When I read the National Council on Problem Gambling’s new report describing how fully half of America views people with such issues as lacking willpower and being to blame for their problems, I couldn’t help but think of my father.
I remembered how mortified I was in childhood more than a half-century ago, to hear him loudly cursing inside Forbes Field when my Pirates scored a run and everyone around us was cheering. Garbed in a shirt given to him as a Pirates employee, he threw his usher’s rag to the ground in disgust.
He had a bet on the Cubs.
Fans nearby all seemed to pause from their applause to stare. I wanted to cry. Or leave.
Mostly, at that moment, I wanted a different father. One who didn’t stay up all night playing gin rummy in an illegal card room. One who didn’t throw things at the wall on Sunday afternoons when we were watching football and his bets made with the bookie by phone that morning went sideways. One who didn’t waste so much of his paycheck gambling, preventing us from ever owning a home, taking vacations, or doing whatever it was normal families did in the 1960s and ‘70s.
It was a habit, or compulsion, or disorder — he just called it his hobby because everything else in life bored him — that Paul Rotstein would carry with him to his death in Las Vegas at age 84 seven years ago. Just days before he died, he was still playing cards in the popular locals joints like Boulder Station and The Orleans, often taking money from the players 50 or 60 years younger.
It wasn’t that he was a bad gambler — he just didn’t know when to stop. Or how. I’ve spotted that aspect in myself at a poker table or video poker machine on a few too many occasions. It’s scary.
The National Council on Problem Gambling is a nonprofit group that takes no moral position on gambling — it exists to promote awareness and treatment programs for that small fraction of the public (usually considered between 1% and 3%) who cannot control their gambling behavior.
The council last week released a detailed report, the National Survey of Gambling Attitudes and Gambling Experiences, deemed to be the most comprehensive study on public attitudes concerning the topic in this millennium. It comes in an era when the country is seeing a stark rise in the availability of legal sports betting and of convenient, online access to that and other forms of gambling such as casino games and lottery tickets.
The survey of several thousand Americans was actually conducted in November 2018, before most of that new availability existed. But it is the most modern take on those who succumb to problem gambling and what others think of them.
While playing the lottery is by far the most common type of gambling — with two out of three individuals reporting having done so within the past year — it does not carry nearly the same type of connection to excessive behavior as does my father’s favorite pastime (and mine): sports betting.
“They are three or more times as likely than those gamblers who did not bet on sports to report frequent risky behavior,” the report stated. “We do not know, however, if sports betting results in risky behavior, or if those who are more prone to risky behavior are drawn to sports betting.”
In my father’s case, I do know his behavior wasn’t about the money or any concept of potential success — he simply craved the “action.” Without the risk involved — the chance that everything would change, depending on whether Bubby Brister threw an interception or the river card was a rag instead of filling a straight — there would have been little enticement in it.
Growing up in his own dysfunctional household with an abusive father, my dad took quickly to playing sports and gambling on it as his outlets outside the home. Illegal sports betting was very much a way of life in western Pennsylvania before and after anyone had ever heard of a law known as PASPA, and he drank of the same water consumed by the likes of Jack Franzi, Jimmy Vaccaro, Art Manteris, and Chris Andrews before they moved west to become leaders in Nevada’s sanctioned industry late in the 20th century.
My father’s favorite pastime with his six children was running a bingo game. He would crank a wheel with balls jumping noisily inside a little cage, and we would sit mesmerized, expectant, our cards in front of us, eager to fill our numbers to win nickels and dimes and at the very end, the grand prize — a quarter after he loudly called out the last number.
Yes, we were all gamblers from the time we could count. And Paul Rotstein’s offspring ended up including a son who became a professional gambler, another who became a casino dealer, and one more who wrote about it as his profession.
Running that bingo game was perfect for my father. He loved being the center of attention and handing out money. For all his faults, he was the most generous person I ever knew. A natural salesman, he had a gift of making friends with strangers I could not dream of matching. He picked up every restaurant check. While he often owed others money, he didn’t hesitate peeling off a bill from an ever-present wad for anyone in need.
They say gamblers like to be “the big man” that way. It shows they are in charge, in command, not losers or weak. Heavy sports bettors and card players like my father view themselves as smarter than others, indulging in games reliant on intellect while mocking the mindless slots players.
Even so, it’s hard to overcome the bookie’s vig, or the house rake, or other more skilled players, especially when you can’t stop and you chase losses when things go south. And so, like my father, you end up losing your marriage, or the respect of your children, or any chance of a comfortable retirement after making nice earnings in your career.
The council’s survey asked four key questions of respondents, all of which my father would have had to answer in the positive:
While my father most likely could have been classified as a compulsive gambler his entire life, the study’s findings skewed younger.
“There is a strong relationship between problematic behavior and age, with younger players far more likely to report potentially problematic play. At one extreme, only half of those under the age of 35 answered ‘not in the past year’ to each of the four indicators compared to 90 percent of those 65 or older,” the report stated.
Among sports bettors, compared to other gamblers they were three times more likely to say they felt the need to increase their gambling to get the same excitement; three times more likely to feel irritable when trying to cut back; five times more likely to rely on others to pay debts; and seven times more likely to have lied about gambling. For frequent sports bettors — those wagering at least on a weekly basis — the percentages were even higher.
“It is apparent, then, that sports bettors are at higher risk than those betting only on other activities,” the study found. “What we do not know is if this is because sports betting is inherently more risky, if those prone to risky behavior are more likely to be drawn to sports betting, or if the limited legal options in most states (at the time of the survey) lead to more risky behavior.
“The data make it clear, however, that sports betting requires greater attention to problem gambling education and prevention than most, if not all, other forms of gambling.”
For a really excellent piece on a son writing about his father’s gambling, don’t settle for this one — read nationally noted sportswriter Pat Jordan’s Sports Illustrated article from many years ago.
The man in that piece and my own father weren’t the same, but they shared many characteristics. While many compulsive gamblers have other addictions known as co-morbidities, neither man drank or smoked. Neither, it seems, was given to much self-analysis about their gambling as a failure of any sort — it was simply what defined them.
It wasn’t a topic I could discuss easily with my father, but after I began writing about gambling issues, I once asked him if he had ever tried any counseling or Gamblers Anonymous.
“I went to one of those meetings once, when your mother threatened to leave me if I didn’t,” I recall him saying. “It seemed like a bunch of losers who just wanted to talk about their troubles. It wasn’t for me.”
And so, of course, my mother eventually left, tired of the phone calls from bill collectors and the letters from the IRS about back taxes owed and the like.
And my father made his way from Pittsburgh to Las Vegas, an environment more naturally suited to his proclivities. He had no other hobbies like my friends’ fathers did — no gardening, no car tinkering, no passion for nature or culture or travel.
“Without gambling, I’m bored,” he’d explain on the phone, if I questioned the wisdom of his erratic sleep schedule in elder years after a marathon session at The Orleans. “What else am I gonna do?”
Genetics has some degree of linkage to problem gambling as an addiction, though research has been unable to discern just how much. In the survey, people were asked what they believed to be the causes of gambling addiction. Among respondents, 76% said they agreed that “having a parent or family member who gambles” is likely to cause a gambling problem.
It is something I have wondered about — and worried about — after several times I found myself spending hours upon hours transfixed at a video poker machine, unable to pull myself away after a win, watching it turn into a loss, then a bigger loss after one more trip to the casino’s readily available ATM nearby.
It doesn’t happen with my father’s frequency, but I hate it in myself. And I wonder what it had to do with those bingo games at the dining room table a half-century ago, looking for that B-14 on my father’s next loud call that would crush the spirits of my siblings.
I haven’t yet found the need to dial 1-800-GAMBLER (the number varies in some states, but it’s a good start), but it wouldn’t necessarily shock me to do so someday.
And if you’re reading this, and any of it sounds all too familiar, do yourself and your loved ones a favor: Pick up the phone and call. Help is available for those who want it, even if my father never did.
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