An association between two of the most prevalent addictions in Western society – between alcoholism and gambling – has only recently been appreciated, and the establishment of a gambler’s refuge organization, Gamblers Anonymous, follows closely on the better-known Alcoholics Anonymous in its credo. The reasons that an individual turns towards gambling, which also may lead to social degradation, crime, and even suicide (when the inveterate gambler suddenly has to face the fact that he has lost everything) are extremely difficult for non-gamblers to understand.
The drinker, especially in the early stages of his habit, obviously gets some pleasure from his drink. The enjoyment may stem from a memory of the pleasurable world of friends and cronies in which the otherwise anxious hours are whiled away, or the times when good fellowship and sociability outweigh the tension and worries of the world. But the whole background of the addictive gambler is almost always unattractive and sordid. Bookmakers’ premises are seldom, if ever, happy meeting places. Occasionally the amenities offered by high-class gambling establishments are pleasant enough, but the gambler rarely makes these part of his interest. If you watch the people who cluster round the tables in both elegant and ordinary gaming houses the most striking thing about them is a common air of detachment bordering on despondency. Watching a group of players as they lose large sums perhaps at the turn of a card or the spin of a wheel, it is difficult to believe that they are having an enjoyable experience. How, therefore, can we explain the fascination of gambling?
One explanation is that gambling provides a method of escape from anxiety and tension, an escape organized with some sophistication which removes the individual temporarily from painful concern about real-life problems. Although the actual escape mechanism is not fully understood, the gambler perhaps makes a package deal with himself which says: ‘Reality and all it implies is too productive of anxiety and tension. It makes me feel bad to think that I am solely responsible for everything that happens to me. Gambling is different – it’s luck, and surely I will be lucky today. Fate owes me this.’ The essence of gambling is, of course, a continued flirtation with Lady Luck. She therefore becomes responsible for the gambler’s plight, his failures and successes. Nobody can really pass judgement on a man or woman who is out of luck, whether at cards, dice, horses, or even the football pools. And so a measure of peace in the world is ‘bought’ by excusing oneself from personal responsibility for one’s plight and all it stands for.
Unfortunately, gambling is rarely successful. Although sometimes an individual has a run of luck that beats, temporarily at least, the laws of chance, the odds are always weighed against the gambler. The stakeholder must earn a profit, or close. Many severe addicts will sometimes persevere quite relentlessly throughout a winning phase until ‘bad luck’ inevitably overtakes them again. Then they feel they have a justifiable excuse to escape from real situations, and withdraw to a world of the hard-done-by and rejected.