For gamblers betting on kicking habit, center in Baltimore may provide help

May 02, 1991|By John W. Frece

Don is 26 years old, $25,000 in debt, fights with his wife, and has ulcers.

His Rolex is long gone. He had to sell his brand-new Chevrolet, his handsome gun collection, and the $6,000 in gold he bought back when life was looking up. Even the U.S. savings bonds the young bartender had stashed away before he married Amy three years ago have been liquidated.

You can bet Don has serious problems. Don sure would. He'd bet on anything. That's his biggest problem. Don is a compulsive gambler.

On any given day, the shy South Carolinian admits, he is likely to plunk down $6,000 to $7,000 in bets on football games, baseball games, poker, dice, races, lotteries -- just about anything that offers odds. Roger Clemens vs. Cleveland? A sure thing. Don puts up "a dime" -- $1,000 -- against big odds that the Red Sox righthander will blow the Indians away. But the Rocket loses, and so does Don: $3,300.

The illness is Don's, but Amy shares in many of the stress-provoked symptoms: migraine headaches, back problems, dizziness, and continual depression. And Don says his obsession keeps him constantly tired.

"If I lose, I'm so depressed I don't sleep. If I win, I'm too excited to sleep," he says.

Amy complains they cannot even watch a movie together or go out to eat without Don having to change the channel to check for the latest score or make a phone call to his bookie. They both tried counseling at home, but nothing seemed to work.

Fresh out of answers, the couple came to Baltimore this week for help, arriving at a town house in Ridgely's Delight that for the past five years has served as headquarters for the National Center for Pathological Gambling Inc.

The non-profit center is a relatively small, but rapidly growing operation that -- with the help of $125,000 in grants from the state engineered by Delegate Gerald J. Curran, D-Baltimore -- will move this Sunday into renovated quarters in two formerly vacant, turn-of-the-century row houses in the 900 block of East Baltimore Street.

Toastmaster for Sunday's 2 p.m. "open house" will be Paul W. Ottinger, the former Washington County circuit court judge and lawyer whose compulsive gambling losses led him to steal thousands of dollars from his clients.

Recently paroled from prison, Ottinger now is helping the center by collecting newspaper clippings and other articles on gambling that will be part of a library on gambling-related topics.

His story, and that of Don and Amy (not their real names), are fairlytypical of a psychological illness that can destroy individual lives, ruin families, wipe out a life's savings, lead to theft, embezzlement or other criminal behavior, and which sometimes can end in suicide, said Valerie C. Lorenz, the center's executive director.

The 300 or so patients the center sees each year come from Maryland and across the country -- men and women hooked on casino gambling, horse racing, lotteries, or betting on any kind of sports event.

Many of the Maryland clients play poker machines in Bel Air, tip jars in Western Maryland, slot machines in Eastern Shore fraternal clubs, bet on the ponies at Pimlico, or simply cannot stop playing the omnipresent state lottery.

A 1990 report by a state Task Force on Gambling Addiction estimates there are 50,000 pathological gamblers in Maryland, plus another 80,000 problem gamblers.

They reportedly cost themselves, their families, co-workers and the state $1.5 billion a year in lost productivity, or stolen or misused funds.

Dr. Lorenz says it is an illness generally overlooked by a society that condones gambling as a form of recreation, and even encourages it as a means of balancing government budgets.

Maryland is somewhat addicted to gambling. The state will spend more than $9 million in the coming year just to advertise its lottery games that now bring in about $375 million a year.

The state recently agreed to a $64 million contract to replace the state's lottery computers in an attempt to attract even more players.

The state is so addicted to the proceeds from legal gambling that it likely will never kick the habit, said one legislative critic, Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore.

In an admittedly modest attempt to "make whole" people whose lives have been torn apart by their addiction to gambling, Mr. Rawlings and fellow Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, insisted that the toll free number of the Center for Pathological Gambling's crisis hot line (800 332-0402) be printed on every lottery ticket sold in the state.

Although as many as 10 people a day call the hot line number mistakenly believing they can learn the day's winning numbers, the hot line idea has proven so successful the center can barely afford it, said Dr. Lorenz. The center now gets 1,200 to 1,300 calls a month -- so many that the phone bill and other associated costs now exceed $109,000 a year, or five times the $20,000 grant the center receives for the hot line from the state's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.

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