Compulsive gambling is an addiction. It has been recognized as an alcoholism like condition since before the founding of AA. Until very recently addiction-oriented counselors and programs did not know exactly how to deal with it because there was no substance ingested or introduced from outside the body. Recent research into neurotransmitters and endogenous drugs has given us the handle we need to place it squarely in the framework of an addiction.

The National Council on Problem Gambling was organized similarly to the National Council on Alcoholism to distribute information and education on compulsive gambling as an illness and public health problem. They estimate that 10 percent of Americans risk more money than they can afford on gambling activities, from lotteries to casinos. Many become pathological gamblers and some resort to crime when all credit resources are gone.

Gamblers Anonymous (Sharing Recovery through Gamblers Anonymous, 1984) defines gambling for the compulsive gambler: “Any betting or wagering, for self or other, whether for money or not, no matter how slight or insignificant, where the outcome is uncertain or depends on chance or ‘skill’ constitutes gambling. Compulsive gambling, very simply, is gambling which is beyond the emotional control of the gambler.”

Common activities for compulsive gamblers include horse racing, sports betting, card games, casinos, dice, slot machines, lotteries, and bingo. Damage includes loss of time and financial resources, illegal connections and activities, prison, and embezzlement. As with alcoholism, there are also physical and psychiatric illnesses that are caused by or aggravated by the compulsive gambling.

Phases of Compulsive Gambling

Robert L. Custer, MD, is the prominent pioneer in the treatment of compulsive gambling. He has identified three phases in the progression of compulsive gambling.

In the search for action, the winning phase, the gambler wins, loses, and breaks even often. Borrowing is common, but at this point usually does not hurt.

In the chase, or the losing phase, there are many losses and frantic attempts to win them back. Self-esteem erodes and guilt intensifies. Lies, fraud, forgery, job problems, and family problems increase. This phase can last for decades.

In the desperation phase, the gambler is totally obsessed. Losses and indebtedness are heavier. Often illegal options are sought and rationalized. Family, vocation, and social life are devastated. At this point gamblers may see only four options: suicide, prison, running away, or seeking help.


Until recently there were only a handful of treatment programs outside the Veterans’ Administration system. There are now dozens of treatment programs for compulsive gamblers. Many of these are chemical dependency programs that have initiated a compulsive gambling track. Most use a Twelve-Step model and recommend Gamblers Anonymous.

Many are alcoholic Jim W., the founder of GA, was also an alcoholic. Estimates of alcoholism among compulsive gamblers range from 8 percent in an early study, to 49 percent in a more recent estimate from a treatment program that deals with both addictions.

The percentage of compulsive gamblers who are female is at least as high as the percentage of alcoholics who are female. This seems parallel to the change in AA as the female component went from about 1 percent to more than a third.

For general information about compulsive gambling, write or call:

National Council on Problem Gambling
730 11th St, NW, Ste 601
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 547-9204


Gamblers Anonymous (GA)
PO Box 17173
Los Angeles, CA 90017
(626) 960-3500


Wikipedia: Gamblers_Anonymous

Gambling, see also: Addiction, Alcoholism, Arousal, Binge history, Debtors Anonymous, Excitement, Family, Gamblers Anonymous, Money, Moodifiers, Sanity, Spending, Unmanageability.

Updated 6 Sep 2015

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