The center has a hot line (1-800-332-0402) and calls come in from all over the country. Lorenz tells of two California men in their mid-30s who owned companies and lost $1 million each on sports betting.

When the companies went under, 1,400 people lost their jobs. Both owners were suicidal.

"One was in a hotel with his wife on the top floor and threatened to jump," Lorenz said. "She had to physically restrain him.

"The most frequent form of suicide is with a car. If they make it look like an accident, it'll be double indemnity. Their bills will be paid and their wives will have money to live on. They're convinced their families are better off without them."

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