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Super Bowl’s game of odds, and gambling’s human price

At a Super Bowl party near you, most fans will think nothing of pulling out a dollar bill, writing their name on a numbered grid and hoping for the best.

Some will put more on the line. It may be the middle-aged guy in the Seahawks jersey who pulls out a $20 bill and half-covers the grid, “just to make things interesting.”

Or the young woman who was late to the party because she needed to make a quick bet online: $500 on the Seahawks. A little action, as if the game weren’t enough.

The price goes up from there, and so does the human cost, according to experts on compulsive gambling.

“The Super Bowl is to the compulsive gambler what New Year’s Eve is to an alcoholic,” said Arnie Wexler, a recovering gambler from New Jersey who runs a national hotline.

“I have spoken to many compulsive gamblers over the last 46 years and have gotten hundreds of phone calls after the Super Bowl,” Wexler said. “Some have spoken about embezzlement and committing white-collar crimes due to gambling debt.

“Many are so desperate they contemplate suicide,” Wexler said.

Experts estimate Americans will bet about $3.8 billion on this year’s big game, or about $12 for every person in the country. If Spokane County is typical, its 471,000 citizens will wager about $6 million before Sunday’s kickoff.

But it’s not about the money, according to Andrew Hill, a Spokane psychotherapist who offers counseling for a variety of behavioral disorders, including compulsive gambling.

“There’s definitely a link to our behavioral health when we put up something of value, something that we might lose. We’re more alive than we were a few minutes ago,” Hill said.

And poorer. For most compulsive gamblers, the Super Bowl is what Hill calls a “last hurrah” at the end of a five-month football season, a chance to break even.

That also goes for fantasy football players, some of whom compete in too many leagues for their own good and see the Super Bowl as a chance to recoup their losses.

Those ambitions are fueled, Hill said, by two weeks of pregame hype, with Super Bowl stories competing with gambling advertising, mostly online.

“That can definitely trigger someone to complete that compulsion,” Hill said.

That compulsion is vaguely understood by the public, said Kristin West, outreach coordinator for the Olympia-based Evergreen Council on Problem Gambling.

“We like to say we’re about 30 years behind where alcohol is,” West said. However, two years ago, the American Psychiatric Association raised compulsive gambling to the same level as substance abuse.

There are more triggers, some of them institutional, according to Wexler, who recently published a book, “All Bets are Off: Losers, Liars and Recovery from Gambling Addiction.”

Wexler, who has appeared on “Nightline,” “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and other shows, said he was upset two months ago when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver advocated the legalization of professional sports wagering.

Closer to home, the Washington Legislature is weighing House Bill 1301, which would classify fantasy sports contests as games of skill, rather than gambling. The bill, which was introduced Jan. 16, would exempt fantasy games from state gambling regulations.

Wexler said these kinds of proposals are hypocritical. He also hopes that one day newspapers will carry a hotline number along with daily odds printed in most sports sections.

Until then, he’ll continue to help compulsive gamblers, who will face an even bigger challenge in a few weeks: March Madness. That’s when college basketball office pools often lead to online gambling that can spin out of control, Wexler said.

Before that happens, Hill said, it’s important for family members and friends to watch for warning signs, including the compulsion to gamble beyond one’s means, diverting money or other resources away from necessities into gambling, and being deceptive about the frequency and amounts gambled.

“Another is if they’re lying to family members or other important people in their lives,” said Hill, who added that most of his referrals come from family members of the problem gambler.

There’s help nearby, West said. Her group operates a 24-hour hotline at (800) 547-6133, which points Washington residents to counselors in their area.

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