Gambling: Harmless Fun or Perilous Compulsion?

The Silent Addiction

Posted Jul 19, 2015

Omar Sharif, who died recently, was known for his roles in great movies like "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago." Many people also knew that he was a world-class bridge player but I, for one, was surprised to learn that he had lost several fortunes over the years while gambling on the game.

Gambling has been called the silent addiction because, unlike excessive drinking or drug abuse, it rarely shows in a person's face or body. Perfectly healthy people are addicted to gambling, or "gaming," as it is called here in California in connection with Indian casinos, possibly because gaming sounds like harmless fun, while gambling has a slightly sinister connotation. 

Problem gambling is defined as continuing to do it despite the negative impact it may be having on the person's life––estranged family members, overdrawn bank accounts, bills that go unpaid. According to a 2012 California study, the majority of problem gamblers are surprisingly young: between the ages of 25 and 35. The average debt per person is a shade under $20,000 and the state's total is estimated to be $30 million in gambling-related debt. 

I have friends who enjoy going to casinos with the intention of spending a set amount of money on the evening's entertainment. When they reach their limit, they quit and go home. Obviously, people like that are not addicts. Gambling is not in their blood, as it is for some. People like my father, for example, whom I describe in one of my books as a "lovable rogue," a complex blend of virtues and vices who drank and gambled away his job, his marriage, and eventually his life. 

Until recently, my home was in a northern California city that boasts the largest and newest of the Las Vegas style Indian casinos on the outskirts of town, and only a mile or two from my house. I have seen it from the outside, but I couldn't tell you what the inside looks like. I haven't been in a casino since my fourteenth birthday, when my grandmother (my mother had left us by that time) sent me downtown to pry my father loose from the crap table and persuade him to come home. It was something I did pretty regularly, but at that age I supposed that other kids' fathers were no different from mine, so I didn't consider it much of a hardship. 

These days there are organizations to help gambling addicts, just as there are for alcohol or drug abusers, and they can be found almost anywhere. One resource for information and advice is on the web, at But there is a catch. People must recognize their addiction and want to be helped. Like AA, Gambler's Anonymous can provide support in the form of literature and local meetings where the addict may learn for himself that he is not alone in his predicament. There is hope for many, but I know my father would have scoffed at the idea that he even had a problem. He used to call it "just a string of bad luck" when the chips were down. He would win it all back the next night, or the next, he always said. Of course he never did.