I Was a Compulsive Gambler
The story of one man’s successful struggle to break free, after seventeen years as a compulsive gambler
I STILL feel the gambling urge sometimes, such as when walking past an Off-Track Betting parlor. Crowds may be spilling out onto the street, racing forms in hand. Before realizing it, I think to myself, “I wonder if I can still pick winners?” The thought seems just to pop into mind. I fight it off—looking the other way and quickening my pace.
For over seventeen years I was a compulsive gambler. Betting controlled my life. I just had to bet. It was more important to me than eating, drinking, sleeping, sex—everything!
WHAT LIFE WAS LIKE
During those years I stayed up nights “handicapping” horses—selecting ones on which to bet the next day. Or I worked nights in order to be free to spend days at the track. I begged, borrowed and stole money to gamble. Everything we had of value was in some hock shop.
After getting paid, I would go to the track. “I’ll bet $10 and see if I can increase it,” I would tell myself. The horse would lose, and I would say: “I’ve got to get my money back; I’ve got to get even.” Time and time again I lost my paycheck this way.
That meant there was no money for food, clothing or rent. Many times I went hungry, but so did my wife and two daughters. We had little to wear, and often we were evicted by landlords for not paying the rent. Or we moved to avoid shylocks.
Practically every gambler I knew was paying off a shylock—often several of them. Legitimate creditors will not lend to persons deeply in debt. But these underworld moneylenders will.
I used to go to a shylock and get maybe $25. For a $25 loan a person had to pay $30 back. The payments might be $6 a week for five weeks. If a person could not pay during a certain week, he would give what was called vigorish, about $2 on a $25 loan. But this $2 was not applicable to the principal. A person could pay $2 vigorish a week indefinitely, and still owe the remaining principal. Of course, $2 may not sound like anything now, but it was then in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Those shylocks could be rough. They had their strong-arm men. I remember a friend of mine getting beaten up terribly because he was unable to pay. So I often lived in fear. When things got really desperate, I packed up and left. Fortunately, none of my family or I was ever hurt physically.
It may be hard for you to believe how much gambling goes on. Wherever I worked, which usually was in restaurants and bars, all a person heard was “the horses.” But other gambling was done too.
There were elaborate underworld places all around New York. But one needed connections and “approval” to get in. They had roulette, poker playing, dice games—all kinds of gambling. I would visit these. But most of my betting was on horses.
I often went to the track, but did even more betting with local bookies. This was more exciting, for a person can get greater action. What I mean is that bookies offer all kinds of complicated horsebetting possibilities; playing horses at various tracks in parlays, back to back, round robin, numbers, and so forth. Legal operations do not offer these. This is one reason why they are not so attractive to sophisticated gamblers.
Numbers betting is an especially big attraction. I would bet them six days a week. The numbers for each day were composed of three digits, for example, 8-3-9. The first digit was obtained by taking the last dollar-digit from the total pari-mutuel payments after the day’s first three races. If the payment was $359.73 after those races, the first digit was 9. Then after the fifth and seventh races the total pari-mutuel payments were used in the same way to get the last two digits.
I would often place my bets with a middleman who worked for a bookie. For a long time my steady middleman for numbers was our milkman. Usually I bet fifty cents, each morning giving him the money and the numbers slip. I remember once hitting the entire number straight 8-3-9, for a payoff of $300—a lot of money for fifty cents!
THE KIND OF ASSOCIATES
We gamblers spoke the same language, having the same predominant interest, with its accompanying excitement and troubles. But genuine concern for one another was sadly lacking. Take that milkman for example.
I trusted him, since I had known him a long time and he always paid off on my winners. So after I won that $300 I was not suspicious when he invited me over to his house for a big dice game. It was not until I had lost most of my money that I realized the game was crooked. I had been “taken.” But there is not much a person can do—it is difficult to prove.
However, that was far from the only time that “friends” cheated me. Once I gave money and a list of horses on which to place bets to a fellow worker. He worked a split shift, and was going to see the bookie that afternoon. Later I heard the racing results and was astonished that I had picked four winners! Of course, when my “friend” came in that evening I was excited and wanted my winnings. But he made some excuse as to why he had not made the bets. I could not prove it, but I am sure he had pocketed the winnings.
Gamblers are really a crooked crowd! Many a small-time bookie ran off with money I had won. But the truth is, I was no better. I often borrowed and never paid back, and even stole money outright. When I think back on some of those experiences, it saddens me.
ALLURE AND EXCITEMENT
I realized that the things I was doing were wrong. But I was enslaved by the habit, especially being captivated by the allure of easy money. That is actually what got me started in the first place playing horses.
I had gambled before, playing dice as a youngster on the streets of Philadelphia, and, later, poker aboard ship when I ran away to sea at age seventeen. But it was not until 1928, the year I got married, that I became interested in horses.
At the time I was working at a drugstore lunch counter at 49th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York. I was fascinated by the elation of horseplayers over their winnings. I learned later that they never mention their losses. “I’d better get in on some of this easy money,” I figured.
I noted that gamblers got their horse information in the Daily Mirror. So one day I selected two horses from there and bet on them. I still remember their names, Buck Hero and Sunflower. With “beginner’s luck,” I won on both of them!
Now I had winners, and so could talk knowledgeably with the other horseplayers. “Too bad you didn’t have a parlay,” one said, “you really would have made a killing.” Soon I was trying all betting possibilities. I really studied the horses, and began my own handicapping.
On occasion I went to the track and won big. I would really feel excited and proud. I might pay off a few debts, but the next day I would be back at the track ‘to make a really big killing’—and usually lost everything.
And yet we would keep gambling, always figuring to hit that big payoff. I was reared in a Catholic orphanage where I learned about praying. So I would often pray for winners—in desperation on occasion even praying to the Devil.
Part of gambling’s fascinating allure, I believe, is in the tremendous anticipation of the outcome. To prolong the exciting suspense I would often have someone check the racing results in the paper, and then ask the person such questions as: “Did the winner in the second race have ten letters in his name? How much weight did he carry? How much did he pay? Who was the jockey?”
After the first or second question I would know by the answers when I was building up to a winner. Then finally I would ask if so-and-so—the horse I had bet on—had won. My elation was tremendous on hearing that he had.
EFFORTS TO PICK WINNERS
Handicapping horses was an involved procedure. Sometimes it would take hours to choose one good horse to bet on. Often I would decide that a race had no good betting possibility. But then what happened?
That night I would dream about a particular horse winning, and would bet on him the next day. Or I would go to the track, and notice that Straw Hat was running and that, unconsciously, I had put on a straw hat. So, of course, I bet on Straw Hat. I remember that once a can of pineapple fell off a shelf and hit my brother on the head. Checking the entries that day, he noticed a horse named Pineapple running; he bet on him and won! Gamblers are that way. They are very superstitious. And so rather than stick to their studied-out selections, they play hunches.
I am sure the Catholic Church realizes this characteristic of gamblers. For the nuns were always near the racetrack with their collection boxes. How could a Catholic, as many of us were, pass up a “sister” and expect to have any success playing the horses? So we would contribute. And if we won that day we would then be especially generous, hoping it would bring continued success.
You know why I played the number 839 so much—the one that came in and paid me $300? Because I was born in the 8th month, my oldest daughter in the 3rd month and my wife in the 9th month. It was just superstition. I considered that my lucky number—and it did pay off a few times.
But the fact is, I lost more than I won, and life was miserable, especially for my family. I wanted to quit. I would resolve: “I’m not going to do it. I’m just not going to play the horses anymore. I’m not even going to look at a horse sheet.” Then what happened?
I would go to work, and the fellow next to me would say, “Hey, you know that I had so-and-so yesterday, and he paid so much.” I would think to myself, “I used to play that horse.” And, the first thing, I was back playing again.
A TURNING POINT
It was in 1944 that something occurred, however, that was eventually to change my life. I had temporarily moved with my family from New York to work at Patterson Field, some miles outside of Dayton, Ohio. My daughter subscribed to the magazine Seventeen, and a bonus offered a current best seller or the Bible. I chose the Bible since I had always wanted one. Then, just a few days later, a man called at my door and placed with me the book “The Truth Shall Make You Free.”
Some weeks later, while alone one night, I picked up the book and began reading. It made more sense to me than anything I had ever heard concerning religion and the Bible. I was convinced that it was pointing me toward something more wonderful than I had ever heard about in all my thirty-eight years.
I was elated when the man returned, and so accepted his invitation to attend a meeting of Jehovah’s witnesses. But then I got sick. After a long stay in the hospital I returned to New York. However, the man in Ohio arranged for a Witness to call on me there.
Accepting an invitation to a meeting, I noted that the Witness who accompanied me did not smoke, so I asked him: “Do Jehovah’s witnesses smoke?” Upon getting a negative response, I remember thinking to myself: “Well, that leaves me out. Smoking and gambling are two habits that I’ll never be able to give up.” But I was wrong.
WHAT MADE THE CHANGE POSSIBLE
For the first time I began to appreciate what a grand Creator we have. Oh, I believed in God before. I knew he existed. How else could intelligent life, with all its complexities, have come about? But now God began to be real to me. I could see that he had purposes for the blessing of mankind.
Many times before I had prayed the prayer taught us in the orphanage: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:9, 10, Douay Version) But now I began to appreciate that God’s kingdom is a real government, and that we had finally reached the time in history when God had set that government in operation, with world-shaking consequences.
I was convinced that this system surely needs to be replaced. And it thrilled me to learn that Almighty God was really going to bring it about. The prophecy in the Bible book of Daniel especially became meaningful to me: “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be brought to ruin. And the kingdom itself will . . . crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it itself will stand to times indefinite.” (Dan. 2:44) The Bible promises of an earthly paradise, with freedom from even sickness and death, also had a powerful influence on my life.—Ps. 37:9-11; Rev. 21:3, 4.
I decided that if that is what God purposed for the blessing of mankind, I could show my appreciation by doing my best to obey His requirements. One requirement I learned was that a man “provide for those who are his own, and especially for those who are members of his household.” (1 Tim. 5:8) So I began doing this, which, of course, necessitated greatly curtailing my gambling. My family and others who knew me could not help but be impressed by the change.
A growing desire to please Almighty God is what made this change possible. But vital, too, was reading the wholesome literature of Jehovah’s witnesses and regularly associating with them. Whenever I went to their meetings, they were always friendly. Even people I never knew came up and said Hello. And I could see that their friendship was real; it was not hypocritical. When you are regularly with people like that you are influenced in a really beneficial way. I even stopped smoking.
BREAKING COMPLETELY FREE
But gambling had a much stronger hold on me. I was surprised, for I thought it would be easier to quit than smoking. However, the gambling urge was overwhelming, causing me to rationalize, “There’s no scripture in the Bible against gambling. And I’m taking care of my family.” So I would bet occasionally. In fact, at my first assembly of Jehovah’s witnesses in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1946, I attended most of the sessions, but one afternoon I skipped to go to the racetrack.
I did this type of thing for years. I just could not resist the urge. “I have a few extra dollars,” I would reason excusingly. “I can afford to have a little fun.” However, in time I began to gamble more than I ever intended. Also about this time I got into financial trouble to the point that my position in the Christian congregation was in jeopardy. It was a crisis in my life.
However, Christian brothers lovingly came to my assistance. They patiently gave me counsel and direction. And from reading articles in The Watchtower and Awake! I began more fully to appreciate gambling as the evil it really is. Especially did the 1964 Awake! article “Is Gambling Right for Christians?” have an effect on me. It helped me to appreciate that there really is a scripture against gambling.
I knew how superstitious gamblers are, always trying to win by wooing “Lady Luck.” They will cheat and do almost anything to win—winning becomes an idol and Lady Luck a goddess. So the scripture discussed in that article, at Isaiah 65:11, really hit me. It speaks of those leaving the true God and “setting in order a table for the god of Good Luck and those filling up mixed wine for the god of Destiny.”
When reading this I began to appreciate how closely gambling is connected with false worship. In fact, it made me think back to how we would often note that persons won their first bets—“beginner’s luck,” we would say. But now I am convinced that this is the Devil’s scheme to lure people to gamble, in some way manipulating matters so they win at first, thus ensnaring them into a degrading form of false worship in which they come to idolize money and Good Luck.
With this appreciation of matters, I began fighting the gambling urge as never before. I just would not give in to it! It has been years now since my last bet, and I still get the urge. But because I know that Almighty God does not approve of gambling I am determined never to place a bet again.
If you ever are tempted to gamble, remember its terrible fruitage—what it does to people, how it degrades them and even entraps them in false worship. And do not place that first bet! If you already are ensnared by the compulsion to gamble, be assured that you can overcome it. There is a way, and Jehovah’s witnesses will be glad to help you, even as they helped me.—Contributed.