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The costs of gambling can be high, former gamblers say

Poker chips are stacked in front of the players around the table as players take part in a game Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at Bout Time Pub and Grub in West Valley.
Poker chips are stacked in front of the players around the table as players take part in a game Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at Bout Time Pub and Grub in West Valley.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Carl stood outside the University Hospital emergency room with a revolver in his hand. He spun the cylinder containing a single bullet. He put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.


On this day Russian roulette was his game of choice. Carl usually played cards — and lost.

That's what brought him to this point.

Carl squeezed the trigger again.


Russian roulette wasn't proving to be his game, either.

Could he pull the trigger again?

For a chronic gambler, there's always another chance.

But Carl put the revolver to his side. He walked into the hospital and checked himself into the psych ward.

Carl shared that story at a meeting of the Utah chapter of Gamblers Anonymous.

Twice a week, chronic gamblers meet to not only bare their souls but to gain hope and strength to overcome their devastating habit. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop gambling.

A Deseret News reporter sat in a couple of GA meetings, which are open to anyone who wants to attend. Participants did not want their names used to protect their identity. All names are psuedonyms.

Each meeting begins with a group reading of the 18-page Gambler's Anonymous booklet.

Carl reads the section listing 20 questions gamblers ask themselves to determine whether their behavior is compulsive. He answered yes to all of them, including the last one, "Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling?"

The group talks about suicide for a minute. Several others have thought about taking their own life, and one admits to having tried.

About 20 percent of members of Gamblers Anonymous and people in treatment for pathological gambling have attempted suicide, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.

The estimate is borne out in this group of 10. The council estimates 6 million to 8 million Americans have a gambling addiction.

After reading the booklet, members are free to share whatever is on their minds. They talk about money and marriages lost, debts and regrets, persistence and progress.

They all begin or end speaking with the last time they gambled. One woman had not placed a bet for nine years. Another gambled as recently as the week before.

One woman says she has great children, a nice house and nice things. "None of it is enough to quit."

"We are all good people and we do horrible things," says another.

They talk about playing the tape forward, to think about the self-loathing that would follow a gambling episode.

"I know that it's all bad if I try to solve my problems through gambling," says Jeff, who hasn't made a wager for eight years.

For him, gambling was a way to self-medicate when life wasn't going well.

"Gambling would be something just to mask the pain, to run away from my problems, to run away from myself," Jeff said.

Ralph spent years driving to Wendover to play slot machines with the zeal of an earnest mail carrier. Neither snow nor fog nor dust storm kept him from driving west on I-80 to get lost for a night or a weekend.

He called it his "fun little escape out of a boring life."

Ralph played poker and blackjack but found them to be too slow. Gambling online also was boring. He liked the sights and sounds of the slot.

He tried drugs and alcohol, but they didn't give him the rush that gambling does.

"This is the addiction I've chosen," he said. "This is a more nasty world of addiction because it's socially acceptable."

Gambling, he said, caused him to become socially disconnected. His mind was always somewhere else. He constantly thought about Friday, the day he would head to across the state line.

Ralph has attended Gamblers Anonymous off and on for nearly a decade, usually at the behest of someone else.

"This time it's for me. It's not for anybody else," he said. "When I've chosen not to gamble, I've lived a better life."