Before 2005, Sandra Adell had never set foot in a casino. But when a friend of the then 59-year-old professor at the University of Wisconsin—Madison asked Adell to accompany her to the Ho-Chunk casino about 45 minutes away from her home, she obliged. As Adell walked through the casino floor, she thought to herself, "Why in the world are all these people here?" She sat down at a machine, and by the time she got up, she was hooked.
"I thought that the casino had become my personal ATM," says Adell, author of "Confessions of a Slot Machine Queen." Early winnings convinced her the casino was where she belonged. She quickly distanced herself from her social circle, foregoing meals with friends and family to spend time gambling. "All I wanted to do was play the slots," she says; it was all she could think about.
Gambling addiction can grab hold of people and morph them into someone who only cares about their next bet. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, an estimated 2 million adults in the United States meet the criteria for "pathological gambling," and 4 to 6 million are considered "problem gamblers." It's an addiction found across economic classes, from lower-class Americans playing for their next paycheck to those wealthy enough to gamble away tens of thousands of dollars within a few hours.
Men vs. women. Contrary to popular belief, the gap between the number of male and female gambling addicts is closing. As more Indian and local casinos with slot machines are added to the playing field, the number of female problem gamblers increases throughout the country, says Sam Skolnik, author of "High Stakes: The Rising Cost of America's Gambling Addiction."
However, Skolnik says betting behaviors vary by gender. He says men are more likely to be "action gamblers," meaning they prefer games that involve skill (e.g., poker or blackjack), while women tend to be "escape gamblers," meaning they're more drawn to machines that are based on luck (e.g., slots or bingo) and gamble to distract themselves from problems in their personal life.
Studies show female compulsive gamblers frequently report feeling "hypnotized" when playing a slot machine. Many men, meanwhile, describe sports betting as a way to use their knowledge for monetary gain. Despite such differences, there are a number of biological similarities. While gambling, men and women both experience spikes in dopamine, the neurotransmitter for pleasure.
Some people liken compulsive gambling to alcohol or drug addiction, and studies conclude the same parts of the brain are activated during the "high." "A gambler who is about to make a bet, and a cocaine addict who is about to take a hit of cocaine, experience similar brain patterns," Skolnik says.
As with alcoholism, a gambling addict can develop tolerance, says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Counsel on Problem Gambling. Whyte says the more people gamble, the more they need to bet to achieve the same level of excitement and ecstasy. Only Whyte says, "There's not enough money in the world to overdose on problem gambling." And just like those addicted to a substance, many problem gamblers will take extreme measures to finance their addiction.
Doing whatever it takes. Timothy Fong, professor of psychiatry at the University of California—Los Angeles and co-director of the school's gambling addiction program, says about a quarter of gambling addicts will commit a crime to satisfy their cravings, including embezzlement, insurance fraud or identity theft. Some, he says, even turn to prostitution. "Gambling for normal people is about entertainment, but for gambling addicts, it's about survival," according to Fong. "These people aren't at the casino to have fun. They're there to win big—and they won't let a loss stop them from gambling."
In fact, hitting a jackpot can lead gambling addicts to raise their bet because it tricks some into thinking they need to capitalize on a hot streak, says Marc Lefkowitz, a California-certified gambling counselor and recovered gambling addict. "You may be winning at some point in the night, and that gives you a high, but the high doesn't last," he says. Lefkowitz says those who are in deep also often think irrationally. "They think, 'This cold streak has to end sometime," says Lefkowitz. "However, the odds are still the same. They're always in favor of the house."