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HEALTH : Compulsive Gambling: A New Round of Victims

Times Staff Writer

For 12 years, Diane played poker in Gardena casinos nightly until 4:30 a.m. While regularly kiting checks and stealing from her husband and children to finance her habit, she quit her job because she believed she could earn a living gambling.

Johnny also gambled in Gardena--three nights during the week and all weekend. Although he counted cards well and won regularly at blackjack in Nevada casinos, he didn’t feel the narcoticlike rush he got from poker. So he played poker all night unless he ran out of money and couldn’t finagle more. Frequently he left the casino crying and vowing never to return, but he did--for the better part of eight years.

Diane, a great-grandmother who lives in West Los Angeles, and Johnny, a black teacher from Los Angeles, represent segments of society--women and non-whites--who experts say become compulsive gamblers more commonly than had been thought. Both Diane and Johnny, who asked that their last names not be used, now belong to Gamblers Anonymous, an organization patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous and founded in Los Angeles 32 years ago.

Although Cincinnati Reds Manager Pete Rose grabbed headlines recently for alleged sports betting as prodigious as his 4,256 career hits, and although compulsive gambling is commonly perceived as the province of white, middle-aged males like Rose, a study conducted for the National Institute of Mental Health found that women comprised 34% of all problem gamblers in New York, New Jersey and Maryland. The figure for non-white minorities was 39%. The extent of the problem nationwide and in California is not known, but experts agree that more women and non-whites are seeking treatment.

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“I see more women and non-whites,” said Dr. Robert Custer, a Bethesda, Md., psychiatrist who specializes in compulsive gambling and lectures around the world. “When I started 15 years ago, I would say they were probably around 5% of my patients. Now it’s approaching 30%. I assume that by the turn of the century it will be 50%.”

“We find a much higher proportion of women, blacks, Hispanics and Asians in treatment programs, and their numbers are increasing,” said Dr. Durand F. Jacobs, chief of psychology service for the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Loma Linda. “They are acutely involved with problems of a legal, economic, marital or psychological nature. Usually they are very depressed and often they are suicidal.”

Although women and non-whites joining the 15 GA chapters around Los Angeles suffer from the same symptoms as men--chronic and progressive failure to resist the impulse to gamble--they appear to bet differently.

Addicted to Slot Machines

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Whereas men more often bet on sports or competitive casino games such as poker or blackjack, women become addicted to slot machines, video poker games, bingo or lotteries, said Henry Lesieur, a St. John’s University sociologist who interviewed 50 addicted female gamblers in Reno, Las Vegas and on the East Coast. According to Custer, blacks and Latinos commonly wager on sports, the lottery or illegal numbers games.

Men and women choose different types of gambling because they are addicted for different reasons. A man may bet on horses, Lesieur said, because the competition is exciting. “They are into the handicapping. Their intention is to win money.” Female gamblers, he said, often are trying to relieve loneliness or to escape an alcoholic husband or a traumatic past.

Dr. Richard J. Rosenthal of Beverly Hills, a psychiatrist who is president of the California Council on Compulsive Gambling, said that he has noticed two patterns among female gamblers.

“The first woman feels empty and depressed,” he said. “She is more apt to be a solitary gambler, spending hours in front of the slot machines or playing video poker. This may also be the lottery addict.

A Social Outlet

“In the second group, loneliness seems most striking and gambling provides a social outlet. Competitive aspects are less important than they are with her male counterparts. She views the people that she is playing cards with, for example, as friends.”

Women also start gambling later than men--in adulthood--but get hooked quickly, Rosenthal said. “Most men start in childhood or early adolescence. A boy might lose his collection of baseball cards on a bet at age 6 or 8.”

Massive social changes have made it easier for women to be pulled into gambling, just as men have been, said Valerie Lorenz, director of the National Center for Pathological Gambling in Baltimore, Md.

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“Twenty years ago if someone wanted to gamble on a legal basis, she would have to fly to Las Vegas or drive to a race track, which (might) be in the next state,” Lorenz said.

“First of all, society ruled that she had to be accompanied by her husband or an escort. Additionally, that took money, big money, and a woman did not have it. A woman did not have her own credit card or her own checking account or job.

“Nowadays, she has money from her job or her credit card and she can walk down the street and use her food money to buy lottery tickets at the grocery store. Or she can go play bingo.”

Although more women and minorities are entering private treatment or Gamblers Anonymous, still only a small fraction of those addicted seek help. Margie, a compulsive gambler from Santa Monica, agreed with other GA members that she invariably saw only a few women or non-whites at meetings. Experts say many newcomers enter the group but don’t stay.

“If a woman is going to be the only female in a room with 30 to 50 men at a GA meeting, she is going to have a hard time,” Rosenthal said. “She may have a hard time identifying with their issues as they might with hers. In one situation, for example, a woman had been prostituting herself in order to continue her gambling habit. If she has to talk about that and is worried that the men are going to start hitting on her, it’s difficult.”

Intimidating to Women

“GA is still a predominantly white-male group,” Lorenz said. “It’s intimidating to women, and some gamblers’ wives resent the fact that the husband spends time with other gamblers, especially female gamblers, since he spent so much time away from home when he was gambling.”

Women who succeed in GA say that they joined when their lives had reached bottom and they were desperate to break their life style of lying, stealing and manipulating.

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“When I went in I became sexless,” said Diane, a West Los Angeles card player who joined the group 25 years ago. “I wasn’t a man or a woman. . . . I felt completely worthless. I felt like a thing. . . . I wanted a decent life, which I knew I was not going to get out there. I couldn’t stand the stress of lying and cheating and trying to get money.”

The male members respected her situation, and today she and other female and non-white GA members serenely recount their triumphs, no matter how seemingly commonplace.

“One day, on Nov. 20, 1984, I left the casino and two days later I came into GA,” said Johnny, who has not gambled since. “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

“When I quit gambling, my credit was not worth a good gosh darn,” Diane said. “I couldn’t have borrowed 10 cents from any bank in the world. Today I have triple-A credit and that is a wonderful feeling. I worked hard enough to get it up there. When I got my first credit card, I thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world.”


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