How do gambling addictions start?

Sometimes, gambling addiction creeps up on you. It can become a part of your life…even to the point of influencing major life choices. How does an addiction to gambling begin? More from someone who studies it here.

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Odds and ends: A personal history of gambling addiction and recovery (Part 1 of 3)

By William “Ted” Hartwell

Sometimes after I’ve given a lecture or presentation, or during a community outreach event, someone will ask me how I became interested in the topic of gambling addiction. Or, if I’ve shared part of my own story of gambling addiction and recovery, how I came to be comfortable sharing it with others.

How does gambling addiction start? Can you recover and eventually help others who struggle too? Continue reading here for more on how anyone can get addicted to gambling. Then, we invite you to post your questions, comments, or experiences in the comments section at the end of the page. We try to reply personally and promptly to all comments.

How does gambling addiction start?

Those who eventually develop a gambling addiction are much more likely to have gambled during childhood (like me), even though the addiction may not manifest until decades later.  Other risk factors may include:

  1. a family history of addiction
  2. trauma
  3. regular exposure to gambling activities

Sometimes people who develop a gambling addiction report that they were hooked from their very first experience.  However, it is much more common for the addiction to be preceded by an extended period of controlled gambling-that is, gambling simply for the sake of entertainment, with none of the accompanying significant negative consequences that occur once the behavior becomes an addiction.


Part 1: When Gambling Was Fun, or How do you get addicted to gambling?

Gambling addiction was not something that happened overnight for me. My addiction is something that took several decades to grow, fester, mature into the monster that threatened to consume me at the end, bringing me finally to a state of pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization from which I could see no escape.

I consider myself very fortunate to have found several avenues of help for my illness before I could do grave harm to myself and others important to me in my life. As it was, the damage done was still significant, both financially and in terms of its effect on my relationships with family and friends. However, the process of recovery has resulted in new ways of thinking and living for me which have led to a much richer and fulfilling life than I ever could have imagined.

My early gambling years

I’ve been gambling since at least the age of 10, if not younger. My earliest recollection of gambling involved traveling with my family from Lubbock, TX to Ruidoso, NM to camp in the mountains at night, and attending the Ruidoso Downs racetrack during the day. While camping in the mountains was great fun, I would later come to believe that we were camping mainly so that my father could use the money saved as a result of not booking a hotel room for bets on the races.

My father gave each of the kids in the family $20 for the day to bet on the horses. While he was the one actually placing the bets at the window, we were actively involved in learning how to read the history of the horses’ previous races, and ultimately, choosing the horses we wanted my father to bet our money on.

Gateway gambling: From horse racing to high stakes poker

By the time I was in my teens, my father had taught me how to play poker, and I was occasionally allowed to play in a game when my father would host one for his friends at our house. By the age of 16, I was a regular participant in a weekly poker game that included my father and several others from the university at which he taught, as well as some of their friends.

While this game involved fairly low stakes (nickel-dime-quarter), it provided the gateway for me to “graduate” by the age of 20 to a much higher stakes poker game in college involving some of the same players, where single hands could potentially generate pots containing hundreds of dollars.

Control over gambling

Today, I recollect with some amazement that I won enough money playing in that game using stakes generated from a 15-20 hour/wk job working at Pizza Hut to move out of the house and pay for my own apartment and necessities while attending Texas Tech University. I believed that I was a pretty good poker player, but looking back with the benefit of hindsight I realize that there was at least one, and possibly two men in that game who were disordered gamblers. They would quite frequently stay in most hands until the very last card was dealt…I thought they were simply bad poker players, and was happy to regularly take their money, as were most of the other regular players in the game.

At this stage of my gambling “career” I still had control over my gambling behavior. I religiously kept to self-imposed limits on the amounts I would spend for gambling, using only money I could afford to lose, and never any more, even if I happened to lose my stake on the very first hand of the night. For me, gambling existed firmly in the realm of entertainment, and it didn’t hurt (then) that I would more often win than lose, sometimes substantial amounts that would represent several times the monthly earnings of what I was making at my Pizza Hut job.

Upon receiving my undergraduate degree, I elected to stay at Texas Tech after being offered a graduate assistantship to remain. I began making substantially more money with my assistantship than I had at Pizza Hut, which allowed me to play in the high-stakes poker game more frequently-virtually every week.

Las Vegas: Delayed onset of full blown addiction

It was about this time that I had my first opportunity to vacation in Las Vegas with a friend. It was a special package offer from a casino known at the time as Stupak’s Vegas World, which included very inexpensive hotel rooms, as well as multiple complimentary meals (or “comps”), tokens that could be used in special slot machines, and “free play” chips. These were special that could not be redeemed for cash themselves but which could be used to make bets at table games such as black jack and which would then be replaced by real chips if you won a bet while playing with them.

My recollection of those few days is that not only did we NOT win any money during the trip as a whole, neither of us had anything but the most minor of wins on individuals bettor slots play over the course of our entire stay. In retrospect, this experience probably delayed the onset of my gambling addiction, though it certainly didn’t prevent it.

Gambling addiction and life choices

I graduated with an M.A. in anthropology with an emphasis in archaeology in the summer of 1991. In the months leading up to my graduation I had been applying for various jobs around the U.S., and I briefly considered an offer from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu before deciding that I’d barely be able to eke out a living in Hawaii on the salary they were offering.

I had rejection letters from all but one of the other institutions that I had applied for, save one. I made a follow-up phone call to see if the job was still open. Indeed it was, and a few weeks later I was flown out for an interview and landed the job…a cause for great excitement for me, particularly because of where I would be based: Las Vegas, Nevada.

Please stay tuned for next month’s: Part 2-Hitting it Big, Addiction, and Progressive Deterioration

Understanding gambling addiction and help

So, how can you recover from gambling addiction? Getting help for a gambling problem starts with the recognition that gambling is negatively impacting one or more areas of one’s life.

I’m sharing my story with you, in hopes that it may help you or a loved one understand that you not alone in your struggles, and that  there are many sources of help available to begin to recover from the illness of gambling addiction.

Here are some resources that can provide those suffering from a gambling addiction as well as their family members and friends with immediate assistance and/or more information on gambling addiction:

Gambling addiction and recovery questions

Do you have any questions regarding gambling addiction and recovery options? Please leave them in the designated section below. We will try to respond promptly to all legitimate questions and provide a personal feedback. In case we don’t know the answer to your inquiry, we will gladly refer you to someone who can help.

About the Author: William “Ted” Hartwell is an Associate Research Scientist with the Desert Research Institute of the Nevada System of Higher Education in Las Vegas, Nevada, and facilitates Community Engagement for the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. He also serves on the Nevada State Advisory Committee for Problem Gambling, and was the 2014 recipient of the Shannon L. Bybee Award. He is a disordered gambler in long-term recovery and advocates for public awareness and understanding of problem gambling.
About the author
Authors contributing to this blog on Disordered Gambling are all recipients of the Shannon L. Bybee Award, presented by the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling in recognition of proactive commitment to problem gambling advocacy, education, and research. If you believe that you or a loved one may have a gambling problem, please call the 24-hour national Problem Gamblers Helpline at (800) 522-4700 FREE for confidential assistance.
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