Where gamblers go to win back dignity Gamblers Anonymous: Every week in Towson, some gambling addicts gather to go about mending their lives. Each must confront the demons that lurk along the path to ruin.

January 10, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Each Wednesday night at Towson United Methodist Church, about 20 compulsive gamblers gather around tables and tell stories that most of us would never admit.

At a recent meeting, a retired nurse described how she liquidated her ranch house by betting $20 a spin on illegal video poker machines in Baltimore County. An antiques dealer from Cockeysville acknowledged selling his parents' silverware to support his gambling habit.

Tales of failure are common at meetings of Towson's Gamblers Anonymous (GA), but some members say the program has helped make them a success.

"I lived a life of degradation," said an 80-year-old man who mortgaged his taxi for three times its value to cover gambling debts. Now, he said, "I've got back my self-esteem."

A certified public accountant who watched his house sold at auction said, "I know that everyone in this room believes that, one way or another, this program saved their lives."

For years, the Towson Gamblers Anonymous group and others around the state have encouraged compulsive gamblers to overcome a wide array of temptations by helping them to recognize their problem, admit their mistakes and develop the will power to resist, members say.

In some cases, GA advises members on how to pay off creditors -- a process that can take up to a decade depending on the size of the debt. The Towson group permitted a reporter to visit a meeting recently under the condition that members not be identified by name.

As casinos have swept the nation in recent years, public concern over compulsive gambling has grown.

The issue came to the fore in Maryland last year, when gambling companies started lobbying to legalize casinos in the state.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has put the casino issue on ice for now. He has pledged to veto any bills permitting casinos or slot machines at racetracks in the legislative session that begins today. But even without casinos, GA members say, Marylanders has more than enough games on which to bet.

You name it, they've bet on it

At a recent meeting, members listed the smorgasbord of which they have partaken: keno, video poker machines, dice, private poker parties, the stock market, casinos in Atlantic City, professional football, college basketball, even foul balls at a baseball game.

For Towson's longest-active member, regarded as the group's Cal Ripken, the problem was horses. He began gambling at 21 in 1946 at the now-defunct Havre de Grace racetrack. On his second day, he won $1,000.

"Gee, if this is this easy, I won't never have to go to work," he thought.

The thrill of gambling was addictive. "The winning. That euphoria. Hell, it was like having sex," he said.

Over the next 18 years, gambling dominated his life as he chased the mirage of easy money. He "borrowed" hundreds of dollars from an insurance company where he worked to feed his habit and fell thousands of dollars in debt. He refused promotions that might cause him to miss part of the racing schedule. When his wife was in labor with their second child, he slipped off to the track.

One day, a psychiatrist suggested that he attend a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. At the first meeting, he heard a lawyer describe squandering $85,000 of his parents' and clients' money and a trucking company owner explain that he was about to lose his business. In those stories, he saw himself.

"I thought I better straighten up myself in a hurry," he said.

He quit gambling Dec. 15, 1964 -- all GA members know the date they stopped -- and spent 10 years paying off creditors. Today, he says, he has $200,000 in the bank.

At 69, he is elder statesman at the Towson meeting, encouraging new members to resist gambling. During a gathering in December, he tried to help a young man who was visiting for the first time.

His was a story of lost potential. He received an athletic scholarship to college, but squandered his education and money on dice games.

"I'm here for everybody I've hurt in my life," he said in the confessional language that pervaded the meeting.

His friends have surpassed him -- married, bought houses, had children. "I'm as smart as they are, but they got through," he said.

"We don't judge you," the elder statesman assured him.

In addition to bringing forth tales of sin and redemption, the meetings provide a glimpse into the peculiar way compulsive gamblers view the world.

National holidays are terrific, they say -- not because you don't have to work, but because banks are closed and can't bother you about late mortgage payments. If the post office is closed, all the better -- no late notices on bills to hide from your spouse.

With less than two minutes left in a football game and one team leading by a pair of touchdowns, most people turn off the television. Not compulsive sports bettors.

Even when the game is out of reach, they remain glued to the set because the point spread -- the number of points by which the favorite must win or its backers will lose their wagers -- may still be in question.

Any game will do

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