Stan Hochman: All bets off for recovering gambling addict

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‘TAKE AWAY gambling from the National Football League and you’ve got soccer,” Arnie Wexler grumbles, knowing he’s got your attention now, without resorting to a 2-by-4 upside your head.

“When I was betting, and I haven’t made a bet since April 10, 1968, it was ‘win-or-lose.’ Now, it’s ‘over/under’ and 200 different proposition bets. Playoff games and the Super Bowl are to the compulsive gambler what New Year’s Eve is to an alcoholic.”

You can bet on the coin toss at the Super Bowl, heads or tails, but you have to wager $55 to win $50 on what is essentially a 50-50 proposition. That’s called vigorish, the house advantage, the built-in edge that helped create the glitzy casino skyline in Las Vegas (take away gambling from Vegas and you have cactus).

Wexler lost too many win-or-lose bets. Wound up with nothing but lint in his pockets and thoughts of suicide raging inside his head. Fought his way back. Calls himself a recovering gambling addict, because that’s what he is.

Runs a counseling service with his wife, Sheila. Fights the good fight against the lotteries, against the casino tide, against sports betting.

“When they debated 24-hour casino gambling in New Jersey,” he recalls bitterly, “I testified at the hearings, hammered away at them, borrowing from the cigarette companies having to put a ‘hazardous to your health’ sticker on every pack. Finally, they agreed to offer a phone number to call ‘if you or someone you know has a gambling problem.’ ”

If you or someone you know has a gambling problem you can call 1-888-LAST BET, and Wexler will get back to you. He sees Pennsylvania approving casino table games and on-site credit and it makes him sick.

“More and more states approving gambling,” Wexler moans, “as an easy way to balance a budget, without caring about destroying the lives of some of its citizens.”

Wexler’s theory is raw. Make it easier to gamble and more people will gamble. Some of those people have the gene that predisposes them to compulsive gambling. Some of those people will become addicted, steal, abuse a spouse, shatter a marriage, commit suicide. He defines a compulsive gambler as “someone who lets the gambling control you, instead of you controlling the gambling.”

Says there are 5 million gambling addicts out there, with another 15 million at risk.

(Let the record show that the pie-in-the-sky forecasts of $250 million in table-game revenue going to the state include a $3 million set-aside to help addicted gamblers get treatment.)

He shares an e-mail from a judge in a city where gambling is legal, citing the dramatic increase in domestic-abuse incidents on Super Bowl weekend. (Let the record show that a survey a couple of years ago debunked this statistical trend as urban myth.)

He follows the Gilbert Arenas gun-toting mess with a jaundiced eye, knowing that it was triggered by a dispute over a gambling debt spawned by a high-stakes card game among teammates.

When a $12 million-a-year guy plays poker with a $1 million-a-year guy, the $12 million guy wins every time unless the $1 million guy has brought his own deck. Either way, feelings get bruised, bitterness follows.

In reaction to the Arenas mess, Lakers coach Phil Jackson has endorsed card games on charter flights. Nets president Rod Thorn has banned them.

“Ten years ago,” Wexler rasps, “I had a meeting with the NBA. They were concerned about gambling in the league. One of the things that came up was guys losing $30,000 to $50,000 playing cards on a flight from one city to another.

“We put together a set of questions for every player and my wife was going to evaluate the answers. We gave the league the questions and they never got back to us. They abandoned the idea, and the word was that the higher-ups were afraid of the media’s response.”

And now, between dealing with a rogue referee who bet on games he officiated and the Arenas mess, NBA commissioner David Stern ran the legal-gambling banner up the flagpole. Wexler did not salute. He threw rocks at it.

“Money,” he snorts. “Greed. The things that have motivated David Stern down through the years.”

They have a gadget in Vegas now that allows a gambler to place bets from anywhere in the hotel/casino. Can you imagine 6,000 people at Wachovia Center carrying a similar gadget? Elton Brand steps to the foul line and you can bet make-or-miss.

(Let’s say he’s shooting 77 percent from the foul line, you will still have to bet $100 to win $75, if you think he will make the shot. That old devil, vigorish, cackling in the background as a basketball game is transformed into dogfighting, you should excuse the expression.)

Wexler used to think gambling was recession-proof. Now he sees Atlantic City casinos going belly up and Vegas revenues shrinking and New England casinos up to their armpits in debt.

“I always wondered about saturation,” he confesses. “And now, with so many casinos out there, people are going to go broke, to tap out. The states counting on huge revenues will wind up disappointed. The average person, faced with daunting odds, is backing away. It’s the addicted gambler who continues to gamble.”

He will keep hammering away at states ignoring the social woes that come with increased legal gambling. He will keep yammering at casinos that get players drunk while approving six-figure “markers.” And he willingly, sadly, offers two more warnings.

“The big secret in the gambling industry,” he says, “is the increasing number of addicted workers in the industry. Sure, they can’t gamble where they work, but they go down the street, to gamble in a different casino.

“And then there’s the problem of all those slot machines on military bases abroad. More and more soldiers becoming addicts, more and more lives impacted.”

Wexler’s message is bleak as America gets ready to celebrate another Super Bowl. Meanwhile, avoid betting “over/under” on the length of the national anthem. It’s a sucker bet because the wiseguys have a “book” on the anthem singers, who’s slow, who’s quick, who makes “rockets’ red glare” last longer than a Charles Barkley New Year’s resolution.

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