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Compulsive Gambling


What Is Compulsive Gambling?

Moderate gambling, like moderate alcohol use, is an accepted part of our culture and causes no problems. As with alcohol use, however, gambling to excess is a common weakness that may lead to serious security problems.

Compulsive gambling, or pathological gambling as most psychiatrists prefer to call it, is an inability to stop gambling even when one recognizes that gambling is causing serious financial, family, work, or other problems. Compulsive gambling parallels alcohol and drug addiction in many ways. Compulsive gamblers lose control over their behavior and commonly lie and cheat in order to continue their gambling. They frequently try, unsuccessfully, to cut down or quit.

Compulsive gambling does not involve use of a psychoactive substance, but the "action" which compulsive gamblers crave is an aroused, euphoric state comparable to the "high" sought by drug users. This aroused state is accompanied by changes in brain chemistry similar to those caused by alcohol or drugs. There may be a "rush," often characterized by sweaty palms, rapid heart beat, and nausea which is experienced during the period of anticipation.

Alcoholics and drug abusers develop "tolerance" for their drug of choice and then must increase their consumption in order to feel the same effects. Similarly, compulsive gamblers develop "tolerance" for the "action" and must increase the size of their bets or the odds against them to create the same amount of excitement.

About 2 1/2% of the adult population now has some degree of gambling problem. The rates of compulsive and problem gambling among 16 and 17 year olds are similar to those for adults. 1

The key difference between compulsive or problem gambling and social gambling is self-control. Each social gambling session usually lasts for a set period of time and involves pre-determined spending limits. It typically occurs with friends or colleagues rather than alone. The player gains satisfaction whether he/she wins or loses.2

Becoming a Compulsive Gambler

Gamblers who fall in love with the excitement and "action" of gambling may, at first, be quite successful.3 They have fantasies of further success and of gambling becoming their personal path to wealth and power. Those who are headed for problems think they are smarter than the average bettor. They know that gambling is going to work for them because they, unlike less clever people, really understand how to beat the system.

As they become more involved in gambling, they derive an increasing portion of their self-esteem from seeing themselves as smart or lucky. Because of this, two things happen when they do incur the inevitable losses. First, they suffer monetary loss. Second, and often more important, they suffer a deflated ego.

To salvage their self-esteem, they rationalize losses by blaming other people, such as the jockey or the pitcher, or by blaming "bad luck" in cards, craps or lotteries. Or they reflect on their handicapping abilities and tell themselves they will not make the same "mistake" the next time.

The monetary loss is another matter, however, and this is dealt with differently. In order to recoup the loss, many gamblers "chase." That is, they continue their betting and increase the amount of their bets in order to get even. Instead of saying, "It's lost," the chaser says, "I'll get even tomorrow." Chasing losses leads the gambler to gamble with more than he or she can afford to lose, and often to borrowing money in an effort to get even.

Many gamblers may chase for short periods, until they learn from bitter experience that this is counterproductive. The long-term preoccupation with chasing losses is the defining characteristic of the pathological gambler.

Chasing seems logical to many gamblers, as it means giving oneself a chance to get even. If a gambler stops chasing, both money and self-esteem are lost. If the gambler continues chasing and wins, both can be regained. There is, therefore, the impetus to borrow in order to recoup losses. When continued gambling leads to still more losses, the compulsive gambler continues to borrow. The more money borrowed, the greater the commitment to more gambling as the only possible means of gaining enough money to pay off the debt.

This spiraling commitment to increased gambling often depletes family resources. Many compulsive gamblers cash in joint savings bonds, empty checking accounts, pawn joint property, and take out loans without the spouse's knowledge. In order to preserve or regain respectability in the eyes of parents, spouse and others -- and because their paychecks are insufficient -- desperate gamblers see more gambling as the only alternative.

Fearing loss of respectability, the gambler hides loans. When gamblers default on the loans, fear that the bank or loan company will tell their spouse may drive them to more gambling as a possible quick way out. The behavior that caused the problem is increasingly seen by the gambler as the only solution, as there is no other way to get the needed money quickly.

As loans come due and pressures to pay become more insistent, sometimes involving threats of exposure or of physical harm from loan sharks or bookies, desperate gamblers weigh the risks of "borrowing" (embezzling) money from their employer, making fraudulent loan applications or insurance claims, or stealing the money.

Once they succumb to this temptation, the threshold to an even greater commitment to gambling has been crossed. This is especially true if they obtain money by loan fraud or embezzlement. These kinds of crimes enable gamblers to rationalize that they are not really criminals. The money is only "borrowed" so no one is being hurt. But there is constant pressure to repay the money, and counting on a big gambling win is seen as the only hope for doing so. This extends the spiral of involvement from more gambling to more and more illegal activities -- until the gambler is caught, seeks professional help, or really does hit the big win.

Falling in love with the "action" and then chasing losses is the starting point for most men who become compulsive gamblers, but many women take a different route. While women also enjoy the "action" and chase losses, their initial motivation is often escape -- escape from memories of unhappy childhood or parental abuse, escape from troubled husbands, and escape from loneliness. Once they became hooked on gambling, however, women follow the same spiral of increasing involvement as men, often leading to criminal activity.

Indicators of Compulsive Gambling

Compulsive gamblers tend to be bright, energetic, competitive, adventuresome individuals. In short, they may have the characteristics of an otherwise ideal employee. There are no obvious physical signs. Unlike some drug or alcohol abusers, there are no needle marks, breath odor, slurred speech or staggering gait. Like alcoholics and drug addicts, compulsive gamblers typically deny any problem until they hit rock bottom and are desperate for help.

One of the clearest indicators of a serious gambling problem is borrowing money to gamble or to pay off gambling debts. This is the heart of the security issue, which is the gambler's need for money. Another significant indicator is any effort to conceal one's gambling from spouse, children, friends, or co-workers, e.g., hiding betting slips or lottery tickets. This indicates some shame or embarrassment about one's behavior.

Other indicators of a potential or actual gambling problem include: gambling as a way of escaping from problems or relieving feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression; needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement; and repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling

A study that compared the gambling practices of compulsive gamblers with social gamblers found that the single most striking difference was the amount of leisure time devoted to gambling. Compulsive gamblers were more than five times as likely as social gamblers to devote at least one quarter of their leisure time to gambling or preparation for gambling.4

Children of problem gamblers are at greater risk than others for developing a gambling problem themselves. One study found that 50% of the children of pathological gamblers were also pathological gamblers.5 In one group of 50 female members of Gamblers Anonymous, 40% reported growing up in a household where one or both parents were addicted to either alcohol or gambling.6

Behaviors Observable in the Workplace

Compulsive gambling has been called the "hidden disease," as there are few overt signs of it in the workplace until the problem is in its most advanced stage. Astute observers may, however, pick up clues.

Extensive gambling can be time-consuming. Doing everything required to gain the information required to gamble intelligently, to place bets, follow the action, borrow money and make payments often has an impact that can be observed in the workplace. An educational pamphlet on compulsive gambling lists these indicators that may be observed at work:7

  • Late to work (due to late night card game, casino venture, or bad night's sleep worrying about gambling-related problems).
  • Long lunches (off-track betting, meeting bookmaker or loan shark or creditors).
  • Mysterious disappearance in the afternoon (typically at the track, off-track betting, afternoon card or dice game, or listening to sporting events).
  • Sick days taken right when they become available rather than allowed to accumulate (uses sick days to gamble).
  • Vacation used in isolated days rather than blocks.
  • Excessive use of rest room (reads sports pages or listens to radio in the rest room).
  • Excessive use of the telephone (calls to off-track betting, bookie, creditors, or to find money; calls from bookie or creditors).
  • Reads newspaper and sports literature at work (scratch sheet from race track, racing form, sporting news, etc.).
  • Operates office sports pool or paycheck pool (the person running these sometimes has a gambling problem).
  • Collects money from other employees for off-track betting or lottery (ostensibly does this as convenience for co-workers but actually so he or she can place bets).
  • Organizes trips to Atlantic City, Las Vegas, or other gambling junkets (may indicate familiarity through frequent visits).
  • Operates as bookmaker or runner for bookmaker (many bookmakers and runners are themselves compulsive gamblers and do this in order to gamble more).

Security Concerns

bullet  Gambling debts may compromise one's financial stability, cause problems with family and work, and prompt some individuals to engage in illegal activities, including espionage, as a means of covering their losses. Motivation for espionage is usually complex and difficult to assess, but financial pressures from gambling debts have clearly played a significant role in the cases of at least seven Americans who have been arrested for espionage. 8

By the time most compulsive gamblers seek help, they are hugely in debt, owing as much as $120,000 or more, and their families are in a shambles. About 80% seriously consider suicide, and 13 to 20% actually attempt it or succeed in killing themselves. 9

Three studies of Gamblers Anonymous members and persons in treatment for compulsive gambling determined that roughly two-thirds admitted to committing crimes or civil fraud to finance their gambling or to pay gambling-related debts. The white-collar crimes of fraud, embezzlement, forgery, and tax evasion predominate among those whose employment and economic status present the opportunity for such crimes.10

Another study focused on how problem gambling affects the insurance industry. It found that in a group of 241 Gamblers Anonymous members, 47% admitted to having engaged in some form of insurance fraud, embezzlement or arson.11

Treatment for Compulsive Gambling

Like other addictive behaviors, compulsive gambling is treatable. Many problem gamblers are reluctant to seek treatment, however, as they do not understand the nature of the addiction involved. People understand being out of control from putting some kind of substance in their body. Being out of control due to a supposedly voluntary behavior such as gambling damages one’s self-esteem so much that people are extremely reluctant to seek help.

Gamblers Anonymous follows the same pattern as Alcoholics Anonymous, including the same 12-step treatment program. The success rate appears comparable to that for other addictions. Relapse is a problem, but one or two relapses do not necessarily indicate failure. The more severe the gambling problem prior to treatment, the greater the chance of relapse and eventual treatment failure.

Compulsive gamblers frequently also suffer from other addictions such as alcoholism, drug abuse, compulsive shopping or bulimia. Some evidence indicates that individuals with multiple addictions are more difficult to treat than those who suffer from a single addiction.12 Doctors at some treatment centers have observed a "switching of addictions," where recovering alcoholics begin to gamble compulsively after several years of abstinence from alcohol. Similarly, women recovering from compulsive gambling have encountered problems with compulsive shopping.13

Sources for More Information

Much less information is available on compulsive gambling than on other addiction problems.  Check with your local financial counseling service or Employee Assistance Program, but you may need to supplement this with information from other sources.

Individuals seeking help for a gambling problem can seek help with Gamblers Anonymous. The phone number to reach a local group is in the white pages of most local phone books. The national headquarters can be contacted at Gamblers Anonymous, PO Box 17173, Los Angeles CA 90017, telephone (213) 386-8789, fax (213) 386-0030; website: In some areas, a local affiliate may be listed in your telephone book.

Gam-Anon is the self-help organizations for spouses, family members, and friends of compulsive gamblers. It's headquarters is as PO Box 187, Whitestone, NY 11357, phone (718) 352-1671, fax (718) 746-2571. The web site is

Additional information on addiction in general, and compulsive gambling in particular is widely available on the Internet.

Books available through your local bookstore or library include:

  • The Gambling Addiction Patient Workbook, by Robert R. Perkinson. Sage Publications, 2003.
  • Behind the 8-Ball: A Guide for Families of Gamblers, by Linda Berman and Mary-Ellen Siegel. Fireside/Parkside, 1992.
  • Don't Leave It to Chance: A Guide for Families of Problem Gamblers,
    by Edward Federman, Charles Drebing, Edward J. Federman. New Harbinger Publications, 2000.
  • Addictive Thinking: Understanding Self-Deception, by Abraham J. Twerski. Hazelden/Rosen, 1997.

The following organization is helpful in providing lists of treatment centers, bibliographies, addresses for contacting researchers in this field, and other information: National Council on Problem Gambling, 216 G Street NE, Washington, DC 20002, telephone (800) 522-4700.

Related Topics:  Standards of Personal Conduct, Reporting Improper, Unreliable or Suspicious Behavior

1. Gambling Impact and Behavior Study: Final Report of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. University of Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, March 18, 1999.
G. J. Smith, R. A. Volberg & H. J. Wynne (1994). Leisure behavior on the edge: Differences between controlled and uncontrolled gambling practices. Society and Leisure, 17, 1.
3. This section is mainly a mixture of quotation and paraphrase from the work of H. Lesieur. The compulsive gambler's spiral of options and involvement. Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes (1979), 79-87 and The female pathological gambler, in W. R. Eadington (Ed.), Gambling studies: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking, (Reno, NV: Bureau of Business and Economic Research, University of Nevada).
4. L. Lieberman (1988). A social typology of gambling behavior. (New York State Office of Mental Health contract #C-001361). New York: National Council on Compulsive Gambling, pp. 44-49.
5. H. Lesieur & M. Heineman (1988). Pathological gambling among youthful multiple substance abusers in a therapeutic community. British Journal of Addictions, 83, 765-771.
6. H. Lesieur (1988). The female pathological gambler. In W. R. Eadington (Ed.), Gambling research: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking. Reno, NV: Bureau of Business and Economic Research, University of Nevada-Reno.
7. H. Lesieur (1986). Understanding compulsive gambling, (Center City, MN: Hazelden Educational Materials).
8. R. J. Heuer, Jr. (1992) Compulsive Gambling: Background Information for Security Personnel (Monterey, CA: Defense Personnel Security Research Center.) Reprinted in the journal Polygraph, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1993.
9. Jane E. Brody, "Compulsive Gambling: Overlooked Addiction," New York Times, May 4, 1999, p. D7.
10. H. Lesieur & R. Rosenthal (1991). Pathological gambling: A review of the literature. Journal of Gambling Studies, 7, 5-40. Hospital sample is from H. Lesieur, S. Blume & R. Zoppa (1986). Alcoholism, drug abuse, and gambling. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 10, 33-38. Veterans Administration and Gamblers Anonymous sample is from R. Nora (1984, December). Profile survey on pathological gamblers. Paper presented at the Sixth Annual Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking, Atlantic City, NJ. Sample of female Gamblers Anonymous members is from H. Lesieur (1987). The female pathological gambler. In W. R. Eadington (Ed.), Gambling research: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking, (Reno, NV: Bureau of Business and Economic Research, University of Nevada-Reno).
11. H. Lesieur & K. Puig (1987). Insurance problems and pathological gambling. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 3, 123-136.
12. J. Ciarrocchi (1987). Severity of impairment in dually addicted gamblers. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 3, 16-26
13. H. Lesieur (1988). The female pathological gambler. In W. R. Eadington (Ed.), Gambling studies: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking, (Reno, NV: Bureau of Business and Economic Research, University of Nevada).




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