F or most people, gambling is an enjoyable experience. Whether it is buying a lottery ticket, placing a bet on a horse race, going to a casino for an evening, or wagering privately with friends, most people gamble for entertainment or for social reasons and typically do not risk more than they can afford to lose. For some people, however, gambling leads to debilitating problems that can also result in harm to people close to them and to the wider community. These are the people we call “problem gamblers.”              

Bad Choice Louie

When we think about problem gamblers, most people have a stereotype in mind, someone like Louie. When Louie was a child, his relatives would take him to the race track and place bets for him. His family’s social life revolved around bingo, card games with friends, and other gambling activities. Louie started betting heavily in high school on sports and card games after several big wins.

Even while winning, Louie had fights with his parents and told numerous lies to get out of paying back friends from whom he borrowed money to gamble. As an adult, still gambling heavily on sports, card games, and horses, Louie “borrowed” more than $30,000 from several elderly relatives. He planned to pay them back when he finally won “the big one” but instead got further and further into debt with bookmakers and loan sharks. Eventually, his wife confronted him, and his family agreed to pay back everything he owed if he would quit gambling.

Louie took the money and paid off his debts but kept gambling. Finally, again deep in debt and desperate, Louie went to Las Vegas with $50,000 that he had taken from the company where he worked and lost it all. Louie was eventually arrested and spent time in prison.

Until the 1990s, treatment professionals and gambling researchers, as well as journalists and the general public, assumed that this picture of the problem gambler was true for all problem gamblers.
But the reality of problem gambling is more complex and diverse than the stereotype that many of us have of problem gamblers.

Mary Ann was a single mom at the age of twenty-two, who worked odd jobs and struggled to bring up her two children. Mary Ann started getting into trouble with her gambling when she won big on bingo, once. Within a few years, she was gambling daily on slot machines at a local casino on the way home from work. It was a way to escape the stress of caring for her children and trying to make ends meet.

She began borrowing from friends, cashing bad checks, and using family food money to gamble. After a suicide attempt, Mary Ann joined Gamblers Anonymous. She had to sell her car, refinance her mortgage, and file for bankruptcy, but her story ends happily — she now works as an administrator for a small, nonprofit group that counsels problem gamblers.

While there is general agreement that some people experience serious problems associated with their gambling, a confusing array of terms has been used to refer to individuals who experience such difficulties. Some of these terms include problem gambling, excessive gambling, disordered gambling, compulsive gambling, addictive gambling, and pathological gambling.

If you or someone you know has a question or concern about gambling, seek professional help. Don’t lose everything like Louie.

Bobbe McGinley MA, MBA, CADAC, LISAC, NCGC II, is a nationally known speaker, author, presenter and trainer, consulting many different industries about Problem Gambling. She currently serves as their Gambling Program Consultant. Call 602-569-4328 or visit