Top 10 Scenes About Gambling Addiction

Top 10 Scenes About Gambling Addiction

By Paul Fuhr 07/10/17

Any addicted person understands the dopamine rush that happens when you get the hit from whatever you're chasing: booze, sex, food, or even a Facebook “like.”

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Scene from Twilight Zone "The Fever"
These powerful scenes accurately portray gambling addiction in its various manifestations

My family has visited Vegas for so long that I remember when the only family-friendly attraction was the clown nightmare of Circus Circus. The colored castle turrets weren’t even atop Excalibur yet. My sister and I sat for hours in a hotel room, watching TV as a gaudy circuit-board of lights and life pulsed outside our window. And I’m not going to lie: as a husky tween, the breakfast buffets were much more spectacular than any inch of the Strip. (I still remember mountains of little silver-dollar apple pancakes, for some reason.) My parents would whisk us through the sprawling casino floors, where stale cigarette smoke and the sound of ringing bells hung thick over the ugly carpets. It was an assault on the senses. I’d lie awake later, still hearing the sound of coins clattering out of slot machines. What I remember more than silver-dollar apple pancakes, though, is the hollow desperation of it all. Even at a young age, if I stared at anything in Vegas for longer than a few seconds, I could see the frayed edges in fabric as much as the squared jaws of people spending more than they should.

As a recovering alcoholic, there’s no shortage of ways I can describe the electric rush of getting that first drink into my system. Any person who's experienced addiction understands the thunderclap that happens when you get the hit from whatever it is you’re chasing: booze, sex, food, or the split-second dopamine rush of a Facebook “like.” Gambling is no different. Very often, it’s not the casual fun from Swingers or, hell, the early moments of The Hangover. It’s like any other addiction: the bottom eventually gives out. When I was old enough to drink and play blackjack, I’d lose all my money in no time flat, then quickly cash out credit card balances to play some more. I get it. And from the visceral thrill of winning to the thousand-yard stare of losing, sometimes movies and TV get it, too. Here are ten scenes that remind me what it’s like to be caught on the roulette wheel of addiction, never quite sure where you’ll land.

Rain Man (1988)

This scene perfectly captures the narcotic rush of casino gambling. With the odds (literally) stacked in favor of Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), thanks to his savant brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), it harnesses all the kinetic bombast of Las Vegas in less than three minutes. With a few quick edits and sweeping camera angles, the casino floor assaults Raymond from every possible angle. At first, he’s momentarily dazed and struggling to take it all in. But once he does, he immediately locks into counting the six-deck shoe in a sequence that’s all but gambling porn. It’s wish fulfillment for any compulsive gambler who's had Vegas swallow them whole.

Lost in America (1985)

Writer/actor/director triple threat Albert Brooks has repeatedly created comedies that hinge on his laconic dry wit (Defending Your Life, Modern Romance, Mother). As married yuppies (does anyone use the term “yuppie” anymore?), Brooks and his wife, played by Julie Hagerty, drop out of their L.A. jobs with $100,000 and decide to travel the country in their new Winnebago. Unfortunately, they make it as far as Las Vegas before he discovers his wife, crazy-eyed, at a roulette table. The pit boss tells him that she “hasn’t been on a lucky streak”—an understatement, given that she’s lost their entire nest egg. In the blink of an eye, everything’s gone and she places her final chips in a crazy pursuit of landing on 22. For a split second, Brooks catches the contagious thrill of winning before eventually dragging her away from the table and begging the casino for their money back. It’s a Hollywood moment, sure, but it’s a moment that’s probably happened in real life more times than people realize.

The Hustler (1961) & The Color of Money (1986)

Paul Newman stars as “Fast” Eddie Felson in not one, but two movies—with nearly thirty years between them. The Hustler pits Eddie against Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in a world of smoky pool halls and thumb-breaking heavies. Like Rounders’ Mike McDermott, Eddie isn’t addicted to gambling so much as winning. He manages to roundly defeat Fats to the point of being asked to retire from the game. “I quit, Eddie,” Fats concedes. “I can’t beat you.” When Eddie walks out of the pool hall, it’s assumed it’s forever. Decades later, though, Eddie meets Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise)—a young pool player who slashes his cue stick around like a Samurai sword when he’s not striking down competitors in the same way Eddie did years before. Eventually, the two square off against each other in Atlantic City (and, later, in a private match) which darkly suggests that an addicted person can’t ever truly escape their addictions. Combined, both films become a single cautionary tale that warns: No matter how many years have passed, addiction will be right there to welcome you back.

Indecent Proposal (1993)

I remember sneaking into this movie, thinking it’d be a lot more lurid than it actually was. (I actually remember nothing more than the Sade song “No Ordinary Love” and the Jurassic Park trailer before the movie.) This Demi Moore-Woody Harrelson-Robert Redford drama doesn’t just feature one of the weirdest starring lineups ever—it boasts a plot that’s as simple as it is mind-boggling. Moore and Harrelson play married high-school sweethearts who lose all their money on roulette at Vegas, only to be engaged by Redford’s billionaire character after Moore sends him on a winning streak. The titular “proposal” is one night with Demi Moore for a million dollars. (It’s an offer that apparently sounds reasonable, given that the couple has lost all their money gambling on roulette.) If nothing else, the film suggests that you can gamble with relationships as much as money—and lose at both.

Rounders (1998)

When I was a movie theater projectionist, we had this movie for a week. Maybe two. Before it hit video, I watched it three times. I was as addicted to it as much as Matt Damon’s character Mike McDermott is addicted to winning at poker. While the movie is arguably not about gambling and more about being talented at playing the game, there’s a spine of addiction through it all. McDermott describes how he feels walking into an underground poker hall: “Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.” When he’s gutted by John Malkovich’s Teddy KGB in this scene, you feel queasy watching all the chips get swept to the center. As the blood drains from McDermott’s face, Rounders delivers a brutal reminder that addiction can sneak in sideways when you’re most confident.

The Cooler (2003)

Bernie Lootz’s job is to cause others to lose. Turns out, he’s naturally unlucky. There are countless stories and myths about real-life “coolers” who bring swift ends to people’s hot streaks at casino tables. As portrayed by William H. Macy, Bernie is as downtrodden as his low-rent apartment. If you can’t see it in his limp and his stooped posture, you can certainly see it in his eyes. A former gambling addict who’s now paying off his debt to casino boss Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), Bernie is surrounded, day in and day out, by his former temptations. It’s like an alcoholic working as a bartender. By the film’s end, Bernie’s luck has swung in the other direction to the point where he improbably breaks free of his addiction (and debt) by diving right back into hell.

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Before it was remade into a gonzo post-Katrina flick starring Nicolas Cage, this Harvey Keitel film notoriously features one of movie history’s most irredeemable main characters. He’s an alcoholic, drug-addled, compulsive gambler who also happens to be a NYC cop. Strung out and desperate, Keitel’s unnamed lieutenant is a human train wreck in slow motion. The film doesn’t pretend to treat him as a hero or even an antihero. His vices have completely corroded him to the core—so much so that there’s almost no human left. He’s just the husk of a person, like some plastic bag tumbling down an empty alleyway. It’s this scene, however, that shows just how unhinged his gambling addiction has made him. Driving his car, he drinks and drugs through the Bronx in broad daylight, talking to his radio as a baseball game unfolds. When he realizes he’s lost a lot of money thanks to the game, he takes out his revolver and shoots a hole in the dashboard. It’d almost be hilarious in any other movie but, here, it’s a forced reflection of what’s left of his life.

The Gambler (1974)

This film choice is probably a little too on-the-nose, but any list of films about gambling addiction wouldn’t be complete without it. Writer James Toback’s script draws from his own life story, which follows Axel Freed (James Caan, in an award-winning performance) as a Harvard-educated professor in NYC whose gambling addiction causes his carefully measured, staid life to crumble. While the plot of the film is summed up in the movie poster (“For $10,000, they break your arms. For $20,000, they break your legs. Axel Freed owes $44,000”), it’s actually much worse than that. Freed secures the $44,000 early in the film, which he promptly blows in Vegas on basketball gambling. While losing the money (and some of the film’s later violence) is harrowing in and of itself, the real tragedies come in the form of his family’s shame, disgust and disappointment with what he’s become.

Owning Mahowny (2003)

An underrated gem, Owning Mahowny stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as a bank manager who, as he gets promoted, gets access to larger amounts of money that he can embezzle. Unbeknownst to anyone, Hoffman’s character Dan Mahowny is also an unrepentant gambler who starts taking regular trips to Atlantic City. (It’s also remarkable that the drama isn’t fiction—it’s based on the true story of Brian Molony, who skimmed well over $10 million in 18 months from the banks he worked for.) In this bravura sequence, Mahowny rolls into Atlantic City with gusto and manages to win millions under the watchful eye of the casino manager (a dapper John Hurt). Punctuated with the arrival of the police, you can feel the walls closing in on Mahowny who still, mind-blowingly, refuses to stop playing. It’s a scene that’s as tense as any slasher film.

The Twilight Zone (“The Fever”)

For me, part of the inherent creepiness of Rod Serling’s anthology series has always been its stark black-and-white palette. Even today, most of the episodes hold up to my terrified memories of them. (Thanks a lot, “The Dummy,” for making me forever afraid of ventriloquist acts.) “The Fever,” an early episode of the show from 1960, follows a married couple who win an all-expenses-paid trip to a Las Vegas hotel. “One of them will succumb to an illness worse than any virus can produce,” Serling warns in the opening narration. “A most inoperative, deadly life-shattering affliction known as The Fever.” Sure enough, the husband swiftly descends into madness after playing one particular slot machine. He’s haunted by the one-armed bandit to the point where he believes it’s alive and refusing to pay out. Eventually, he’s caught The Fever of gambling addiction, as the slot machine literally chases him down a hotel hallway to his death. It’s a simple allegory, yes, but it’s also simply terrifying in everything it says about addiction.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.

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