"You have to be cooked when you go to GA (Gamblers Anonymous)," says Angela M., "because if you're not, you're just not going to be able to see yourself in the horror stories. The first time I went, I heard someone say he'd lost $50,000, and I said to myself, 'I'm not that bad; I only lost 50 bucks.'

"I wasn't in debt then, but I am now. Because I wasn't cooked then. I still had to burn for five more years. I had to be cooked and cooked and cooked until finally I got singed."

Angela M. -- members of Gamblers Anonymous may never disclose their real names, not to the public, not to each other, not even to their sponsors -- got "singed" or "bottomed out," as the GA argot has it, at Freestate Raceway, a trotter track in Laurel, Md. But until then, her "major" was poker, which she began playing at age 12 with her father and his friends. For most of her 39 years, she played almost every night at a local firehouse. She "minored" in blackjack, usually at Atlantic City casinos.

Horse racing was her downfall. It was also her salvation.

There are maybe 6 million problem gamblers in this country. Maybe many more. Nobody really knows for sure, but the experts believe it is close to 3 percent of the adult population.

Until fairly recently, gamblers were considered nothing more than "bad guys," says Robert L. Custer, a Washington psychiatrist considered the father of current thinking about and treatment for the disorder that produces compulsive gambling.

A decade ago, when gamblers did something illegal to feed their compulsion, they were shipped off to jail with no compunction. Today, a psychiatric evaluation is often called for before sentencing. Researchers are concluding that gambling is an addiction that works on the brain in much the same way as drugs and alcohol. In fact, many compulsive gamblers are also substance abusers. The diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association calls compulsive gambling a disorder of "impulse control."

"Gambling," says Custer, "is a part of human nature." And it has been from ancient Chinese, Greek, Roman and Persian games to the pool halls and poker tables of the American frontier to the state lotteries of today. Most people gamble in penny-ante poker games, church-basement bingo games or during days-long sessions in a darkened casino.

Probably more than 95 percent of people will gamble a bit and then go back to their everyday lives, according to Custer. For the others, however, the gambling becomes their life. It is insidious and progressive, eventually crowding out everything else -- family, job, morality, life itself.

It is, compulsive gamblers will tell you, almost impossible to describe the winner's rush, the gambler's high. Especially that experienced with the first big win. It is probably akin to the high felt during the first cocaine experience, say experts, and may have the same devastating impact -- the initiation of a desperate, single-minded, endless, uncontrollable quest to replicate that single, transient, transporting experience. To chase it unto death.

But sensation seeking is not the only gateway to the addiction of compulsive gambling. Sheila Blume, medical director of the Alcoholism, Chemical Dependency and Compulsive Gambling Programs at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y., says, "What happens in compulsive gambling is very similar to alcohol, another legal high. If a person is into recreational betting and finds that something in the experience seems to fill in for something they lack, it stops being a minor way of easing life's problems. It takes over as THE way, so it edges out human relationships -- one reason why the family suffers so, even before all the money is gone.

"If you have a drug or if you can go place a bet and get rid of your troubles that way, you don't need to confide in your wife or your husband, and, in fact, you don't."

Blume, who is a specialist on women alcoholics and gamblers, says "it is common for the spouses of gamblers to suspect that there is another woman or another man because of the emotional withdrawal."

Rick W. is acting as a spokesman for the Washington metro area chapter of Gamblers Anonymous, which is patterned closely on Alcoholics Anonymous. He recently served a few months in jail after being convicted of embezzlement and is currently a half-million dollars in debt. He was a millionaire realtor who watched in a kind of agonized helplessness as his savings, his company and his investors' funds went into his "majors" -- horses, casinos, lotteries and "anything else that provided the action."

"If there was one thing he would do differently in his life, he says, he would try to undo the hurt he caused his wife. "That's the main thing a compulsive gambler does," he says, "is hurt the people he loves the most."

Here is an example:

"One time, I'm in my office on a Monday morning with $5,000 in my pocket. I'm four payments in arrears on my house, which is about to be foreclosed on to the tune of about $4,800. I had a secret arrangement with a friend to go to Vegas on Thursday. Our plane tickets were already bought. I'm thinking, it's a sin to take this money to pay the mortgage with to Vegas. I'll run up to Atlantic City to win some of their money -- real rational, right?

"So I hightail it up to Atlantic City on Monday, and Monday night I'm winning a couple of thousand, I really don't exactly remember, but they {casino management} invite me to stay over in a suite as a large player.

"It didn't occur to me to call home. Tuesday and Wednesday I'm still there. Now I have a problem because I have to go home and meet my friend I'm going to Vegas with, but I couldn't face the firestorm at home so I stayed in a motel. We went to Vegas for two weeks. I never called. I didn't mean to hurt her. The gambler is not thinking or acting rationally. He is a sick puppy."

Angela M. has a story that matches. "One time, me and some guys I used to bowl with went up to Atlantic City after bowling.

"We didn't call anyone, didn't call home, nothing. We were up there for four days until we lost everything we had. One of my buddies called his girlfriend, and she sent him some money to buy gas so we could get home. I didn't care that people worried about me because I hadn't called. I was doing the one thing I loved to do more than anything else. I was gambling. I didn't think about who I was hurting. I didn't think about my boyfriend sitting at home wondering where the hell I was. I went out bowling on Sunday afternoon like I normally do at 5 o'clock, and I didn't come home until Thursday."

Addiction specialist Blume tells an archtypical gambling story:

"A fellow meets a friend and the friend's wife in the lobby of a casino in Atlantic City. And they look terrible.

"He says, 'You look awful, what happened?'

" 'Oh,' the friend says, my wife's purse was stolen, and we had everything in there. We had our plane tickets home, our credit cards, everything. And we don't even have the money to get home. Can you lend us $300?'

" 'Well, I could,' said the friend, 'but how do I know you won't gamble with it?'

" 'Oh,' said the friend, "you don't have to worry about that. We've got our gambling money."

"Gambling money is sacred, the only sacred money a gambler knows," says Blume.

Just what it is that distinguishes the person who becomes a gambling addict is the subject of increasing research -- and a good bit of speculation.

That gambling is listed in the diagnostic manual as a mental disorder at all is a tribute to a small group of determined addiction specialists including Custer, Blume, Valerie Lorenz, director of the National Center for Pathological Gambling, in Baltimore, and G. Alexander Roy, a psychobiologist now at Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y. And, of course, to Gamblers Anonymous, which was founded in 1957.

Roy's work has linked compulsive gambling to the part of the brain associated with arousal and excitement -- what scientists call the noradrenergic system. This network of brain messengers is also implicated in sensation seeking and some other addictive behaviors.

In the family backgrounds of most pathological gamblers, there are other possibly related disorders -- if not gambling, alcoholism or some serious dysfunction that led to the neglect of other members of the family. Childhood trauma also is a common trait.

Valerie Lorenz at the Baltimore center and one of her staff art therapists, Bonnie Smith-May, find over and over again in therapy sessions and in drawings and paintings by patients that pathological gamblers suffer from severely low self-esteem, a driving need to prove themselves not just worthy but special. A still unidentified and perhaps genetically linked vulnerability makes them easy prey to the fantasy world of impossible odds.

Money is something that gamblers believe will fill the void of self-esteem, but even more, says Blume, "it is a feeling favored by Lady Luck." Custer agrees. "It's not the money they're after," he says, "it's the action. But of course, they can't get the action without the money."

That was how Angela M. "bottomed out," when she knew she was cooked. "If anybody had ever told me I'd get hooked on horse racing, I'd have told them they were crazy," she says. "I always thought it was cruel. I'd see these families there, and the couple would be skin and bones and the kids would be skin and bones and yet they'd have money to bet on the horses. I mean," she says grimly, "I never thought I would sleep with a guy that I didn't even know for any reason, no less than for him to pay for my action at the race track.

"You don't feel good about yourself. You only think that I need that money. I need that money."

Compulsive gamblers may be male or female, any race, creed or color, any socioeconomic stratum. Blume estimates that about one third of America's gamblers are women, but they are underrepresented in treatment programs and in GA. Part of the reason is society's stereotype of the gambler.

"The Damon Runyon figure is a male image," says Blume. "He is the big shot, the big spender with a big ego. He is the man about town who wears an extensive amount of jewelry, brags when he wins (and claims to win when he loses) and thinks of himself as smarter than the average sucker. The female who gambles heavily does not fit this colorful image. She carries a stigma."

Moreover, says Blume, the female often gambles alone and is more likely to be a closet gambler. Women in GA tend to have fewer spouses or boyfriends. As a result, they tend to have fewer social supports to get them into treatment and help them during recovery.

But there are also characteristics common to most pathological gamblers, whatever their backgrounds.

They are fiercely competitive.

They are bright and energetic, often workaholics.

They are good with numbers.

They are often particularly charming and ingratiating.

It is, says Custer, "one of the most serious disorders I could encounter. Some 20 percent of the people I see have attempted suicide before I see them."

Both Rick and Angela are passionately devoted to GA, where they meet regularly with their peers. "The GA program works because if I tell a fellow human being about gambling, and all of a sudden he realizes I've been there and I understand exactly what he's been through, that really gets at the root of it," says Rick.

When psychiatrist Robert Custer lectures, he always takes a compulsive gambler with him. "I can get the head part," Custer says, "but the gambler gets the heart and the guts, and until they hear that, they don't quite get it."

One obstacle to recovery is the gambling environment. As therapist Valerie Lorenz, a former colleague of Custer, explains: "The gambling industry is always developing new games, and the competitive nature of the compulsive gambler will feed right into that. Just like lotteries. When one game loses its appeal, they develop a new one."

Compulsive gamblers, like other addicts, tend to develop a tolerance. Just as the alcoholic will need more and more liquor to achieve a high, the gambler will require bigger and bigger bets. A $1 bet will become $50. A $50 chip becomes $100, $500, $1,000.

As sponsors for other new members at GA, Angela and Rick try to help other gamblers before they bottom out. As Angela says: "My message is to reach out and help someone else, because you benefit more than they do."

"And that," she says, "is the truth."

Sandy Rovner is a columnist for the Health section of The Washington Post.

Some sources of help and information on compulsive gambling for gamblers or family and friends of gamblers:

Gamblers Anonymous of the Washington area: 961-1313

National Center for Pathological Gambling: 1-800-332-0402