At war with myself: With gambling on the rise in the US, young addicts seek solace in an old program

Eeach man enters the room, one by one, escaping the dark night outside. Before long about two dozen are sitting on a horseshoe. They come from different worlds and different generations, but they have been united by the same problem.

For decades, Gamblers Anonymous (GA) has offered compulsive gamblers a place to share their stories and listen to others, hoping to change their lives. Veterans of the 12-step program say it is now seeing a sharp increase in interest from troubled young addicts.

It’s getting worse, according to Bruce, who went to his first meeting in 1971. Bookies make it look glamorous, he said. They make him seductive. And the young people are just absorbed.

Although data on rates of compulsive gambling are scarce, the few red flags are flashing. Helpline traffic has increased sharply in some states. The risk of gambling addiction in the general population increased by 30% between 2018 and 2021, according to research by the National Council on Problem Gambling, which estimates that seven million adults in the United States are now affected by the disorder.

With limited options, a significant number of overwhelmed and underserved people find themselves walking up a ladder into a church basement and pulling up a chair. As online gambling continues to boom, these meetings are taking place every week in towns and cities across the country.

Members invited The Guardian to attend GA. The names of those present have been changed.

Two moderators lead the meeting from the middle of the horseshoe. One of them looks up and calls out to Adam.

I was obsessed

Hi, I’m Adam, and I’m a compulsive gambler, he says. Hi Adam, the room is responding. It’s been 65 days since his last bet, he reveals to applause.

When I have something on my mind, I never quit until I do it, Adam he says to the room. A few weeks ago, he was struggling with this reality when he was watching a poker game on his phone.

I was obsessed and looking at it on the app for hours, he recalls. Now, he sees it as a waste of time: it’s not good, it’s not healthy, but then? He didn’t need to lead the other men in the room through the thoughts that had run through his mind.

I’m happy to be here, adds Adam. When I’m alone and alone with myself, in my thoughts, it’s a dangerous place.

Closing his contribution, he approaches a common refrain at AG meetings: I’ll be back, he assures the room, prompting applause. He fades away, allowing one of the moderators to offer some advice. You have to keep busy, he says.

Twenty hours a day

Hi, I’m Ben, and I’m a compulsive gambler, he says. Well, the room answers.

Work, video games, nicotine and chess are among Ben’s things he has been addicted throughout his life. None of this compares to his relationship with gambling. I was very, very addicted and obsessed, he explains.

well he estimates that he used to spend at least half his waking hours betting—perhaps 80 or 90 hours some weeks. Kind of scary, he says, recalling the days when all he wanted to do was sit in his room, vaping and gaming for about 20 hours at a time.

All this took its toll. I really think I would have been fired right now if I hadn’t come to the meetings, says Ben. 154 days have passed since your last bet.

He’s come a long way, but the more experienced hands in the room know the climb will be steep. One thing at a time, warns one of the moderators.

Compulsive gamblers lose

Hi, I’m Calvin, and I’m a compulsive gambler, he says. Hi Calvin, the room is answering.

Calvin has been making progress. Lately he’s been enjoying the novelty of walking around with enough money for a burger, fries and a drink again; another step forward.

But a few days ago, during a sports match, I felt like playing.

To overcome this, he did something GA members are often encouraged to do: pick up the phone and talk to other people in the program. His compulsion to play faded during the calls and before long he was swimming away. Another clean day.

Over the weekend, however, the desire returned, courtesy of an Ultimate Fighting Championship match. The UFC was another thing that was important to me, Calvin tells the room. He reached for his phone, but instead of betting, he went back to talking to other people on the show. One call lasted an hour. Another clean day.

While it eases, the fear of what might have been lingers. What struck me the most was what if? He probably would have lost $500 or $600 that night, he says, by getting lost. That’s all.

The room applauds. Keep doing what you’re doing, says the first moderator. It’s not good to check scores.

Compulsive gamblers lose, adds the second.

The compulsion drives me all my life

Hi, I’m Dylan, and I’m a compulsive gambler, he says. Hey Dylan, the room answers.

Compulsion just drives my whole life, he says. Whether it’s drinking, eating, sleeping or smoking, Dylan’s initial instinct is to screw up.

He pauses, thanking the room, and gets a standing ovation before remembering something else he wanted to talk about. It’s been seven months since his last bet, but something came up at work the other week. Some morons started talking about the New York Rangers and how good they were doing, bringing him down. Hockey was his.

Dylan managed to pull away. For him, any return to sports betting would not be brief. The first bet would be a step from the top of a steep slope. Yes, he would have won those hockey games, he says, but he would have lost it in Indonesian table tennis.

The room silently agrees. I am constantly at war with myself about these things.

I lost $3000 in one day

Hi, I’m Eddie, and I’m a compulsive gambler, he says. Hi Eddie, the room is answering.

This isn’t Eddies first time at Players Anonymous. Nor is it his first time at this meeting. But it’s the first time, this time, that he’s asking for help.

It’s been six days since Eddie made his last bet. I was here three months ago, but I played again, he says. Sports betting

He had tried to stop himself, using self-exclusion tools to try to stop himself from using the big platforms. After a while, however, he started betting again using friends’ accounts.

Things quickly spiraled. I had about $3,000 on me and lost it all in one day, Eddie recalls.

A recent cab ride had persuaded him to return to GA. The driver had encouraged him; it had worked for his father. Gotta get back to these meetings, Eddie says, looking around. So I can be like all of you, I guess.

This was a beginner’s meeting, a first step into some of the larger GA groups. Those who haven’t played in a year graduate to their main meet, known as the big meet.

Three years ago, this particular beginner group consisted of two, maybe three, people every week, according to one of the moderators. The numbers have increased significantly over the past year and a half. Now there are 25.

Twelve months is a painfully long time on the road to recovery. There are many ups and downs between each of the 12 steps of GA. Attendees are expected to commit to the process, make time for meetings and calls, and make connections with others in the program.

It is unlikely that many who show up to the starter meeting will make it to the main meeting. As with many recovery programs, relapse is common.

But those who have persevered insist that the commitment to the Agency to show up to meetings, week after week, and make calls, day after day, is paying off.

There’s life after the game, and it’s a good life, Bruce said, after the meeting. If you think about it, if 30 people stand up and say their lives are better because of abstinence, that makes an impact.

There is hope, he added. You see it can be done.

  • Learn more about Gamblers Anonymous at

  • In the US, call the National Council on Problem Gambling at 800-GAMBLER or text 800GAM. In the UK, help for problem gambling can be found through the NHS National Problem Gambling Clinic on 020 7381 7722 or GamCare on 0808 8020 133. In Australia, Help for Online betting is available on 1800 858 858 and the National Debt Helpline is on 1800. 007 007.

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