This is a Guest Post, submitted by Aaron Isaac, a reader who very openly shares his story of compulsive gambling. Please follow Aaron on Twitter @WillPower440.
In 2000, I was a little late to the party but more than eager to join in. The internet’s growth and popularity were soaring exponentially by the time 26-year-old me went on a $1,500 shopping spree at a nearby Gateway Country Store, toting home the shiny new toy that was our family’s first personal computer.
The dial-up modem connection speed, along with the free NetZero disk to get started, would no doubt leave today’s tech-savvy youth shaking their heads out of pity and/or disbelief. But at the time it was a glorious and enchanting connection to the new “information superhighway.” And information was absolutely the name of the game in my favorite pastime – horse racing.
The year 2000 is by no means the beginning of my gambling story, but an important turning point. My life had good balance, with all the important (for me) boxes checked. Family man? Check. Good job? Check. Terrific marriage? Check. Happy, healthy kids? Check.
Already married with two kids in my early 20’s, I embraced the family lifestyle. Most of my free time was enjoyed being a dad and husband. As for indulging in my favorite hobby, there was little stigma attached. With spousal approval and a bit of gamble in the family genes, my heading out to the track on occasion provided a release from the day-to-day grind of long work hours and chasing the rug rats around the house.
Why horse racing? A journalism grad, I once aspired to be a turf writer (reporting on horse racing for a living), but I relished the gambling aspect of the sport and didn’t end up pursuing a career in journalism. Usually on weekends, I had an on-and-off routine of going to the local tracks (Thistledown and Northfield Park), mixing in an occasional out of town day trip to off-track betting parlors in Erie or New Castle, Pa. or even Mountaineer or Wheeling, W. Va., the first of the nearby locales to offer the added bonus of video poker machines. I (mostly) limited my betting exposure to a preset amount and made a social event out of big days like the Kentucky Derby, Little Brown Jug, and Breeders’ Cup – gathering at the track clubhouse with family and friends, where we’d dine together and pool our $100 apiece and divvy up the winnings or split the losses.
I developed an affinity for horse playing while in my teens. My Pops (a lifelong horseplayer) taught me how to read the racing program — treating each race as a puzzle you can solve strategically, using logic and creativity. I admit to having filled a couple bookshelves in pursuit of winning techniques.
Well read on the sport and gambling in general, I knew that for all but the top five percent of astute horseplayers (whose handicapping expertise and money discipline are unwavering) betting is a losing proposition in the long run. By my mid-20’s I had my suffered my share of undisciplined losing and resolved to better manage my wagering bankroll and stay within the confines of our entertainment budget in order to make it work as a viable hobby. My logic was simple. Some guys play golf. Others go fishing or participate in hobby X. My thing was horse racing. And with all the above “life boxes” checked off, I was enjoying the sport guilt-free, while not breaking the bank.
However, once the internet connection went live at home for me, my hobby jumped a gear or two into overdrive. Instead of a gratifying release with social benefits, it morphed into an unhealthy obsession enjoyed primarily in solitude. On my new Gateway PC, the ease of access to an endless stream of horse racing news, race programs, and strategies was mind-bending. I signed up for an online wagering account on Youbet.com and could be “at the track,” without having to announce that I’d be heading out to the track — in the basement with the Gateway, even while in my pajamas throwing in a load of laundry. Fueled by a steady rush of internet-induced dopamine, the lunacy of living a double life began for me.
To that end, there’s no arguing that the internet connection became my own personal gateway into the precarious, secretive world of online gambling. Beginning with horse racing, then virtual casinos, sports betting, and poker — my gambling jumped to previously unimaginable levels of frequency and stakes.
This will no doubt resonate with many who’ve been down this path. I started small, funding the new betting account with $200 from our checking account and soon worked it up to $700 before taking out profits and starting again. I was winning, but I was becoming fixated. During a losing streak, I funded the account for progressively larger amounts that would reach beyond our bank account.
Easy access to borrowed funds (our unblemished credit rating precipitated an on-going deluge of mail that teased with zero-percent introductory offers on new credit cards) truly paved the way for a temptingly high betting stake.
I took an initial $4,000 advance from Discover Card straight to Youbet.com. Predictable losses ensued, and a check for $5,000 from Chase followed suit and vaporized into online oblivion. My picks were coming close but missing. I was gambling more loosely while chasing losses at an alarming rate – certainly a familiar refrain for many who have addictive gambling tendencies.
Engrossed in the gambling bubble, I came up with a totally degenerate idea, disregarding all the rules of smart bankroll management. Relying on tools online combined with my own handicapping, I would immerse myself in the upcoming Kentucky Derby, carefully planning my wagering strategy, and going double or nothing for the $9,000 I was already behind. All of it gambled on a single race — an act that screamed of desperation.
I reloaded my account with another $9,000 in cash-advance funds and focused only on the Kentucky Derby race for the three weeks leading up to it, studying the past performances and analyzing every likely participant.
Recounting this story brings back an avalanche of mixed emotions, and on Derby Day I had the worst and the best feeling in the pit of my stomach simultaneously. The accompanying butterflies going all-in with a big bet felt sickening, yet exhilarating. The 2000 Derby was my biggest bet ever, and perhaps the worst result came. I nailed it and won big.
I wagered $8,000 on the favorite, Fusaichi Pegasus, who practically jumped off the Racing Form pages as my top pick. The horse had won four consecutive races, improving in each, and appeared to be entering the race in top condition. He was up against a field of 18 other horses, and I keyed him over the five horses I thought might be second best in $200 exactas. The race played out as I had predicted, with my pick settling in near the back of the pack, lingering in 11th place behind a scorching early pace set by the leaders. With a half mile to go in the mile-and-a-quarter race, everything clicked as jockey Kent Desormeaux weaved Fusaichi Pegasus skillfully in and out of traffic, and took the lead for the stretch run, driving home a winner. In the course of 2 minutes, my angst turned into astonishment. My win bet returned $26,400. My $200 exacta ticket cashed for $6,600.
Even now, nearly 18 years later, I’m getting worked up as if this were some triumph of human spirit or a display of handicapping greatness. I don’t mean to present it that way. Rather, I bring it up in detail to show the desperation and excitement that an out-of-control gambler may display to “get even.” It seldom works out, but in this case, I was lucky. While the math reveals that I got more than even that day, showing a $15,000 profit from the whole four-month ordeal, it was in retrospect the worst thing that could have happened for me. Every problem gambler reading this will know the reason why: I simply couldn’t stop. Even the biggest of big wins for me wouldn’t suffice.
In the short run, I did the dutiful thing and cashed out nearly the entire amount (before dropping the remaining $500 on the Preakness two weeks later), and paid off the credit cards. Instead of wisely putting the money aside for a future car purchase or emergency savings, I turned it into a five-figure gambling bankroll that was fueled with overconfidence at best, and at worst, gluttony. The lust to regain the feelings of that big win would cost me dearly. Psychologically I was a mess with an overblown sense of self-worth that was misguided and unsustainable while beaming with pride that was derived secretly (I told no one of my 4-month roller coaster ride or the big win). I soon learned that becoming “king of the mountain” for all but the most disciplined gambler (which I clearly was not!) is the ultimate mirage.
The degenerate in me thought I was pretty slick. I gambled dangerously and walked away unscathed. In my mind, repeating with another big win was inevitable. In reality, four-figure losing days online or in person at the track and casinos would become the norm, and the years that followed included a tenuous mix of giving my best effort to live naturally as a good family man, while acting out on those unnatural, but overbearing, urges to gamble heavily in secret.
I expanded my unhealthy gambling horizons into other arenas, opening betting accounts with off-shore websites where online casino and sports betting were considered legal. Discovering online blackjack, I found myself betting upwards of $200 per hand. (Looking back, betting such crazy amounts on a computer screen with virtual cards, might have been the ultimate bizarre behavior.) I was using sites like MVPsportsbook.com, but in my heart, I felt like anything but an MVP. The urge to continue gambling heavily was far greater than the growing guilt and shame that accompanied the gluttony.
Fueling the fire, I enjoyed my share of good fortune early on at the virtual casinos, naively basing this on the notion that I had unlocked some secret key to success by playing in the wee hours of the night. And all common sense continued to fly out the window. After a remarkable winning streak in which I caught fire betting on baseball and playing blackjack, a $500 online deposit skyrocketed to $8,000 over a few weeks. I shamefully emptied my entire MVP account in a horrible night of blackjack. I grew to treat money as an account balance on a computer screen, where the number was never big enough to be cashed out. At a brick and mortar casino, I would’ve never bought in for $8,000 at a blackjack table. I would just as soon pay off a car loan or take a chunk off the mortgage. But online, these numbers on a screen merely beckoned more and more online play, and balances were quickly, and nearly always, vanquished.
I soon became entrenched in online poker as Texas Hold’em became the rage, opening accounts with Party Poker, Ultimate Bet Poker, Full Tilt – you name it, I tried it. (Picture also a row of poker books currently gathering dust alongside my horse racing collection.) At our home, we once hosted weekly friendly games with family and friends for a $5-entry tournament fee and $2 re-buys while enjoying pizza and snacks. Later at night, after the party dispersed, I’d sit down at my computer and play in a multitude of $50 tournaments and $500 buy-in cash games on Party Poker, now giving myself heartburn at the thought of it all.
At times I showed the discipline to stop playing while ahead and withdraw the cash. But I was more often prone to the disastrous loss-chasing — known in gambling parlance as tilting — that would be my ultimate downfall. In the years that followed the big Derby win, I went on tilt often, losing back all of the Derby Day profits and plenty more by continuing the cycle of loss chasing and betting more and more heavily.
Gambling this much in secret felt shameful deep down, but I somehow skated around it with the reasoning that I was working hard and as the primary wage earner I was entitled. My never-ending optimism gave my gambling brain all the assurance it needed to continue – “knowing” that another winning streak was just around the corner to get me even. All the while my spouse was immersed in being a super-mom (she gave her all to raising our three kids as well as providing day care for nieces and nephews when they were toddlers), so she couldn’t possibly notice the secret path that I hid so well.
I thought being in constant action was my easiest path to excitement and getting something more out of life. Looking back it was more like an empty bridge to nowhere. I just wish that I would have realized sooner that my family life gave me all the love and meaning that I needed to be fulfilled.
For random stretches, my gambling went dormant. In 2005, we had our third child, a beautiful daughter, and all focus went to her for a long time. Eventually, sports betting and poker playing online became much more difficult with new U.S. laws (namely the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006) and the UIGEA’s enforcement with the “Black Friday” freezing of U.S. poker player’s funds that rocked the industry in 2011. But after awhile, I would be triggered to begin gambling again – perhaps the impetus was boredom with my job or a failing new small business. The cycle of win small, then lose small, before losing big would begin again.
In the blink of an eye, 17 years of online gambling have passed. Fast forwarding to today, my urges for heavy action have mostly subsided. I’m pretty well exhausted mentally with the roller coaster ride. My thoughts have shifted, ever more aware that the next big disappointment (and not the next big win) is right around the corner.
I have never thought of myself as a compulsive, but I can relate to being a problem gambler with addictive tendencies that rise up when opportunity and boredom converge. I’ve never been to a meeting (maybe that’s a subject for another day), but I understand that an important step in Gamblers Anonymous includes turning things over to a higher power as part of recovery. I’ve done the same, though on my own terms, over the last several years by praying often about it and attending church more regularly with my family. While I haven’t relinquished gambling on all levels, I’m more and more sickened by the thought of an intense day of gambling, where once I would plan a vacation day for it.
Now at 44, it makes me sad that because of gambling I haven’t reached my potential in many areas. I’ve settled for a safe, but mundane, job that’s paid well enough to raise a family, but I haven’t utilized my writing or creative talents I once held passionately. Additionally, I have been putting off financial goals for a long time (in large part because of gambling) — but they’re still within reach if I go after them with the same fervor I once used to handicap the Racing Form. More than anything I’m angry at myself for withholding the truth of all this from my spouse, the one true love in my life with whom I’ve otherwise shared all the best (and rocky) moments.
While sounding cliché, perhaps money is truly the root of evil for me. When gambling, I become greedy to the point of wanting to win an endless sum – regardless of the likelihood of the eventual loss. As I’ve proven over and over, no win is big enough to satisfy.
These truths have led me to begin forging a new path, one that doesn’t focus on money. I’ve become a regular “Meals on Wheels” volunteer, delivering hot lunches to shut-ins and elderly once a week for the past five years. As a constant self-reminder of my own tendencies, I’ve recently started a new Twitter account (@WillPower440), dedicated to my personal growth. Thanks in no small part to the social network of friends I’ve acquired online who are in various stages of addiction and recovery, I am thinking twice and considering the inevitable consequences before acting on a gambling urge.
I haven’t funded my horse racing account nor have I been to the casino in the months since becoming active with the new Twitter account. I’ve been learning so much about the completely widespread online gambling platforms that exist in the UK and elsewhere in the world that I’m beginning to see myself turning anti-gambling! (Had I grown up in the UK, with so many online options and bookie’s joints, I may have destroyed myself.)
With much recent contemplation, I am at a crossroads. I don’t feel like I want to completely give up gambling. I’m still a fantasy football nut, and while my fantasy sports endeavors are small potatoes, money changes hands every year based on some measure of good or bad fortune. Actively participating in five fantasy leagues (I’m commissioner in my hometown league), I enjoy them as much for the social connections shared as the competition. But I know well that small stakes can lead to unhealthy larger stakes. I find myself now, more than ever, in control of those triggers that once led me down dark and dangerous paths of out-of-control behavior. I believe that through focusing on relationships and God, I can prove to be a better steward of money, and begin again to enjoy small stakes bets for the entertainment of them. I am trusting that this new path of mine will ultimately let me know if I can continue at a reduced level, or if I need to abandon gambling activities altogether. I am fully prepared to try GA if I prove unable to control these sometimes harmful urges.
Finally, to my wife and everyone close to me, from whom I have kept this problem hidden for so long, I am truly sorry for not being forthcoming. The truth is painful for me to announce, but I feel it’s paramount to my own growth and ability to forge a new path. Thank you for taking the time to read my story.