Until I picked up Wednesday's Post, I thought I was reasonably stable. But after reading Ann Landers' column, I think I may have to check into the hospital that has been treating Baltimore quarterback Art Schlichter for his gambling problem. In fact, the hospital may have to build a new wing to accommodate all my race track cronies.
Landers had received a letter that said, "I need to know the identifying characteristics of a compulsive gambler. I'm afraid a member of our family is in deep trouble." The columnist replied by presenting a checklist of 20 questions that gamblers should answer; anybody giving seven affirmative answers had better seek help from Gamblers Anonymous. These were some of the questions:
After a win, do you have a strong urge to go back and win more?
Who doesn't? If one my friends won $1,000 on the daily double at Bowie and then announced, "That's enough; I'm going," I'd really start to worry about his mental health.
Are you reluctant to spend gambling money for normal expenditures because you want to save it for gambling?
Of course. In fact, this is a cardinal rule for bettors. A gambler who hopes to be successful has to treat money as if it were chips or pebbles and never think that he could be using it to pay the rent. Anyone in my peer group who declined to go to the track on the grounds that he had to use his money to buy food would be a pariah forever.
Do you often gamble until your last dollar is gone?
If necessary. Nobody likes to go broke, of course, but the possibility is what makes gambling one of the most entertaining pastimes in the world. Like walking on a tightrope, it is only interesting and exciting when a measure of real risk is involved.
The people who fulminate about the evils of gambling and look hard for danger signs of "compulsiveness" seem to feel that it's unnatural to want to live a life that involves a great deal of risk, uncertainty and potential pain. And when that desire does cause personal problems and unpleasant financial consequences, it's so unnatural that it must be a sickness.
Even in a case as extreme as Schlichter's, I hate to hear a gambler described as being sick. He may be irresponsible, naive, stupid, unlucky or just a bad handicapper, but to say that he is a victim of a disease--as if he had caught a case of the measles--implies that he had no responsibility or control over what he was doing.
And that demeans the whole gambling process. Betting isn't just a test of skill or intellect; it is a test of character. Anyone who has played a game of penny-ante poker, let alone risked thousands on a football game or horse race, knows that he must fight the temptation to press when he is losing, to become complacent or reckless when he is winning. He must learn to manage money and emotions, and to do it requires experience and determination--not just being "healthy" as opposed to "sick."
In this respect, gambling is no different from almost any other activity involving financial risk--such as buying stocks, trading commodities or putting money into some entrepreneurial venture. Yet gambling is the only one of these activities that moralists like Ann Landers view as being dangerous and wicked. If somebody loses $100,000 buying soybean futures and can't pay Merrill Lynch, he's an irresponsible crook. If he loses $100,000 to his bookie, he needs therapy.