GSS 009: Gambling Within Your Means—Why It Doesn’t Work for Compulsive Gamblers

Episode Details

When I was gambling, I always thought the next time would be different. I’d quit when I was ahead and would be on the path towards getting out of debt and on with my life. It didn’t work and in this episode I outline why it didn’t and also touch on the dangers of using similar messaging in gambling prevention campaigns.

Full Episode Transcript

This is Episode 9 of the “Gambling Still Sucks” podcast. In this episode, we’ll discuss gambling within your means and why it just doesn’t work for compulsive gamblers.

Hey there, and welcome to the “Gambling Still Sucks” podcast. My name is Jamie. I am a compulsive gambler, and I’m also the host of this show. The last time I gambled was July 15th of 2010. If you choose to gamble this weekend, remember to gamble within your means. Don’t gamble more than you planned. We’ve all heard some version of that line of “gamble within your means” or “don’t gamble money you don’t have” in a gambling advertisement, from a gambling prevention group, or even just in our own heads, right? Because that’s the story we tell ourselves. “Hey, this time when you go, just stop. If you get up this amount, stop. Or if you get down this much, just don’t gamble more than you bring.” We’ve had all these stories told to us and running through our head all throughout our gambling experiences. And yet, we still end up doing the same thing over and over again.

So, I wanted to use this episode to just sort of talk about and dissect the campaigns themselves and also the stories that we have in our heads and why I think they sort of keep us trapped. I know personally, this thought process that “next time would be different” is probably the one thought that really kept me gambling the most. And I would just constantly look back at my history, and I would only see those wins, and I would say, “Jamie, just stop when you’re there. Stop when you’re ahead.” Or I would see my losses and say, “Well, if you just lose the $200 that you take, you won’t have a big problem because you’re not gonna empty your bank account.” And so, I would continuously try and force the issue to make that my reality—to make it that I would gamble within my means, or I would stop at whatever money I brought.

Along the way, the thing is, I just stopped looking at reality in history. And I think history is the best predictor of the future, and I think we can all see that in our lives. And when I really started looking back—and I didn’t do this when I was gambling, it’s only in recovery—that I started looking back and looking at the reality. And the reality was, yeah, I did have some wins, but they always ended up with that big loss. That story that I kept trying to force, that “next time would be different,” is really the only thing that kept me going. Because every other thing in my life, and I guess every other thing in my history, said that no, you’re just gonna repeat this exact same pattern again.

Now, I want to share a passage from the GA combo book, and I think it really does a great job of summarizing this and explaining it. So, here it is:

“Most of us have been unwilling to admit that we were real problem gamblers. No one likes to think they are different from their fellows. Therefore, it is not surprising that our gambling careers have been characterized by countless vain attempts to prove we could gamble like other people. The idea that somehow, someday, we will control our gambling is the great obsession of every compulsive gambler. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of prison, insanity, or death.”

And I really think that’s one of the more powerful pieces from the GA literature, just because it really speaks to me. And it really summarizes the error in my thinking or the thought process that kept me in the cycle of gambling.

And so, I wanted to use this episode and really dissect this, and kind of go through it line by line, and kind of give my thoughts and opinions on it, and how it impacts me, and how, hopefully, it can help you.

So, the first line, “Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real problem gamblers.” Now, I think there’s a lot to this and a lot to unpack. I mean, first of all, nobody wants to be different. Nobody wants to be different from their friends or their family. And so, we all have a sense, I think, as humans, to connect. And we don’t want to have some part of us cause us to be disconnected or pushed away from a group. And I think that’s probably why I didn’t tell people about my gambling problem because I didn’t want to be pushed away. I didn’t want them to look at me and say, “Oh, you’re different. You’re a screw-up. You’re screwing things up. We don’t want to be around you.” And so, that fear of being isolated, I think, is one of those things. I mean, we want to be like other people. And so, this desire, or the unwillingness to admit that we had a problem, is part of it.

I also think the second half of that is, the moment that we admit that we have a problem with it, then we have to start looking for a different way out. And I know, my entire time gambling, I always thought gambling was going to be—gambling got me into the problem, but for whatever reason, and I guess based on the fact that I had wins at times, I thought gambling was the only way to get out of it. And I had that thought, and you’ve probably had it as well, which was, “I’ll just gamble until I have that win, and I’ll do it right this time. And I’ll only win. I won’t have the losses and the big losses that I had before. And once I get to a place where I am out of debt, then I’ll quit for good. I will be able to say, ‘Look, I’m done with it. I mean, it brought me to this low point, but I’m out of it,’ and then I won’t have that need to gamble any longer.” Now, obviously, far removed, I realized that that was never gonna happen because I was never gonna stop when I was ahead, and gambling was never going to be the answer to get me out of the problem. But at the time, that was really the only alternative I saw. I didn’t see how work was going to be able to do it. It seemed like it was gonna be too long, and I lacked patience. And so, I started looking for shortcuts to get to the place where I wanted to be, instead of actually doing what was right and what I should do.

But this desire to be like other people is one of those things. And that’s why I think there’s really a problem with how we’re doing anti-gambling campaigns—the “gamble within your means” and stories that kind of say, “Okay, this is how normal people do it, and so if you don’t have a problem, just do it like normal people.” Well, that’s fine, but if your experiences aren’t like that, if you go in ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you don’t gamble like a “normal” person, or what they classify as a normal person, then you start to feel that isolation. You feel like you’re different, that there’s something wrong with you. And so, I think that’s really one of the problems with why a lot of these gambling campaigns keep using the same language. And I don’t think they’re gonna be as effective. I’m sure that message works for some people, but I think if you polled most gamblers, they see that message and they just cast it aside because it doesn’t connect.

And the line from the book continues on, and this again is from the Gamblers Anonymous literature, “No one likes to think they are different from their fellows.”

And we already talked about this a little bit. Like I said, it’s that isolation. You don’t want to be different than other people. So, naturally, you just try to continue to force it, to be like other people, and to gamble like other people, even though you have this track record and this history that says, “This isn’t how other people do it.”

On that topic, I want to bring up and challenge what “normal” people do and how “normal” people gamble. Think about this: how many times did you go out and say, “Hey, I lost five grand”? How many times did you go on Facebook or call up your buddies and say, “Hey man, guess what? I just went on and I played roulette, and I lost 200 bucks,” or “I went to the casino. I’ve been to the casino every night for the last week, and every night I lose every dollar I have.” The reality is, nobody does it. Nobody talks about their losses.

So, we have this idea in our mind of how other people gamble, and yet we don’t really know everybody else because everybody’s only telling the good side of things: “Oh, I won $500!” But we know that that’s not reality. Casinos wouldn’t still exist if people only won money. We hear the stories of our friends and family members when they win, but we know from personal experience that we’re not hearing the stories of the losses. Again, this challenges that thought of gambling like other people.

I just want you to think or just realize that we don’t know how other people gamble because they’re not truthful with us. They’re not telling us the full story. Remember back to my episode about the full story? If everyone told us the full story about gambling, I don’t think anybody would do it because they would have to admit that they had losses, and it just isn’t much fun. All the games are set up so that the house has the advantage. As a society, we’re all collectively losing. So, this idea that some people do it a certain way is a fantasy; it’s something that’s not real.

If everyone came out and was 100% transparent about their gambling experiences, then yes, this could be okay. “Hey, gamble like Jane; she only goes in, she does this.” And there are those people, and I’m not challenging that. I know there are people—I’ve said before, I live with one—that can go and lose $20 and that’s it, not going in for another dollar and just be good with it and content. But I think if people do it long enough, and I would even say, I mean, if my wife gambled long enough to where she got a win, and you get that taste of that win—maybe that’s where she hasn’t done it enough to get to a point where it kind of sinks its teeth into her. Anytime you get that win, I’m sorry, it’s like anything else. If you go and have the most amazing food ever at a restaurant, you want to go back and recreate that experience. That’s human nature.

So, I think the longer that we gamble and the more often we gamble, the more likely we are to have that experience, that transformational experience, and it changes how we act and how we think about gambling. Then we start to see it as this way to win quick money because we did it once and we believe we can repeat it.

But again, getting back to the point, we don’t know how everyone gambles because they’re only telling us the wins. So, that’s just a filter to put on when you hear other people talk, or when these gambling advertisements say, “Well, you just have to gamble like normal people do, which is within their means.” Well, there is a small percentage of people that maybe do that, but there’s also a ton of people that are not being honest. Because it is an invisible illness and it’s something that we can’t see the full ramifications of unless we have access to all their bank accounts and their complete record, their history of every dollar gambled, then we don’t know what reality is.

And so, the sooner that we start realizing and accepting the fact that we don’t know what everybody else’s experiences are, then we can accept that we don’t know what “normal” is or what “normal” looks like. And I think, actually, “normal” is probably very much the minority rather than the majority.

But getting back to the literature, the next line is, “Therefore, it’s not surprising that our gambling careers have been characterized by countless vain attempts to prove we could gamble like other people.” Sure, we’re gonna just keep trying. Like I said, I kept trying to force it to, “Okay, next time will be different. Just stop.” And we continuously try. These are vain attempts to prove we can gamble like other people, or even whether it’s other people, that we can gamble in a different way. We want to prove that we can gamble differently than we have the last 50 times, which all resulted in losses. And there’s probably some competitiveness or just some desire to get it right. And so, we continue to try and force the square peg into the round hole.

And then the literature goes on, “The idea that somehow, someday, we will control our gambling is the great obsession of every compulsive gambler.” And as I mentioned earlier, this is 100% me. I mean, I was obsessed with figuring out how to use gambling to get out of my problem, and then I was gonna quit it for good. But to get out of it, it was going to require me to have control. And it’s something that I had very, very early on for a short stretch, maybe a few months, but then I had years where the control just—it went away. There was no control. But I had that desire, that belief, that “Okay, I can try and do it differently.” And I just obsessed over that, and I continued to do it, continued to do it. And that is the great obsession of every compulsive gambler.

And I think that’s why we have to hit extreme lows, because we’re just going to keep trying. And we’re very relentless, and we keep getting up and trying to do the same thing because we want to get out. We’re so miserable; we just want to get out so desperately, but we don’t see any other path.

Then the last few lines are, “The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of prison, insanity, or death.” And, well, at first glance, when I first joined the program, this seemed a little bit sensationalized. But the more you get into it, and the more your eyes… I mean, yeah, prison, insanity, or death. I mean, you’re either gonna steal; it’s gonna make you crazier, which— I mean, it was already making—it was messing with my mental health.

I was not thinking clearly, or death. And I mean, we know about the rate of suicide. And please, if you have any suicidal thoughts, I’ve mentioned before: share them with somebody else. Find somebody you can confide in and share those. I’ve been in those situations, and it really helps to share and to share that thought. But it doesn’t have to end in any of these three: prison, insanity, or death. There’s definitely a different way. We just have to start to realize the full picture and the whole scope of gambling. And we have to stop accepting this story that there’s a person that gambles normally, and then there are people that don’t.

So, we know that we don’t gamble normally. But I think as long as that example, that kind of one-in-a-million or whatever the percentage is—and I know they’re gonna say it’s 95% of people gamble normally—well, like I say, you show me a hundred thousand people and give me their full experience with gambling, and then I’ll start to draw my own conclusions. But until we can see all of the data, and I can see all of their bank statements, I’m really gonna question that. Because I know personally how easily I could have been, and probably am still viewed by most people I know, as being the 95%. Nobody would think I’m in the 5%. And it’s just because I can hide it. And if I can hide it, who else is hiding it? That’s something that I am now aware of. And that’s why I don’t really believe any of those numbers, and I challenge them. And until I see full records from everybody, again, I’m not gonna believe 5%. I think it’s much, much higher.

So, as we wrap up this episode, I just want to say to the compulsive gamblers out there, like myself, question these numbers and don’t accept what is told as reality. Because if that’s out there, and we try and strive for something that’s just not our reality, then we’re gonna always end up disappointed. And we’re gonna feel isolated, we’re gonna feel alone. But I think the more that we question these numbers and start to realize, “Hey, if I can hide it, so can so many other people,” and maybe the story that we’re told about what is “normal” isn’t really what is happening. And so, I think that can help. I know it helps me.

And finally, for those that create campaigns, and maybe you work for an ad agency, or you work for a state agency and you’re focused on gambling prevention, I just want to say, first of all, I’m not trying to attack you. I don’t think that you have malicious intent. I think you just don’t know and you’ve never been there. So maybe you don’t know inside our head and how some of the messages come across. So hopefully, this gives you a little bit of insight, and you can do things that can help reduce the stigma. Because I think a lot of these campaigns where it’s “being the 95%” or “gamble normally,” those types of messages are a little bit dangerous. Just because they place the person that you’re trying to reach in a situation where they feel different, they feel isolated, and they feel a stigma.

And I would also just say, for the person that gambles responsibly, you don’t need to tell them to gamble responsibly. It’s just how they are; it’s in their DNA. I mean, it’s like you don’t need to tell a frog to be a frog. A frog’s always going to be a frog. So, focus on messages that connect with the problem gambler and that give them hope and inspiration, that other people have quit, and share other people’s personal stories. Because I think those are going to be the most effective. It’s one of those things where it creates a connection for the compulsive gambler, or the person that may be a problem gambler, rather than creating a situation where they feel even more isolated.

So, I hope this insight helps. Like I say, whether you are a compulsive gambler yourself or you’re trying to create better campaigns, that’s what this podcast is all about—helping other people. And so, I look forward to hearing from you. Let me know what you think, and we will see you in the next episode.

Now, before you go, I’d like to go over a few very important things. First of all, I think it’s important to remember that problem gambling is a treatable disorder. There’s no scientific evidence or study that suggests that this is just a terminal condition, and that we’re going to be forced to deal with the negative side effects and results of our actions for the rest of our lives. And so, while I know that in the moment, it feels like this is something that you’re gonna be struggling with for the rest of your life, science just doesn’t back that up. Recovery is real, but we just need to seek out treatment.

And so, that brings me to point number two, which is that help is available. Many of the states here in the United States actually offer free counseling and therapy for not only gamblers but family members as well. And so, you just need to know that these programs are available. The best way to start finding out more information is to call the hotline number, and that’s 1-800-522-4700. Again, that’s 1-800-522-4700. This is the number run by the National Council on Problem Gambling, and so it covers all 50 states. They’re gonna have information and be able to start to guide you on the path to seek out help in the area where you live. And these hotlines aren’t just available here in the United States; they’re available around the world. So just simply open up a web browser, type in “gambling help”, “gambling hotline”, and you’ll be able to find the information for your local area.

In addition to the hotlines, there are numerous places where you can find gambling support and information online. If you go to, I’ll list some of these things, and I’ll continue to add to this as I find new resources, whether they’re chat groups, online forums, or just great information. So again, that was

As a disclaimer, this podcast does not provide legal or medical advice. Look, I’m not a doctor, therapist, or an attorney. I’m just a guy who had a gambling problem. So, while we’ll discuss a lot of topics and I’ll provide a lot of insight into what’s worked for me, please seek out the help of a professional. Go visit a lawyer, a doctor, or a therapist to help you deal with your gambling problem. The information that we discuss is for informational purposes and should not be taken as professional legal or medical advice. And reliance on the information appearing on the podcast is solely at your own risk.

The music for this podcast is “Something Elated” by Broke For Free and is licensed under the Creative Commons.