Coming Back from Going All In

I gambled and lost. And then I just kept gambling.

Photograph by Getty Images

Driving 90 miles per hour at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday, while screaming “FUCK” at the top of my lungs, was not how I had envisioned my evening when I headed out to the Bicycle Casino eight hours earlier. Based on many similar nights before, logic should’ve predicted the outcome. But doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is only the definition of insanity when other people do it.

Seeing firsthand the devastating effects obsessive gambling had on other people, I knew better than most that I should stay away. I had spent the last seven years working in various casinos around Southern California, and witnessed my fair share of hopeless gamblers chase after their lost money as well as the illusion of the big win.

Most people who work around gamblers fall into two categories: they’re either completely turned off by the entire heartbreaking scene, or they somehow ignore all the pain and inherent disadvantages built into the gaming world and get hooked themselves.

I despised the gamblers who inflicted endless amounts of grief towards me and my co-workers, and yet at the same time was able to convince myself I hadn’t become one of them. Even when I started squandering money on a regular basis, either in casinos or online, I wasn’t one of them.

During the online poker boom a few years ago, I (like so many others at the time) was convinced that I could actually grind out a living playing cards. It would be a long time before I could admit I was just gambling addict. I was certainly aware of my limitations — I lacked not only the patience but, most importantly, the money discipline.

I could never stick to a bankroll or refrain from betting higher limits until I could afford it, which is very often the undoing of even the most skilled poker players. I won several tournaments, making anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, but I always managed to lose it all. Those few wins, however, were enough of a rush to get me even more addicted.

If I wasn’t at the casino, I was playing poker online. When I lost at that (or didn't have a lot of time), I’d play blackjack online instead. These games felt like a complete scam, but that didn’t stop me from dumping a few hundred dollars in a few minutes — usually right after winning the first few hands. Then I'd curse my luck and stupidity, and vow never to do it again. Restraint not being one of my strong suits — along with the ease of gambling online — meant I'd end up back there soon enough, which of course I did. After losing a few thousand dollars more, I was finally able to quit blackjack altogether.

Not playing poker would take much longer.

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A big part of my addiction to online poker was the action. The emotional roller coaster of highs and lows was just so damn exciting — it made me feel alive. I’d be high for days after a big tournament win, but completely shutdown when I lost.

It was a secret life, which I had to constantly hide. I didn’t know how to tell my girlfriend at dinner on a Friday night how I had just lost $500 playing poker that afternoon. I waited until she fell asleep that night before hopping on the computer to play online until the sun came up, then quickly sneaking into bed before she awoke.

Even on my most successful nights, I just couldn’t stop. It was never enough. Constantly trying to balance the ordinary aspects of my life with the highs and lows became an incredibly difficult emotional grind. There was also the issue of controlling my emotions when I took a bad beat. In poker parlance, a "bad beat" is when you have a big statistical advantage in a hand, and your opponent catches a "lucky" card and wins. Whenever I lost a hand like that, I’d just explode. The best professional poker players don’t get emotional.

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I was not a pro.

Many a shirt was ripped off my body over a bad beat. Near the end of my gambling days, after an exceptional run of bad luck and on one last excruciatingly bad beat, I kicked in a door. Now, on top of losing money at poker, I’d have to spend money to fix the door – before my girlfriend got home. I was literally patching up my life and knew it was time to stop.

A few weeks later, I finally had enough courage to go through three years of bank statements to see how much money I had lost. It wasn’t pretty, but I was finally done with it all. I removed myself from the gambling sites I played on and also instituted a self-imposed ban. The sites had this option and they would not allow you to return for any reason after that.

Two weeks later, all online poker sites were shut down in the United States. I was proud that I had made the choice to stop before being forced to.

Tags: memoirs