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N.J. Announcer: A Compulsive Gambler or Irresponsible Bettor?

February 10, 1999|ANDREW BEYER | WASHINGTON POST

The announcer at the Meadowlands harness track is suing his employer for failing to accommodate his disability. That disability, he says, is his addiction to gambling.

As reported in Tuesday's newspapers, John Bothe gambled recklessly in the past and amassed heavy debts. Seven years ago he reformed his life, quit betting and joined Gamblers Anonymous, although he continued to work at the New Jersey racetrack. In December, the Meadowlands management asked him to appear on its in-house television program and analyze the card each night. Bothe refused, saying that handicapping the races would rekindle his gambling compulsion.

"As an announcer, I've been able to put the gambling out of my life," Bothe told the New York Post. "But hosting a handicapping show would be like telling a bartender who's a recovering alcoholic that not only did he have to serve drinks, but now he had to taste each one."

Maybe it isn't a good idea for a recovering alcoholic to be working in a bar in the first place. But Bothe worked for many years at the Meadowlands and passed by betting windows every day, without lapsing into his old bad habits. The notion seems rather preposterous that he will suffer a fatal loss of self-control and ruin his life if he tells a TV audience, "I like numbers 1, 5 and 7 in the first-race exacta."

Yet psychiatrists, psychologists and leaders of Gamblers Anonymous insist that compulsive gambling is an irresistible addiction which the individual is virtually powerless to combat. In "When Luck Runs Out," a study of gambling, Robert Custer and Harry Milt write: "The compulsive gambler cannot stop, no matter how much he want to ... even though he may think he can. He has lost control. The impulse to gamble is so overpowering ... that he is unable to resist it."

This premise is regularly accepted in newspaper and television accounts of people who have wrecked their lives by gambling. They are regularly described as victims. When pro quarterback Art Schlichter made headlines because of his heavy gambling losses, he was said to be suffering from psychiatrically certified "pathological gambling."

If a person like Schlichter ruins his life by gambling, the theory goes, he certainly couldn't have done so deliberately. Therefore, he must have something in his makeup that he can't control. But no scientific proof exists to support this theory.

"There is no biochemical explanation for compulsive gambling," said Lee Weinberg, director of the criminal justice program at the University of Pittsburgh. "You might argue that there's a rush associated with gambling and that some people are not able to resist that rush, but it's hard to see that as a disease. I find the explanations offered for compulsive gambling very troubling and unpersuasive. Although it's hard to understand why people would ruin their lives and lose their homes, it's hard to believe that these people are all suffering from some disorder."

I have probably observed the behavior of more gamblers than most members of the American Psychiatric Association, and I too doubt the premise that bettors who get themselves in deep trouble are ones suffering from some uncontrollable disorder. The people who turn into problem gamblers aren't much different from the rest of us.

Gamblers Anonymous publishes a 20-question test to identify potential compulsive gamblers, and just about everybody I know at the racetrack would flunk it. The questions include:

-- Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?

-- After you win, do you have a strong urge to return and win more?

-- Do you ever gamble longer than you've planned?

To each of these questions, I'd answer, "Of course," and so would every bettor. Moreover, almost every bettor has experienced the darker side of gambling, panicked when he is losing and desperately bet more in an effort to recoup his losses. Some of them keep chasing their losses until they do substantial damage to their lives -- behavior that deserves to be described as foolish or irresponsible. But at this point the psychiatrists step in and say these gamblers have a disease.

It's a self-serving conclusion. With compulsive gambling officially classified as a disease, the psychiatrists and counselors can receive insurance money and funding to treat it and study it. The gamblers who have acted irresponsibly are let off the hook, and see themselves as victims.

Richard Vatz, a professor at Towson State University in Maryland who is a critic of psychiatry, notes one glaring logical flaw in the whole theory of the gambling illness. "You don't find winners labeled as compulsive gamblers," he said. "You don't find people who get rich speculating in the stock market described as compulsive gamblers. They have to be engaged in particular types of activities and they have to lose. And when they do lose, we label these people as "diseased" and it takes away responsibility for their choice of action."

Vatz concluded: "(The concept of) pathological gambling is a sham which is not only invalid, but it hurts those so labeled."

The majority of us gamblers share this opinion and look with pity on people like John Bothe who portray themselves as helpless victim of a disability. We just call them bad bettors.

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