For two weeks in a row, the Sunday night meeting of Gamblers Anonymous has been packed.
The Super Bowl is coming to San Diego and for compulsive gamblers the annual championship of professional football promises anxiety, paranoia, sleeplessness and guilt.
For such gamblers, the game, set for Jan. 31, is a reminder of lost jobs, shattered families, even prison sentences. It's a "reality check," a reminder that compulsive gamblers are never quite "over" the problem.
The Super Bowl is not only a huge sporting event and one of the most publicized competitions of any kind ever. It also is "the biggest day in sports betting," according to Debbie Munch, a spokeswoman for Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, that city's most profitable casino.
Super Bowl Betting Total
Munch said an average Super Bowl brings Caesars between $30 million and $50 million in bets each year, far more than any other sporting event. Munch expects as much as $75 million because neither team is a strong favorite.
"Betting started (Sunday) right after the teams were determined," Munch said. "In one hour we had taken in $150,000 at this casino alone. That's a record. It's heavier than it's ever been. It's crazy."
In Nevada that's legal betting. Millions more are bet each year in wagers with bookies.
"For a gambler, the Super Bowl is the ultimate joy ride," said John, 78, who like everyone else in the Gamblers Anonymous program--modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous--chooses not to reveal his last name. "There are no more games until next year. A compulsive gambler can't wait until next year. He'll try to score everything on this one big game. He'll bet all he can on this last game. And, like everyone else, he'll go broke."
John owns a successful San Diego construction business. He gambled for 55 years. He grew accustomed to losing it all. He's been "clean" for nearly nine years.
Sunday night's meeting was held in a conference room at a Lutheran church in San Diego's North Park suburb. The meetings, which are free, are scheduled five nights a week. Other locations include Solana Beach, Pacific Beach and Chula Vista.
Gamblers Anonymous (known among members as GA) was founded in 1957. Ron, the leader of Sunday night's meeting, quoted GA literature that says there are 9 million compulsive gamblers in the United States who "affect the lives" of 45 million others.
John and Ron, both longtime members, say a sense of panic and desperation has been creeping into the nightly confessionals.
Even with howling wind and rain outside, Sunday night's meeting drew more than three dozen people into a cramped, drafty hall. Moments after the start, the lights went out.
The talking--and occasionally the sobbing--continued by candlelight.
"This is good that this happened," Ron said. "This reminds us of what it's like when we don't pay our electric bills--when the bookies get that money instead."
House Profits Slip Away
Some of the faces framed by candlelight were those of spouses whose husbands are compulsive football bettors. One woman said that her husband recently sold the house, making a profit of $68,000. He headed for Vegas, abandoning her and the five children. By the time she checked with the bank, the "profit" had slipped to less than $9,000.
That woman will soon go to Gam-Anon, a program for the relatives of compulsive gamblers modeled after Alanon, an offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous.
GA members say the three alternatives to their program for a compulsive gambler are prison, insanity or death.
"What I found," said a member named Charles, "is medication won't cure you--there is no magic bullet. You have to admit you're powerless (over gambling), and then let God take hold."
"Most of us don't know why we gamble," said Bobby. "We just know that we can't anymore."
"I've only been clean for nine days," said Dan. "I got tons of calls today from bookies wanting me to bet. It was hard to say no. But three meetings alone have showed me not only that I should say no but that I'm stronger for actually doing it. You know, I didn't think I could. But I did it--I said no! To a bookie!"
Super Bowl 'Insidious'
"I bet on football games from 1921 on," said John, the builder. "The Super Bowl is the wickedest, most insidious of all. It's going to be absolutely insane with the damn thing coming to town. The guys who lose all year try to make it up with that one game. They always bet on the dog (the underdog). That was my style. I mean, what thrill is it going with the favorite, the sure thing?
"The poor schmucks will lose because, hey, they always lose. It's no secret that bettors have holes in their shoes, and bookies drive Cadillacs. The next two weeks are going to be a very scary time in San Diego. A lot of guys--like the kind of guy I used to be--will be driven right to the brink."
Many in attendance Sunday night still have liens against their houses years after entering GA. Many were forced to change careers after losing jobs for embezzling funds from the company to pay off bookies. Still others went to prison and got clean behind bars.
"Usually people don't come to our door until they totally bottom out," said Ron.
That's the first step in the 12-step method--first admit that there is a problem and that you're powerless over its evil.
It's worked for Ron, who so far has been clean for three years.
"I watched (Sunday's National Football League conference championship) games, but fell asleep," he said. "I find that without that gambling incentive, I just don't have the interest. I don't know if that's sad or not. I always liked football, but gambling destroyed my enjoyment of it. At least most of it.
Makes Game Interesting
"I remember three years ago watching a nothing game between Houston and Pittsburgh--at that time, two lousy teams. Gambling can make a game like that interesting. . . . If you've got money on it--and I had big money--all of a sudden a game between have-nots is like the ultimate."
Ron said he once dropped $20,000 on a single weekend of games in the NFL. It took him more than a decade to pay off the bookie, who never received the full amount. Some bookies are less understanding, he said.
John said he always paid the bookie--"I had to," he said--but often never got his money, after a big win.
Ron used to make more than $80,000 a year in the insurance business. He lost it all--went bankrupt--betting on football.
Don lost two condominiums betting on the NFL. He calls the Super Bowl a compulsive gambler's "Vietnam."
"Jesus, on the Super Bowl, you can even bet individual quarters," he said. "You bet overs and unders--will the total score be under, say, 40 points, or over? You can bet whether the quarterbacks will pass for 300 or 400 yards a game. With John Elway playing in this game, that bet'll go crazy. You can bet on any aspect--it's there for the taking. And it's all nonsense."