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A Gambler's Lotto Meltdown

By Chris Wright 03/06/12

Glamorous tales abound of high-rollers losing millions in a night. But most gambling addicts go bankrupt one scratch card at a time.

Few compulsive gamblers are high rollers

It all started with a Lucky Bag.

In the early 1970s, when I was seven or eight, I lived with my family on the tenth floor of a concrete block in West London. The stairway smelled of piss and stubbed-out cigarettes. Outside there were other buildings just like ours, and beyond these were other buildings just like those. As I look back on it now, it appears barren, everything rendered in black-and-white. But those Lucky Bags were something else.

They came in pink and blue, with an inverted horseshoe printed on the side. Their contents were a secret. You might get a plastic magnifying glass, a plastic compass, or a key chain, depending on your luck. The only constants were the boiled sweets and bad jokes. ("Q: What's brown and sticky? A: A stick!") I loved them.

Other kids would take their pocket money to the corner shop and emerge with armfuls of gob stoppers and super balls. For me, it had to be the Bag. I'd grab as many as I could afford and rattle them on the way home, anxious with anticipation. And while the stuff they contained would invariably amount to less than if I'd bought off the shelf, the appeal endured. The thing is: you never knew what might be inside.

Everyone with addictive or compulsive tendencies has spent time trying to untangle the root of their problem. As a problem gambler of some standing, I'm all too familiar with the usual suspects: the dopamine spritzed into my system by the chaos of risk and reward, the environmental determinants, the genetic antecedents, and the character flaws. But I always seem to return to the Lucky Bags. These are the guys, after all, that got me dabbling in the area between what is and what if.

By my early teens I'd graduated to the slot machines—or the fruities, as they’re called in London. The city is dotted with fruitie parlors, carpeted rooms crazed with flickering lights and electronic squawks. I quickly became a regular at the Play and Win close to where I lived. Oh, how we laughed, my fellow coin-clackers and I, clean of foot and sunny of outlook. I had soon made enough to buy my own copy of How to Beat the Fruit Machines, which I studied diligently. By the time I moved to the US, in my early 20s, I had made a few dozen dollars. I was brimming with confidence.

I wish I could go to Monte Carlo and bet the farm on an ill-fated straight flush. But, again, I barely have enough to bet the milk, let alone the homestead. So I'm reduced to bankrupting myself bit by bit on these mundane, shit-kicker games. It's embarrassing.

Things took a downward turn in Boston when I discovered scratch tickets. Just the mention of them has "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" lumbering through my head. More than 150 million of these toxic enticements are sold every day in the United States—that's one for every other citizen. That's how I assimilated. You'd see me on the buses, nicking away at an Instant Millions, or in the barrooms, my nose pressed into a Set for Life. One card at a time, it drained my bank account. I wrecked my marriage and alienated my friends. I had landlords frothing on my doorstep, bosses asking where the hell I'd been all afternoon, when the truth was too humiliating to relate: I was sitting on a stoop, or at a cafe, scratching at rolls of cards for hours at a time. So I'd stop playing. I was always stopping. There were times when I'd spend entire weeks forgoing the opportunity to become a wealthy man.

Things improved when I moved to Dubai, in 2004. Here, gambling is prohibited, and for six years I only ever played when I went abroad, mostly in casinos. I had some great nights and some horrible nights, but they were only nights. For the most part, I'd learned to live without the tingle of possibility. It was boring. Then, in 2010, I moved to Spain, and—surpresa!—discovered the fruit machines all over again. A year later I was back in England, living with my sister, scrabbling to make a living, mainlining Rainbow Riches and Reel King. A dopamine junkie.

Chemical infusions aside, I still cling to the idea that has to be some level of reasoning in all this, and here, once again, I return to the principle that led me to invest in Lucky Bags. It goes something like this: You have a little cash in your pocket, enough to buy a pack of smokes, a sandwich, and a beer. This is your immediate future, and it is fixed. Put that money into a fruit machine, and instantly new horizons open. Invest in a top-of-the-line scratchie, and there's a blossoming of possibility—houses, cars, holidays. You won't get these things, of course, but that's not the point. The point is, you could.

To complicate matters, I have a problem distinguishing chance from luck. Every time I miss the bus,  I suspect that the cosmos is somehow involved. This metaphysical grudge, I think, just feeds the gambling bug. As Dostoyevsky's Gambler put it, in the midst of a horrible losing streak: "A strange sensation rose up in me, a sort of defiance of fate, a desire to challenge it, to put out my tongue at it." And fate responded by bopping the guy in the face: "I walked away from the table as though I were stunned. I could not even grasp what had happened to me."

So the Gambler plays the role of tragic hero, brought down by his willingness to butt heads with fortune. What courage! What folly! It's not quite the same, is it, when you're debating whether your last two dollars should be spent on a carton of milk or a couple of spins on Cops 'N' Robbers. I wish I could go to Monte Carlo and bet the farm on an ill-fated straight flush. But, the truth is, I barely have enough to bet the milk, let alone the homestead. So I'm reduced to bankrupting myself bit by bit on these mundane, shit-kicker games. It's embarrassing.

When you think about stopping for good, you imagine a watershed, a point where you unmistakably clatter to your lowest ebb: the judge banging his gavel; the straight-backed chair teetering beneath your feet. This is harder to achieve when ruin comes in increments, when you stumble-bump your way to the bottom. I had a run-in with an editor and former friend the other day, a guy who had promised work and then failed to deliver. "Did we owe you something?" he wrote after I bemoaned his lack of consideration. "Was it us sitting on our arses all day playing fruities?"

That's low, but is it low enough? What about the lying? The begging and bartering? What about going into your local shop to ask for a pack of smokes on spec and being turned away? Or watching your three-year-old daughter eat the last of the fish fingers and hoping she leaves a little for you? Every indignity and deprivation leads to a promise: This is the end! You will stop. You’ll get better. You will get back on your feet again.

But then you do get back on your feet again. You approach the betting shop and it's just a quick spin, a little recreational flutter. Then, oh go on, throw in another 20. You can spare it. Just see what happens. Then check to see what you have left—60 out of 100. That's not good. Try again, see if you can't make at least some of your spent money back. So you throw in another 20. And then another. Nothing to do now but keep going. Come on, come on. This isn't fair. Come on! What are the odds?

By the time you get down to your last five, you're steaming, driven by nothing but impulse. Everything is heightened now, the fear and the excitement, and with every failed bet the thrill intensifies. Because as bad as your losses may be, you are aware, too, that you are on the brink of something spectacular—that moment when you pull back from the edge. The anticipation of this moment, the potential for an explosion of relief, is enough to make you believe it will happen, right up until the final spin.

I remember being in a casino in Prague a few years back, watching a guy place enormous bets on the roulette table. Hit or miss, he maintained the same expression—a kind of indifferent semi-scowl. He might have been ironing clothes, or attending the funeral of a person he didn't much like. Maybe he was howling inside, but I don't think that’s the case. More likely, his financial situation was such that the individual bets didn't matter. He'd assess his wins and losses later, and experience some sort of emotion then. But right now, he was just in the game.

Then there's me, a roiling crucible of anxiety and magical thinking. But I have a lot more in common with the Prague gambler than it seems. When you're gambling, money has a very narrow purpose: to keep the game going—and, therefore, the feel-good chemicals flowing. This is why the purest form of the experience comes when the last-ditch wager bears fruit. The feelings aroused by this moment lead you to a rattle bag of inadequate phrases. You feel...intense joy. But this hardly ever happens. Instead, you simply run out of money, after which you stand for a moment or two, pressing unresponsive buttons. And then you quickly crash.

There were times, after opening those Lucky Bags, that I'd come across a toy so unequivocally horrific that I'd simply drop it down the center of the stairwell of our apartment building. After a while, I started doing the same thing with the toys I liked. I liked watching the toys plummet down, pin-wheeling against the railings and disintegrating before they were swallowed by the gloom.

Chris Wright is a London-based editor and writer. He is currently enjoying a fruit machine-free lifestyle. Mostly.


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London-based writer Chris Wright is a frequent contributor to The Fix. One of his recent pieces wondered if the disease model is an easy way out.