Betting It All Away
gambling has changed and making it easier is going to make it worse
My lasting memory of my first marriage is one that defines the relationship: it is 1994 or so and I’m making dinner, anticipating when my husband will be home from work. The kids are washed up and ready to see their dad; I’ve made something he particularly enjoys. He walks in the door and without even a glance in the kids’ direction, or mine, goes straight into the bedroom and closes the door. I can hear him on the phone. He’s calling his bookie before the night’s baseball games begin.
It’s not a stunning memory, it’s not something that didn’t happen frequently. It feels almost like a mundane little bit of life. But it was that night that it finally hit me. I was not as important to him as his betting life. His children were not as important to him as getting those bets in.
There’s been a lot said about the very recent trend of professional sports marrying the gambling industry. I find it all so gross; the constant bombardment of betting ads while I’m watching a game, teams posting odds on twitter, sportsbooks opening up in stadiums. All I see when I see these things is the potential to create a generation of gambling addicts. Make it fun, make it easy. Make it legal.
His bookie’s name was Saul. He talked to Saul more than he talked to me. He viewed Saul as his buddy, I saw him as a nemesis. He took our money. He took our free time. He took my husband. And no, it’s not Saul’s fault my ex was addicted to making bets and chasing the win, but he certainly played a part in it by making these things easy for him to do. Saul was available all hours of the day to take a bet. Baseball, hockey, football, it didn’t matter. He’d take a wager on anything. He was friendly, he’d banter with my husband. They’d talk about the Jets, the weather. Sometimes they got together for coffee at the diner when either of them did their collecting. It was a friendly business relationship, until it wasn’t.
My husband had notebooks filled with stats. This was before home computers were common. He’d get the day’s papers and scour the stats and standings page and write things down in his notebook and make educated guesses based on all this. And that’s all they were, guesses. You can’t predict the outcome of a game, you can only hope that the odds are on your side. Doing all that homework for his betting had the effect of making him feel like he was in control of outcomes, that he knew what was going to happen. Sometimes he did. Quite often he didn’t.
The days when he was winning were great. There was no tension in the house, he was smiling, the kids were happy. But that didn’t make up for all the time he spent away from us in the locked bedroom combing over stats and making phone calls to Saul. On the days when the losses piled up, things were bad. Sometimes we’d go bowling or to the movies or Chuck E Cheese’s just to get out of the house. But soon the money we had for those trips dried up. I’d then spend hours at my parents’ house just to get out of my own.
He never lashed out at us when he was losing, I’ll credit him that. But he removed himself from us; he went silent, he stayed in the bedroom, he ignored us. All his emotional strength went into figuring out ways to come back, ways to just break even. He was frustrated, angry, scared. I was those things, too, and it made for a very bleak household. He could do something about it, though. I had no recourse at the time except to escape the house, escape his mood swings.
Our bank account slowly emptied. His paychecks went to Saul. There were no family outings, no vacations, barely any Christmas without me borrowing from my parents. Rent - we lived in an apartment in my grandparents’ house - went unpaid. Grocery shopping was demoralizing as I had to make a continuous count of what was going into the cart versus how much money I had to spend. We went without. Without money, without his emotional or financial support. Through it all, he kept betting, because he was addicted. If he lost, he’d bet again to try and get the money back. If he won, he’d bet again to chase that high.
I asked him to get help and he refused. He considered his gambling a hobby, not an addiction. I told him his “hobby” was ruining us. He continued to gamble. It had a stranglehold on him, and us by extension, and there was no letting go.
Betting on sports was not an easy venture back then. Finding a bookie, doing everything discretely, worrying about your kneecaps if you failed to make a payment - it was the complete opposite of how it is now. The bookies - giant conglomerates now - practically come to you with their slew of advertising and come ons. You go on the computer, hit a few buttons, you’ve got a legal bet on tonight’s basketball game. No one bats an eye if you say you’re betting on a game. Entire industries have built up around gambling and it’s going to ruin a lot of lives. Sure, some lives will be enriched, you’ll hear about lucky people who win thousands on sports betting. But how much of a toll will it take on other lives? How many people will spend a vast amount of time doing their betting homework, making spreadsheets and the like, trying to chase that win. How many people will lose bet after bet and go into financial ruin because of it?
That’s not even getting into the aspect of taking away the pleasure of watching sports. When the games become a matter of numbers on a board, and not a win or lose situation, you’re taking the beauty of sports and turning into something ugly. I worry about this. Addicted gamblers are being created right now, and the leagues are feeding into it, making a gamble themselves that a lot of people are willing to throw good money after bad to try and make a buck. Like I said earlier, it’s gross to me.
I’d love to tell you there was a happy ending with my marriage but there wasn’t. After his third refusal to get help, after so much denying that he had a problem, we divorced. Gambling ruined us. Addiction born of gambling ruined us. I write this as a warning. The ease of betting now scares me. Maybe no one has to deal with a Saul anymore, maybe there won’t be threats of broken kneecaps, but you can bet a company like DraftKings isn’t going to be kind and caring when you lose your shirt.
Be careful out there.