Problem Gamblers, in Their Own Words

See related articles from the March 2008 issue, Black Hawk's Gamble and Politicians Bet the Farm.

YOU DON'T LEAVE 'TIL YOU LOSE EVERYTHING

Bobby Marchetti, 72, a Brooklyn native in shiny cowboy boots, orders a salad and a BLT at Fitzgerald's casino in Black Hawk, Colorado. He is the leader of a big-band orchestra that, he says, opens with the song "Celebration" ("We've never left anybody unhappy"), and he is sitting a few yards from where he scored his biggest win ever -- $10,500 -- in five-dollar poker. "I was happy. Absolutely," he recalls. "But when you're a gambler, a compulsive gambler, you don't get excited. No. I thought, 'Well, I'm going to put this money away.' I had a little strong box. Pretty quick, in a month or so, the money was gone."

He says he has been gambling since he was 6 years old, pitching pennies in Bay Ridge, and became a regular at the Black Hawk casinos after they opened in the early 1990s. While he was there, he saw players like himself -- people who cannot stop. Once, he recalls, a stocky, worn-looking woman approached him. "She said, 'Sir, can I talk to you? Is there any chance you will buy my wedding band?'" He holds out his hand and pretends to take off a ring and offer it to someone. "I said, 'No.' I just couldn't do it. She said, 'Give me twenty dollars.' I wouldn't. After a while, people lose respect for you."

He kept playing, for years, until he ran out of money. Then he played some more -- until he had lost, altogether, $500,000 at the casinos. Finally, he says, he knew he had to stop. "I'd go gambling during the day, and I even kept a change of clothes in the car because I don't smoke. You don't leave 'til you lose everything you have."

He remembers seeing an elderly woman at a casino one evening. "She had prayer beads, and she was patting the machine and praying and she said, "I have lost everything." Marchetti says, "I actually went home and I sat down and I started to cry. My wife said, 'Bobby, I know you've been gambling. I can smell it. Don't lie to me,' and I told her that yes, I had betrayed her."

One morning at home, he saw a television interview with compulsive-gambling counselor, Arnie Wexler (1-888-LAST-BET), who is based in Bradley Beach, New Jersey. He called Wexler's hotline and they spoke on the telephone, and eventually Marchetti filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy and began repaying his debts. His wife, he says, "stuck by me. Basically, I'm a good guy -- but when you gamble, you lie. You become a compulsive liar as well as a compulsive gambler." He placed his last bet in 2005.

CHASING THE LOSSES

It is September 2005. Earla Mastroantonio, a reimbursement specialist for a health-care company, is listening to U2 in a 1990 Saab as she drives along Highway Six on her way to Black Hawk. She has been gambling for ten years, maxing out at least four credit cards, and has lost more than $70,000 at the casinos. "In the beginning, I would go with my husband," she recalls. "And years passed. Then I would go with friends or my sister-in-law and, finally, by myself. I would wear jeans, tennis shoes so I would be comfortable. When you're gambling, you want the least amount of distractions possible. You don't eat. You have to remind yourself to drink water. I didn't notice the people around me. -- all you're doing is looking for a machine. There was always the lure of the clanging, the banging. The whole time, you're numbed-out. It brought great happiness if you were winning. When you lost all your money and you go to the ATM and get more money -- that's fear, desperation. There is a feeling of, 'I have to do this.' It is as though the good and the bad are fighting, and all reason is lost."

"I used credit cards to keep it going," continues Mastroantonio, 53. "Then comes the lies, the deceit, the guilt. By 2004, I had racked up all the credit cards. I was in big trouble and I had to tell my husband. He didn't tell me, but he decided that when our last child graduated from high school, he was going to demand a divorce. That was Summer '05." One evening, she says, he invited her out for an evening of gambling at a nearby Colorado town with casinos. "He called me and said, 'Meet me in Cripple Creek.' We spent the night. The next day, he said, 'If you don't quit gambling, I'm going to divorce you.' Later, he asked for a divorce, and I went into a downward spiral."

Still, she says, she went back to the casinos at least three more days, even writing bad checks while she was there. "I was angry, hurt and confused. I thought, ‘I'll show him.' It's a whole bunch of emotions. I wasn't thinking clearly. You just think you're going to get the money back and pay everything back." On the last day of her binge, she says, she remembers driving home: "The roughest part was going through the windy roads. I had lost everything -- my family, my husband. I wasn't going to do something to have an accident. But if one had happened, it would have been expected or understood."

Mastroantonio is lucky. She spent six days as an in-patient, dealing with her depression, at a mental-health unit of Denver's Porter Adventist Hospital. She also received help through a Denver University program, Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center, one of the few places in the state that offers treatment for problem gamblers. She no longer gambles, and she has a new, live-in boyfriend, an IT recruiter. Still, it has been a tough journey. "It was a very painful slow crawl up to where I am today," she says. "After the divorce went through, I didn't think I would ever live through the pain. And I also had the bankruptcy to deal with."

"The thing that I still question is, 'Why did they allow me to do it?' There I was, with red eyes, tired, smoking one cigarette after another, not eating. But they let me write checks," she says. "If the casinos would not have been there, and if they would have been so easy, then they would never have been part of my life, and my story would have been a lot different."

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