Stakes Too High For Some Gamblers Addicts Can Lose Savings, Lives In Downward Spiral Of Lost Hopes

Second of two parts

A few months ago, Norman Guess decided he had placed his last bet.

And this time, he meant it. The 61-year-old drove home from the Coeur d’Alene tribe’s casino, pulled his truck into the garage, and breathed exhaust fumes until he died.

“I thought he was the strongest man I ever knew,” said his wife, Jonnie Guess. “On my way home, I was saying to myself, ‘I know that Bud is going to quit gambling.’ Instead, when I came home, I found him in the garage. Dead.”

As state lotteries and Indian casinos have opened in the region, so have new chapters of Gamblers Anonymous. Phones at addiction hotlines are ringing like slot machines. Some gamblers are blowing their lives and life savings.

That’s because gambling can hook addicts like heroin, leading bettors down a spiral of depression, bankruptcy - even suicide.

Norman Guess had always been a happy man. A kidder. He loved to write poetry, paint, restore vintage cars. But once he got wired into the casino action, it all changed.

Sometimes Guess would leave his home north of Spokane in the morning, drive to Worley, Idaho, and not come home until the following evening.

The couple had saved a large nest egg. But Guess gambled it all away - half a million dollars, his wife said. Then he switched to credit cards. The statements were sent to his office so his wife wouldn’t know.

After Guess died, the funeral home gave his wife a wallet fat with a dozen cards. She called the creditors; the accounts were all maxed out.

Now, fanned out across Jonnie Guess’ kitchen counter are $50,000 worth of bills. Collectors keep calling.

She doesn’t think it’s fair that they expect her to pay. She admits Guess chose to start gambling, and she was furious when he blew their savings.

But she doesn’t understand why banks didn’t halt his credit, or why the casino never cut him off.

“They should help people like me,” Jonnie Guess said of the casino. “They helped wreck my life. It sure ruined my husband’s life.”

He tried counseling, and joined a Gamblers Anonymous group. Everyone thought he was getting better. But in January, something happened.

“I feel like I have a split personality,” Guess told his wife. “When I get into my truck and start for the casino, I think that everything’s gonna be great. But when I come out, I feel really awful.”

On Jan. 31, the day Norman Guess died of asphyxiation, he had charged $1,000 at Worley.

Suicide is a preoccupation of many gamblers on the brink of ruin.

“Compulsive gamblers commit suicide six times the national average,” said Tom Grey, head of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. “After you’ve gambled the kid’s college money or embezzled from your boss … what are you going to do?”

Janet, who doesn’t want her last name used, thought about suicide. But she knows what it does to families. Nine years ago, she lost a son to suicide. She wonders if that helped push her to gamble.

She first went to Worley with her mom. Just for fun.

Soon, Janet was staying at the casino until 3 a.m. Her teenagers knew something was wrong. But all that mattered were the machines.

“You lie and you deceive,” said Janet, 42. “I’ve always had values, morals and a Christian background. It kind of robbed me of all that.”

She would return home tired, broke and hating herself for doing it. Janet had yard sales to raise gambling money. Before she stopped, she had lost about $15,000.

“It was a helluva year,” Janet said. “I’m very grateful that I’m a survivor. … I think back even now, and I start shaking.”

Jeanne Benson, who coordinates a Gamblers Anonymous group in Spokane, said she met about 20 people who came from Idaho for the meetings in the past four years. A fledgling GA chapter started in Coeur d’Alene. One opened in Idaho Falls three years ago.

Michael Hayes of Consumer Credit Counseling, which serves Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, said as much as 20 percent of sudden inability to pay bills comes from gambling problems. Her clients who gamble tend to be low-income, and they tend to play the lottery or bingo.

“It’s interesting that people think scratch tickets and bingo aren’t a big deal,” Hayes said. One woman who worked at a grocery store was spending $300 a month on tickets.

Problem gamblers tell themselves they’re just one bet away from the big score. “There’s a real feeling of ‘If I could only make this go away,”’ Hayes said. “It’s frightening to know how much you owe.”

Some seek help. Calls to a hotline that serves Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska doubled in ‘96 over ‘95.

“I guess what stands out to me is the intensity of the call,” said an operator, who wasn’t allowed to give her name. “It’s people who are calling for the very first time for help. They’re already 300 grand in debt. They’ve already declared bankruptcy. They’ve already lost their job and family.”

The woman who started the Coeur d’Alene GA chapter said she got hooked at the casino in Worley. She diagnosed the problem herself, and told casino employees about it. They later agreed to give her telephone number to people who ask for help.

She doesn’t place the blame on those who provide gambling. “That’s not where the problem is,” she said. “It’s in the individual … people need to take responsibility for their own illness.”

For her, responsibility meant quitting gambling altogether. “Playing the Lotto and buying the Sunday paper to check the numbers, the little things, feed the monster,” she said. “They keep the desire, excitement, the compulsion alive.”

Idaho Lottery Director Dennis Jackson said he doubts the problem is widespread. “Are there people who gamble more than they should? Yes. But are they many? I don’t think so.”

Duke Conaway disagrees. “It’s reached epic proportions,” said the 78-year-old founder of Idaho Falls’ GA chapter. Video gaming machines at the nearby Shoshone-Bannock tribal casino are a big problem, Conaway said.

“Gambling is the purest form of addiction,” GA coordinator Benson said. “Machines are the purest form of gambling.”

“It’s an instant feedback-type operation,” said Idaho state Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly. Noh has opposed all types of legalized gambling, including the lottery.

A study by McGill University in Canada found that kids who play lots of arcade games are more likely to get hooked on gambling. Many gaming opponents say that’s because the jump from video game to video pulltab is a short one.

“My kids had a Nintendo, and I thought, God, it’s the same sound,” said Ellen Engstedt, executive director of Montana’s Don’t Gamble With the Future. “The same beeping.”

The Coeur d’Alene tribal casino is filled with that sound 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The place probably is packed today; it’s double-money Monday.

“It’s fun. It’s almost like being on the Love Boat,” said marketing assistant Marlene Justus. “It’s a chance for people to catch that dream when they come here.”

And when someone wins, “it’s almost euphoric.”

Other times, players can seem subdued, mechanical. “They look sad,” Conaway said. “Once in a while someone wins, and is happy. But then it’s back to the machines.”

Jonnie Guess will never know how her husband looked when he gambled. But she hopes he’s finally found peace.

“I think he found a way out or something,” Guess said, head lowered. “I don’t know.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LOOKING FOR HELP For help with a gambling addiction, call: Gamblers Anonymous, Spokane, 509-489-4012; Gamblers Anonymous, Coeur d’Alene, 208-667-4799. For help in other areas, call Washington State Council on Problem Gambling, 1-800-522-4700 (serves Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska).

This sidebar appeared with the story: LOOKING FOR HELP For help with a gambling addiction, call: Gamblers Anonymous, Spokane, 509-489-4012; Gamblers Anonymous, Coeur d’Alene, 208-667-4799. For help in other areas, call Washington State Council on Problem Gambling, 1-800-522-4700 (serves Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska).

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