Arnie Wexler made his last bet on April 10, 1968 after gambling seized his life and finances and nearly ruined him. Since recovering, Arnie has dedicated his life to helping compulsive gamblers, driving through blizzards to help sufferers, and making himself always available to those in need.
“I think it is important to state that I am not a prohibitionist” Wexler said in a 1988 statement to National Gambling Impact and Study Commission. “My only objective is to help compulsive gamblers and their families.”
Here at SportsHandle we believe sports betting can be enjoyed responsibly; having lived and overcome the devastation of gambling addiction, Arnie doesn’t see it that way. We have deep respect for Arnie’s tireless devotion to helping addiction sufferers, we believe in responsible gaming only, and want to shed more light on the disease. There’s a lot of ground covered in this conversation, which has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Gambling Addiction Rehabilitation ‘Legend’ Arnie Wexler Talks Compulsive Sports Betting, Rock Bottom, Recovery, What May Result From Sports Betting Expansion And Much More
SportsHandle (SH): The focus of my questions is on sports betting and compulsive gambling involving sports. So let’s start broadly: Will you define sports gambling addiction in your words?
Arnie Wexler (AW): When the gambling controls you rather than you controlling the gambling. That’s when you got the disease. That’s when you got the addiction and the gambling on sports. The gambling on sports is very interesting because I was so sick when I was gambling. I was betting exhibition baseball games and I was about 17 or 18 years old, and I bet four or five exhibition baseball games in a row and I won them all and the bookmaker said to me ‘Arnie, keep it up and eventually we’ll get your money.’ And I didn’t understand it at the time. I wish I knew it then because it took me until age 30 to stop gambling.
SH: Can you talk about more about how it started for you?
AW: I was a sports gambler, I never gambled in the casino because there were no casinos around. I haven’t gambled since April 10, 1968. So I bet on sports, I bet on horses, I bet on card games, I bet on street games. Sports betting was my biggest thing. The first time I gambled it was a sports bet — I didn’t like the Yankees and I was a Dodgers fan.
So I bet on the Yankees to lose to Baltimore and if I remember right I got a couple of runs and in the bottom of the ninth inning and Baltimore won the game. That was my first bet in sports. One of my last bets on sports, I was at a payphone and I bet a $3,600 round robin. That bet is $10,800, and I was making $60 a week and I bet three NFL games with a bookmaker on the phone for $10,800 and I was lucky I won two of the games so I got most of my money back.
SH: Recently the Washington Post surveyed Americans, asking, “Do you approve or disapprove of making betting on professional sporting events legal?” They asked the same question about 25 years ago, and a 56% majority said no. This year 55% approved and only 33% disapproved. The question is, what’s your reaction to that shift and what does it tell you?
AW: Well, when you open up the door to Internet gambling like they just did recently in New Jersey, or when you open up the door to sports betting, you get people that would never try to do something illegal bet with a bookmaker, and now it’s legal so they try it. Some of those people are going to get addicted and some of those people are going to become compulsive gamblers and will end up destroying their lives.
SH: Do you see any reason for the change in attitudes over the 25 years, the increased acceptance of sports betting?
AW: Well, the change of attitude is that the states figured out a way how to become partners and make money on the deal, and the citizens then think, ‘Well, if they’re going to make money my taxes will be lower.’ That hasn’t been the case when they opened up lottery or Internet gambling or anything like that. Go back to Internet gambling about two, three years back, the [daily fantasy sports] companies DraftKings and FanDuel.
They went to New York and wanted to put it in and the Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in New York said, ‘No way you’re putting that in here,’ and he barred it from happening. Now they worked out a deal with the state of New York. It’s 14 and-a-half percent. Now it’s legal and okay and wonderful. I’m in Florida here and I go to a 12-step program, and four young kids walk in about a month ago between the ages of 17 and 22, and all four of them were hooked on Internet gambling and losing all kinds of money.
SH: Can you explain how gambling addiction differs from substance abuse, alcohol or substance addiction?
AW: Well, it’s very interesting because with substance abuse, alcohol or drugs you’re putting something in your body. This is a total psychological addiction. You put nothing in your body. There’s no track marks, there’s no dilated pupils, there’s no smell, it’s hidden and invisible. If you know somebody has a drug problem or an alcohol problem, eventually you will see it. You will smell it, you will see it, you will know it.
I know people that have worked with compulsive gamblers actually in the sports field for years and had no clue that the person was a compulsive gambler. Classic case, I have a hotline number and I get a call from a lady one day and she says ‘My husband was arrested for embezzling $600,000 from an insurance company he worked for. We’re married 30 years, I never knew he gambled ’til he got arrested.’ They can be that hidden and invisible.
SH: So it’s purely psychological, or is there something in the dopamine pathways or something biological, neurological going on?
AW: Well it’s very interesting because years ago nobody understood it but there’s a lot of research today, well there’s research today coming out, not enough, but there is definitely something different with the brain of a compulsive gambler then with other stuff. For instance, today they’re making a restless leg syndrome medicine and Parkinson’s meds and Abilify, and they’re all now saying that they cause compulsive gambling and it’s listed on the package as you buy the meds. So they must be touching some part of the brain that is addicted or creates the addiction to gambling.
SH: In your experience what is the typical course of gambling addiction? Does it progress from becoming a mild to moderate and then severe?
AW: Well there’s the winning, losing and desperation phases. Most compulsive gamblers will have a really big win and it’s very logical that it happens. Classic case is this one, a lady I was trying to help and she worked for Broward County in Florida and she was supervising 400 people and she never gambled before. She’s 42 years old and she walks into a casino, puts a dollar in the slot machine and wins $600. And the next week she goes to lunch again in the casino with one of her co-workers puts a dollar in the machine and wins $600. So she has two really big wins and then the next two years she embezzles two and a half million dollars and she’s sitting in jail now.
The judge gave her 17 years, which is absolutely ludicrous because killers don’t get 17 years. But the judge said to her ‘If you knew you had a problem why didn’t you stop?’ I mean that’s the classic understanding of people that are not compulsive gamblers, they think that just tell the person to stop. I remember when I got married, my mother-in-law told my wife ‘Just tell him not to gamble anymore.’ People don’t understand. Today there’s a lot of knowledge about drugs and alcohol, there’s really no knowledge about compulsive gambling. For instance, all the research today in America is being done by the casino industry. So it would be like all the research on alcohol being done by the alcohol industry.
SH: I know you’re aware of what’s going on in the Supreme Court and legislatively around the country regarding sports betting. One of the major goals of PASPA was to stamp out gambling spreading among youths and stop sports betting in general. Having treated a lot of compulsive gamblers and families, what do you make of PASPA and whether it’s succeeded or failed?
AW: Well you look at 1992 when Bill Bradley opened the door and allowed the states to open up and put in sports betting and they had an 18 month window when nobody really put it in. New Jersey tried in the last week but they got blocked by legislature and the time ran out so they couldn’t get it done.
But now we have internet gambling going on today in America, which is crazy. And then you got the situation with sports betting, now you’re gonna have sports betting. Here’s the real problem with legalized sports betting, the real problem is people that will never do anything illegal and wouldn’t gamble with a bookmaker now have the opportunity to go in and gamble because ‘They’re making it legal in the states’ if that happens. And the same thing happened with the numbers game, people that gambled with the numbers racket and then they would never do anything illegal, now they’re playing millions of dollars in state lottery and the same thing with the internet gambling.
So you got people that are getting destroyed from the new edition to gambling. Same thing happened years ago, 1978. Before 1978 if you wanted to gamble in a casino you had to go to Las Vegas, so you had to get on an airplane or you had to drive there, and now it’s in I believe 38 states in this country. So you opened up the door to a lot of gambling addiction and the proof in the pudding is this, in Louisiana you had no Gamblers Anonymous meetings. You had 20 of them in the first two years that they made legal gambling there. In Iowa the same situation. In New Jersey before casino gambling, you had 15 meetings with Gamblers Anonymous. Within two years you had 51 meetings and that has permeated all over the country, so that really tells you what’s going on.
SH: I think that answered my next question, but I’ll ask, do you think legalizing and regulating sports betting would help problem gamblers now under the radar, or do more harm than good?
AW: Well it’s a good thing for the states because they found a way how to suck money from the people when they put in lottery or anything legal with sports gambling. And as long as they get a piece of the action they’re feeling it’s okay for themselves and that’s really the mistake, but they’re creating a mountain of gamblers. You cannot believe the amount of people that are seeking help with gambling today versus years ago.
SH: So how can states, their gaming control boards, including the Council on Compulsive Gambling in New Jersey, which you ran for eight years (1986-1994), how can they run successful programs if they are met with an influx of sports wagering?
AW: Well, when I started the council in New Jersey and I was one of the founders of the National Council in 1972, our first year running budget was $80,000 from the state of New Jersey. But today they get over a million dollars funding. So some of the states are putting more money into compulsive gambling,, but they’re creating the monster of compulsive gambling and they’re trying to say ‘Hey we’re putting some money in, so we’re helping the situation.’
SH: If they have more funds now, are they equipped to help convert a lot of these people from problem gamblers to people who are not having the compulsion issues?
AW: It’s very difficult to say that you couldn’t. I’ve never seen a compulsive gambler get cured. For instance, here’s a classic example, a friend of mine lives in Las Vegas, he was working for the gaming industry, he was 38 years clean from gambling and he calls me up about five years ago and he tells me “I always wanted to go to the Final Four.” And he goes and he comes back and he tells me he gambled on the Final Four games and the guy today, I just got an email from him yesterday.
He’s now after 38 years of being clean from gambling and making his first bet on the Final Four, he’s in a position now where he lost his three homes, two cars and he was living in a rental apartment and he’s been coming the last couple of years, he’s been playing in the poker tournaments and one story he told me was that he borrowed $10,000 from his son and blew the $10,000 in the poker tournament.
SH: Wow. Could you describe, if it exists, what is a healthy enjoyment or healthy expression, a participation in sports betting?
AW: Somebody who doesn’t gamble.
SH: So you think it’s binary, either-
AW: Look, I’m gonna make a funny statement for you now. If you took away the gambling on the National Football League games, I think you would have empty stadiums.
SH: I don’t know about empty but you’re right that the leagues promote it and benefit from it.
AW: They give out an injury list, they give out odds and lines. I mean, you know, the NBA is classic too. David Stern for years said ‘We don’t want families of people gambling their money on our games.’ Now the NBA is for sports betting, just give us a piece of the action.
SH: So is it your belief that effectively sports betting should be completely prohibited, that there is no such thing as people enjoying it healthfully or responsibly?
AW: You know, a percentage of people could probably bet on a game and not be a problem, but we don’t know how big the gambling addiction percentage would be that are gambling on games. I remember one time going to a football game and I heard people bitching and moaning, the home team was winning but they weren’t covering the spread and the fans were complaining about the players. You know there’s so many people that go to NFL games that they’re watching the game but they’re watching the spread more than they’re watching the game.
SH: Let’s talk about the 12-step program. From your book [“All Bets Are Off: Losers, Liars, and Recovery from Gambling Addiction”] I know you’re a believer, although you were not when you first entered. To a reader who might be shaking his or her head in disbelief about the 12-step program, what would you say?
AW: Well, I’ve seen thousands of people come and go and I’ve never seen one come back and better shape down the road. So that’s really the answer to that thing, and I could tell you I sit in the 12-step program in Boyton Beach Florida where we have 15 people that have more than 40 years clean and we have 25 people that have more than 20 years clean and every week we go to two or three meetings a week, the whole bunch of us. So people can and do recover, but I hate to say it but the numbers are small. This is a tough addiction to recover from unfortunately. But some people do recover. I sat in a 12-step program and in the last three weeks we’ve had people at milestones 50 years, 47 years and 43 years in recovery.
SH: I know treatment has changed since 1968. Is it now generally treated with a 12-step, other behavioral therapy or are there medicines now that are helping?
AW: I love your question. Well, let me tell you, there are people that are promoting, when I came to my 12 step program in February ‘68, I came because somebody told me they straighten out money problems. I thought that meant they were gonna pay off my gambling debts. I owed 32 people money at that time, and three years annual salary. We were married seven years, and as you read in the book ‘All Bets Are Off’ you can read my wife’s story, and for seven years I drove this woman totally crazy and finally went for help.
Well, I didn’t get help, I went for a bailout and there was no bailout because when they sat with me they looked at the financial stuff and they said ‘You need two more jobs.’ So I ended up working three jobs for four years and paid off everybody I owed money to, but the fact is that I’ve never seen anybody come back that left the program and did good after that. They all go back to gambling and unfortunately they get deeper in debt.
SH: Can you give some closing thoughts for someone who might be struggling with a sports gambling addiction?
AW: The gambling controls you rather than you controlling the gambling. If you’re eating, sleeping and drinking it, if you can’t control it, if you’re losing money you don’t have. If they go to my website I probably have the 20 questions up there and I’d be happy to talk to anybody, they can reach me at A for Arnold, S for Sheila, Wexler, W-E-X-L-E-R at aol.com or they can Google me or see YouTube, there’s plenty of stuff up there, just put in Arnie Wexler.
I mean I’ve dealt with major drivers at the race track, I’ve dealt with a lot of interesting people. State senators, a federal congressman, a guy that was the head of a state in this country that was the head of a state senate. He’s sitting in jail today. Sports figures, too, and there’s plenty of people in your field that are compulsive gamblers. But I’d love to help anybody that thinks they have a gambling problem.
– Check out Arnie’s website and blog here. Facebook page here. Check out and order his book here: “All Bets Are Off: Losers, Liars, and Recovery from Gambling Addiction.”
– You have his email (above) and can contact him and his wife Sheila at 1-888-Last-Bet. They offer consultation, interventions, group, individual, and family counseling, couple’s workshops, referrals, evaluations, and expert testimony. In addition, they provide educational seminars, workshops, and training.
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