When the wife of fast-food chain Jack-In-The-Box founder, Maureen O’Connor, lost her husband in 1994, she was left between $40 and $50 million—certainly enough to keep the widow comfortable for the rest of her life. But in 2000, she began gambling—and gambling some more. Soon, she found herself unable to stop, citing grief over losing her husband as one reason.
Although she won over 200 million dollars gambling, she lost a lot more--$1 billion playing video poker over 10 years in the casinos of San Diego, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Despite selling a home, hotel, her art collection and jewelry, O’Connor was broke and $13 million in debt. She needed more money—and got it by taking over $2 million from the charitable organization her husband set up. Although she intended to pay it back, the foundation was left bankrupt and O’Connor was left charged with a federal crime.
Formerly a mayor of San Diego and Catholic school teacher, O’Connor had been known throughout her community for her selfless service. Now, she is known throughout her country for having squandered her husband’s fortune--and worse -- theft. According to the New York Daily News, O'Connor cried and said, "Most of you know, I never meant to hurt the city."
Although her story is extreme, gambling addiction is not rare. Grief, loneliness and stress can trigger compulsive gambling. A Canadian study cited that in 2011, “more than half of all women and men living alone report spending money on at least one gambling activity.”
In actuality, anyone who gambles can develop a problem if they do not gamble responsibly. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), “‘Problem Gambling’ includes, but is not limited to, the condition known as ‘Pathological’, or ‘Compulsive’ Gambling, a progressive addiction characterized by increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, ‘chasing’ losses, and loss of control manifested by continuation of the gambling behavior in spite of mounting, serious, negative consequences.”
According to the NCPG, “Women begin gambling later than men but develop problems more quickly.” In The Arizona Republic article, “New treatment center for compulsive female gamblers in Scottsdale: High number of women seek aid for addiction,” more than half of “compulsive gamblers in state-approved programs are women, and 55 percent of those seeking treatment say that slot machines caused them the most problems.” A recovering female gambler, M.J. of Scottsdale, who wishes to remain anonymous, lost the $200,000 in life insurance money left to her by her late husband. “Her nightly limit of losses quickly went from $200 to $2,500 and then $5,000…She hocked her jewelry and went into debt…”
Another former gambling addict, author Mary Sojourner, introduces herself in her book, She Bets Her Life: “Welcome to my world. I have been, and I will always be, a woman one bet away from being imprisoned by a slot machine…I played slot machines for fourteen years, the last nine years compulsively. By the time I quit, my life and nervous system were in ruins.”
Gambling addiction is not caused by casinos, lotteries and other types of gambling. According to NCPG, it is caused by “the individual's inability to control the gambling… The casino or lottery provides the opportunity for the person to gamble. It does not, in and of itself, create the problem any more than a liquor store would create an alcoholic.”
Sojourner highlights the differences in the pathological gambling patterns of men and women. “Men usually begin a pathological gambling pattern during their teens, while women are more likely to become compulsive gamblers when they are older. Additionally, men are more likely to engage in action gambling (table play, roulette, sports betting), while women typically play slot machines, video poker, or bingo. Action gamblers play for the rush, the high, and the big money. While bingo can provide social interaction for women, slots and video poker serve mostly as a means to escape into one’s own world. The onset of gambling addition with action play can range from ten to fifteen years. Most slot machine and poker addicts are hooked within a year or two.”
Of all the addictive behaviors such as drinking and drug abuse, gambling has the highest suicide rate. In The New York Times article, “Suicide Rate Higher in 3 Gambling Cities, Study Says,” a professor of sociology at the University of California in San Diego examined the death certificates in the “major gaming cities in the United States --Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Nev., and Reno -- and found that suicide rates were up to four times higher than in comparably sized cities where gambling is not legal.”
When Sojourner began writing about gambling addiction, she received a call from a tearful woman who had no idea her widowed mother had a gambling addiction until it was too late. She told Sojourner what it was like to find her mother dead on the living room couch next to an empty bottle of antidepressants and a folder on the floor. The folder contained 11 credit card bills in alphabetical order—all for a minimum of $5,000. On the front of the folder, the mother had written, “I am so sorry.” She had gambled away all her savings, the investments her husband had left her, and the bank was about to foreclose on her house.
According to the NCPG, casinos and other organizations that provide gambling have a “responsibility to develop policies and programs to address underage and problem gambling issues.” To that end, Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, the largest resort casino in North America, states that “We provide financial support of the education, training and research efforts of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gaming. If you think you need help, please call 1-800-34 NO BET.” Their “Responsible Gambling” webpage includes the opportunity to self-exclude oneself from gambling on their premises and the following questions to help individuals determine if they have a gambling problem:
1. Have you been preoccupied with thoughts of gambling while doing other things?
2. Have you been restless or irritable when unable to gamble?
3. Have you hidden your gambling from family members?
4. Has gambling created conflict and unhappiness in your life?
5. Have you tried to stop gambling but have not been able to?
6. Have you gambled to obtain money to pay debts or solve other financial problems?
7. Have you needed someone else to bail you out of a gambling debt?
8. Have you ever borrowed money and not paid it back as a result of your gambling?
9. Have you been unable to pay bills due to gambling losses?
10. Have you ever thought you might have a gambling problem?
The Connecticut Council on Problem Gaming states that for those who don’t have a gambling problem, “the following steps can help keep gambling a fun and entertaining activity:
• Don’t use money needed for daily living expenses.
• Set a dollar limit. Identify a specific amount of money you can afford to lose and stop when that amount of money is gone.
• Set a time limit. Arrange activities away from the gambling, such as meeting friends for dinner.
• Don’t “chase” losses and risk losing more money.
• Set some of the winnings aside for other purposes.
• Remember that winning and losing are both part of gambling. If you are not ready to lose, you are not ready to gamble.
• View gambling as a form of entertainment, where there is a greater likelihood of losing than winning and the losses are the price of the entertainment.”
If you suspect that you or someone you know has a gambling problem, there are many free services and support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous (http://www.gamblersanonymous.org). The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) website (http://www.ncpgambling.org) includes a toll-free, 24-hour confidential hotline at 1-800-522-4700 and links to other problem gambling related websites, an online directory of International Certified Gambling Counselors, and a locator for inpatient and residential treatment centers.
The following is an easy to remember phone number if you are out and find yourself in trouble: 1-800-GAMBLER (1-800-426-2537).
Blakeslee, S. (1997, December 16). Suicide Rate Higher in 3 Gambling Cities, Study Says. The New York Times.
Corbett, P. (2011, May 27). New treatment center for compulsive female gamblers in Scottsdale: High number of women seek aid for addiction. The Arizona Republic.
Foxwoods Responsible Gambling. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2014, from Foxwoods Resort Casino: http://www.foxwoods.com/responsiblegambling.aspx
Marshall, K. (2011). Gambling 2014. Retrieved April 24, 2014, from Component of Statistics Canada Catalogue: Perspectives on Labour and Income: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2011004/article/11551-eng.pdf
National Council on Problem Gambling. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2014, from http://www.ncpgambling.org
Problem Gambling. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2014, from Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling: http://www.ccpg.org/problem-gambling/
Sojourner, M. (2010). She Bets Her Life: A true story of gambling addiction. Berkeley, California: Seal Press.
Walsh, M. (2013, February 14). Former San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor stole $2.1 million from charity for gambling binge that also cost her $13 million. New York Daily News.
Women Gamblers Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved April 22, 2014, from National Council on Problem Gambling: