When monosport online gambling became legal in Ontario last month, I received text messages from many friends asking how I felt about the deluge of online casino advertisements popping up all over town like moles.
I texted back a quip about everything I was learning. For example, I learned exactly where to cross Campbell Avenue so I wouldn’t have to come face to face with the big MGM Casino banner ad promising to bring Las Vegas to Toronto, hanging on the side of the bodega at the end of our street.
I’ve also learned to mute the TV on my way out of the room as soon as the third outing is taped during Blue Jays TV shows to make sure I don’t pick up the first commercial (there’s a suggested equal money as it will be for a betting site).
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When you’re recovering from a gambling addiction in this new era of mainstream sports betting, lessons like this can save your life – or at least help you combat all those problems. other things you learned all those years ago: don’t be a wimp. Run away from negative emotions. Numb discomfort at all costs. Put the house in your wife’s name. Look for the horses claimed last time.
All this I learned from my father. He learned them from his father, who got them from his, my great Zayda Jack, a four-foot-tall pugilist with a face like an old boot, who once put an anti-Semite from Warsaw in a trash can . He also sadly lost his only pair of shoes to a straight flush in a floating shtetl poker game.
You could honestly say I come from my gambling addiction. Which is ironic because gamers don’t get anything honestly.
When I was six and my brother was eight, my father, an obstetrician in Toronto, taught us what Leonard Cohen calls “the sacred game of poker” in a makeshift poker pit in the basement of my house. home where he had set up a vomit green folding deck table. Above was a fresh pack of blue Bicycle playing cards, bought on the way home after giving birth. Tokens were collected from a wink box and stacked evenly in front of each of our spots.
“The game is a five-card draw,” he explained. “The straight seven and its high-low variation. A flush beats a straight. Unless you play three card poker. Remember: never fold unless you are facing a bet. To verify. We’ve covered five-card stud and the Bathurst Manor wrinkle (four flushes per pair), and discovered the astronomical odds of this latest showdown hand in The Cincinnati Child.
Just like that, I was under a spell that only intensified when my father got up from his seat at the table and left our family for good. He actually took the bridge table with him.
Players are like geometrists in velor tracksuits: always looking for an angle. One of the angles that I always played was that I was just a guy who liked to watch sports. What I really loved was betting on them.
Secretly, I bragged that I could bet on any event, even darts. In fact, on a particularly dark and gray November trip to Sault Sainte Marie in 2005 to visit my in-laws, I watched the entire World Darts Championship with my late father-in-law, John – the only person I have ever met who rivaled my sporting prowess. Unbeknownst to John (or his daughter), I was pulling hard for Martin Adams to stick a 180. I had no idea who the fuck Martin Adams was. But that didn’t stop me from making a big bet on him.
If the game was on, it was a solid bet that I had action on it. That’s how it went until December 2020, when the addiction that had been beating me regularly since my bar mitzvah 35 years earlier finally brought me to my knees, which turned out to be the perfect position from which to nail the for sale sign to the lawn of our family home. After selling the house to pay my debts, with the support of people still miraculously in my corner – my wife, my two children, my older brother (who recently turned down an audition for a role in a potentially lucrative voice job for a online casino), a recovery community and an amazing therapist – I got serious help. I stopped playing and hiding.
(A note on my bar mitzvah year: I wasted the $4,700 I “earned” croaking my haftora during a particularly bad run in late 1986 with lemon gin and soccer losers.)
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In my first year of recovery, I couldn’t even walk past TSN or Sportsnet to get to the crackling calm of the foyer channel without turning on myself. Sports on TV was a huge trigger for me. So was the Wonderland carousel – I was an avid horse player. Treat Uno for my children? Trigger, because I also loved cards.
My son, Lev, is now eight years old. He’s the same age as my brother when my father broke free – and broke up – our family. Lev comes from four generations of compulsive gamblers (he hasn’t yet skipped a generation as the books always promise). SEver since I got clean, he and I have been talking about it openly. So much so that every time one of those corny neon betting site ads pops up on his YouTube feed, he flinches, half squinting between spread fingers like he’s watching a horror movie. In my version of things, that’s not far from the truth.
So how can I do you think of the explosion of online gambling? I’m afraid. Sad. Furious. Sets off.
I often feel self-pity, which, as quickly as the bend flows to the river, can turn into shame. I read John Bradshaw Heal the shame that binds you, where he writes that shame is at the root of most addictions. I feel all the sensations, but, for my recovery, more important than identifying the emotions I’m supposed to leave I feel them myself.
Locked in the clutches of an active addiction for nearly four decades, I numb my pain like Dennis Hopper in blue velvet, I feel like I have the support of the culture around me. Just as “a weed shop on every corner” quickly became FDR’s current version of “a chicken in every pot”, I feel like online gaming has already become the latest trend in excessive access.
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And why not? Look who approves of this brand of “fun”. Jamie Foxx, Paris Hilton, Usain Bolt, Wayne Gretzky and seemingly every other Canadian sports personality has jumped on the bandwagon to acquire their own stack of mid-sized chips. I get it – money was also my drug of choice.
A recent Deloitte Canada report predicted that the legalization of online gambling nationwide could see what is currently a $500 million industry explode in $28-billion one in just five years. There is clearly money on the table. A lot of money.
The pandemic has absolutely crushed drug addicts and created countless new ones. The numbers indicate that online gambling in Ontario was legalized at this very moment, as if we didn’t feel isolated enough already. It was this isolation that less than 18 months ago stuck me on my side of the 50, staring at a quarter and a mile to go with only a few ticks left on the clock. It was Hail Mary time for me, but instead I decided to support a different prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
What can’t I change? That online gambling is here to stay, and there’s a swarm of betting websites directly targeting the next generation of potential addicts hardwired for a lifetime of gambling. I’ve been around long enough to know the house wins still.
What can I change? My actions.
No bets or lies today. And I can choose to speak openly to my children and anyone else who hears about my decades-long tumultuous love affair with gambling and all that it has cost me. And then I can feel the pain rush through me as I do.
Anyone who has ever suffered from addiction or loved someone who does will recognize this pain. I would bet on it.
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