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Numbers indicate stakes grow when it comes to sports betting

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Shelly Birkelo
March 4, 2013

— Larry started out pitching pennies with the kids in his neighborhood at age 12.

By the time he was 16, he was playing pinochle, pool and cribbage for money. He also was betting on sports pools.

While serving aboard an aircraft carrier in Vietnam, Larry was playing poker in games with pots that ranged from $4,000 to $5,000.

"If I wasn't playing, I'd back somebody and get a percentage," the 60-year-old Janesville man said.

After he left the Navy, Larry started working in a bar where he averaged $30 a week betting on sports pools and another $40 on the Illinois lottery.

There are many more out there like Larry, which explains why sports wagering has become a billion-dollar industry.

Ray Hadley, a nationally certified gambling counselor/supervisor who operates a mental health clinic in Milton, said some $100 million was wagered on the Super Bowl played Feb. 3.

Each year, gamblers bet on which team will win the coin toss, which team will score first, which team will lead after each quarter and who will win the game, he said.

"It's a bet on anything you can bet on," Hadley said.

Betting to go mad in March

Hadley said the number of bets placed during March Madness—the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament—top those for the Super Bowl. The FBI estimates more than $2.5 billion is illegally wagered each year on March Madness, according to the American Gaming Association's website.

Gambling, including sports wagering, "isn't going to go away in any shape or form," said Rose Gruber, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling. She also sits on the National Council for Problem Gambling based in Washington, D.C.

Calls to the statewide council's help line support that statement. Since 1996, annual calls to the 24-hour, toll-free help line have increased from 3,433 to 14,464. Calls peaked at 14,604 in 2009.

The Wisconsin council's annual data also show that the number of male gamblers increased by 73 percent from 1996 through 2012, while female gamblers increased by 144 percent during that same time. The annual average yearly debt of those gamblers increased 76 percent.

Some of those caught up in gambling thought they could make up for job losses during the recent economic downturn, Gruber said.

Others, she said, are new gamblers who tried it and take part more now because of greater accessibility.

Gambling was his mistress

The most money Larry ever won gambling was $500. But the money didn't matter.

"All the money is for is to fuel the addiction," he said.

By the time Larry was 35, he was working two full-time jobs to fund his $400-a-day addiction.

"Some days, I'd break even, but seldom did I go home with money in my pocket," he said.

When Larry realized he was 10 months behind on mortgage payments, he didn't care.

"Gambling was my mistress," he said.

Larry finally bottomed out in 1998, when his now ex-wife was served foreclosure papers by the Rock County Sheriff's Office.

Bet free for 15 years

When Larry sought treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, he also found help for his gambling addiction. Now drug, alcohol and gambling free for 15 years, Larry has a license plate and email that proclaim "Bet Free 98" to recognize his accomplishment.

But gambling still consumed 30 years of Larry's adult life.

"I was broke financially and spiritually and thought of suicide before entering treatment," he said.

Today, life is much better. Larry attends two Gamblers Anonymous meetings and three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week. He also started a GA meeting at a Veterans Administration halfway house in Milwaukee, is a Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling board member and volunteers for the council's toll-free help line.

As a recovering addict, Larry said gambling is the hardest to stay away from because it's so prolific in today's society.

"The suicide rate among compulsive gamblers is three times higher than alcohol and drug addicts combined," said Larry, who described compulsive gambling as a "silent addiction."

"A lot of family members don't know until all the money is gone."

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