Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Nuts and Bolts of How I Ruined My Life, Part Three.

Third, in a Continuing Series:

By now, you've figured it out. As you'll recall, I blew my budget for living expenses not less than three times during my law school career. But that fact alone need not have precluded me from remaining in school -- theoretically I could have hung in there and kept borrowing from family and friends and girlfriends and whomever else was unlucky enough to be in my path. But I didn't do that.

My withdrawal from law school was directly precipitated by the clinical depression that accompanied my compulsive gambling. I couldn't get out of bed to go to class, much less do any work. My self-esteem wasn't helped by the fact that I realized that I had no business being so unhappy. I'd remind myself constantly that these problems were entirely of my own making. Sometimes I'd view this as a positive -- "It's not so bad, I can wiggle my way out of this, that homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk, he'd give his arm to have my problems" -- and other times, as a self-loathing negative -- "What business did I have blowing thousands of dollars? I'm not even from a wealthy family, but I'm acting like a spoiled rich kid." These opposing perspectives would do battle, and the resolution of those internal battles would inevitably lead me to deciding that winning some money and recouping my losses would fix things up and undo the damage. No such luck.

Anyway, I figured that a semester off would do me some good. I'd get my priorities in order. I'd get back in shape. I'd return to law school with a renewed sense of purpose. It was a temporary thing.

Well, in the three months that I sat on the law school sidelines, I racked up even more debt from gambling. Which presented a problem, in that I began to worry about my borrowing power. (You see, the government loans don't cover the entirety of one's tuition at a big time, "top tier" law school. Either you or your family makes up the difference, or you borrow from private lenders. I had to borrow from private lenders to make up the difference.) Because I was concerned that my bad credit had seriously compromised my ability to even obtain the private financing necessary to re-enroll, I did what any sensible person would do. I took out cash advances on my credit cards and flew to Las Vegas. At the airport on the way out there, I withdrew some more money, the rest of what I had, just to feel flush. The blue light of the ATM called to me. Chase, it implored.

Anyway, the ticket there was from my then-girlfriend, who lives on the west coast and wanted me to go visit her. So mailing me a ticket to Vegas was her only way of enticing me to the Pacific time zone.

I'll describe the particulars of that trip in another post, but suffice to say it did not go as well as I'd hoped.

I returned from Las Vegas with fond memories of the Wynn buffet and little else to my name. I did have five maxed-out credit cards in my wallet, though. A FICO score in the 400-500 range. And several voicemails from ominous-sounding bank departments. Portfolio Risk Management. Fraud Prevention. I recall in particular an automated one I received from one of the credit card company's fraud operation division: "Activity on your account is strongly suggestive of fraudulent use by a third-party."

They weren't that far off the mark. Fact is, the only reason I wasn't already handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser was that my only victim to date had been myself.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


My saint of a mother had long suspected that something was amiss with respect to my gambling hobby. She was married to a problem gambler, and consequently she had a front row seat for the misery that ensued there. Most of that took place before I was four or five years old, from what I understand. I’d give anything to be a fly on the wall -- a conscious, cognizant fly on the wall, that is-- to watch my father in his gambling heyday. He attempted to shield his kids from what he was up to. And he was not delinquent in his fatherly duties: playing catch and going to ballgames and dressing up like Santa Claus. The thing that stuck out about those days was that they’d be briefly, but consistently, punctuated by phone calls he had to make. For instance:

“Wanna have a snowball fight?”
“Yeah! Yay!”
“O.K. -- put on your boots and get bundled up. I’ve got to make a call first.”

“I’ve got to make a call.” It became a joke in the house. I vaguely recall that these calls had to do with the names of exciting, far-off cities like Baltimore and San Diego and the recitation of numbers. Suffice to say he wasn’t discussing the national weather forecast or planning a vacation.

So when my mother discovered my bank statements, replete with overdraft notices and a score of sketchy entries for hundreds of dollars apiece by vendors with names like “GLOBALSPORTSLTD” or whatever, she went crazy. She told me in between sobs that I was going to ruin my life. I agreed. I wouldn’t gamble anymore, we agreed. I meant it. Three months later, I set a personal record: I played poker in a casino eight days in a row. During final exams, no less. I think a lot of the relevant literature would suggest that I was seeking attention. Trying to get caught. But I disagree. Mostly I was just trying to get even.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Nuts and Bolts of How I Ruined My Life, Part Two.

Second, in a continuing series:

The 1997 film Rounders culminates with Mike McDermott, the movie's protagonist, dropping out of law school to go to Las Vegas in order to pursue his destiny as a professional card player. The screenwriters of that movie probably couldn't have anticipated the explosion of internet poker that was right around the corner. But because of the ubiquity of online gaming and the massive amount of dead money floating around in the internet ether, the ceremonial journey to Vegas to make one's name in the poker world seems kind of quaint less than ten years later. Surely the new breed of Mike McDermotts are "making their runs at it" from the comfort of their dorm rooms.

What's this got to do with me? Thanks to online poker, I didn't have to make a conscious, visible choice to dedicate my life to gambling instead of law school. I could instead juggle the two endeavors. And by 'juggle', I mean remain nominally enrolled in law school while spending 10-15 hours daily playing poker online. I could lose my cake and eat it too!

Needless to say, this adversely affected my grade point average. I went from being a B+ student (pre-Party Poker) to a B student after. Yeah, law school is that easy. So why didn't I finish? Embarassingly, I blew my tuition money the second semester of my second year of school. Or more accurately, I blew my living expenses budget. They let students borrow about $8,000 per semester to cover non-tuition living expenses. They give it to you in one lump sum.

Follow the $8,000 closely, folks:

Taxpayers pay their taxes to the Federal Treasury. The Federal Treasury apportions money to the federal Stafford Loan program. Stafford then allocates funds to different universities for them to distribute. My university gives me my allocation in one lump sum. Then I give it to Party Poker. Party Poker gives most of it to other, more skilled poker players, and keeps a percentage for itself for its trouble. And of course, those talented people lucky enough to be Americans who withdrew their winnings from the site then report the income on their tax returns, and the circle of life begins anew.

Next installment: I repeat the above cycle (twice!), thereby exhausting all alternative sources of credit and making it impossible to remain enrolled in school.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Nuts and Bolts of How I Ruined My Life, Part One.

First, in a continuing series:

In the way of prefatory remarks, I feel obliged to address some of the concerns / comments sent in by readers via email. (By the way, I urge you to use the comments section rather than flooding my personal email box...) First, I've been accused of being too glib about everything -- my financial troubles, my addiction, "ruining my life" you name it. To a certain extent, it's a fair observation. But how else can someone talk about personal cataclysm? What are my options? To be hysterical? I made my bed and now I'm sleeping in it.

Anyway, yes, I'm a relatively young man. And I can say in a very real way that my life has been ruined by gambling. Not temporarily sidetracked. Not detoured. Ruined. That's not to say that I want to kill myself, or that I can never be happy. It just means that I had life X lined up for me, and now the possibility of that is dead, never to return.

What, precisely, is Life X? It is, I'd imagine, a life in which you are not an addict. One in which you don't have all seven of your credit card numbers, expiration dates, and security codes committed to memory. Suburban house, picket fence. It is about being responsible. Most of all, it is about being able to enjoy things that don't involve risk and uncertainty. Swimming. Reading. Sex. Just sitting around. Hell for me is a week-long stint at the beach with nothing to do but "relax." I cannot enjoy things. That's the real sickness, and it's why people like me inevitably relapse.

Next Installment: Why I don't have a law degree.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Declare your independence...

... or bemoan your addiction. Either way, the merchandise I'm selling via CafePress is kind of fun. Perfect for that degenerate gambler on your Christmas list:

Purchase I Hate Poker merchandise.

(If you're detecting a bit of bemused detachment and tongue-in-cheekness with all of this, you're right. Even people who have essentially torpedoed their lives can be whimsical. Gallows humor, I believe it's called.)

The Houdini Complex and Divine Intervention.

It is difficult to convince myself that I am not exceptional. That the rules do not apply to me. Laws of physics, laws of probability, laws of human nature. I have had, and continue to have, this belief that I can extricate myself from any difficulty. To call it confidence is gross understatement. Thus, when I fail -- and at gambling, I inevitably fail -- my entire self-image is compromised as a result. But there is something strangely appealing to me about creating and then wiggling out of adversity. Deep down, it's fun. Bargaining with someone to loan you money so that you can pay your rent. Figuring out how to talk to credit card companies so that they don't release their collections dogs on you.

Coupled with this is the occasional divine intervention. Or at least the perception of one. Right before starting law school, I was gambling -- and losing -- heavily online. I had twisted myself into a position where I wouldn't have any money with which to start school. At this point, a thousand bucks would have been extremely helpful to me, and on a Friday night, after blowing nearly my entire bankroll on internet blackjack, I asked God to help me. Just this once. Let me win a huge bet at the track and get me out of trouble and I'll never gamble again.

He held up His end of the deal. On Saturday I hit a $1,400 Pick Four at Belmont Park racetrack. Problem solved! Time to go to law school and start my new, gambling-free life. Prayer answered. Of course, I didn't keep my end of the bargain. My default on the deal with God on that night didn't stop me from making similar offers subsequently, but with far less lucrative results.

Even God Himself can run out of patience.

The power of the internet, part one.

Thanks to for the link (I think...)

Gambling and Stimulation.

When I was about 22 years old, I was very tempted to keep a diary. This was before the advent of blogging. I decided against the idea, because I had determined that I'd already have missed so much and as such it wasn't worth the effort. Bad judgment! If I had kept such a journal, I'd be able to confirm one of my hypotheses about compulsive gambling. Here goes:

When a compulsive gambler is out of action for whatever reason, that impulse gets channeled elsewhere and manifests in different, but predictable ways.

For instance, I am not gambling. I haven't gambled in a few weeks. In those weeks, I've signed up for an online dating service and have generally been obsessed with the idea of picking up women. Why? Surprisingly, I think it has very little to do with the physical element of sex. Instead, I need the "action" of being accepted or rejected by all these different, anonymous people. Every attempt to get a pretty girl to express interest is not unlike the turn of a car. At the very least, it's a reason to check my email compulsively. A way to enjoy and revel in uncertainty again, now that gambling isn't available. (And in the words of Tom Cruise as TJ Mackey in the 1999 film Magnolia, "if I happen to get a blowjob out of it, then . . .")

So for all you compulsive gamblers who want to satisfy those impulses in different ways, go sign up for or eHarmony or something. I'm sure those companies will be thrilled to have my unsolicited endorsement.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

"I should have won that coin flip!"

I started playing blackjack in casinos because it was a game that seemed to be at least partly skill-based. Then I learned some half-assed counting strategies and applied them half-assedly in casinos in New Jersey and Connecticut. For those non-math people out there, we're talking about about 1/4 of an ass by this point. Hardly enough to grind out any kind of profit. But it was fun, sort of.

But it was also creepy. I had developed an eerie sense of when a table was going to get cold, or even when a dealer was going to not break even though he was a big favorite to do so. So at the risk of sounding like an insane, superstitious person . . . some general observations meant not to persuade, but rather to merely tell other experienced blackjack players who have experienced the same thing that they are not alone.

I put a large bet up. Large for me is about $250. I'm dealt a 20. The dealer has a 5 showing. My friends, who have since busted out and are now standing behind me as my ad hoc cheering section, are practically already congratulating me for my great sense of timing and testicular fortitude. I know that something's amiss. I can feel it in my stomach that I am going to lose, and I watch mostly in the vain expectation that I might be proved wrong this time. I don't have time to articulate any of this to my pals, or to the table at large. Before I can even say, "I don't feel good about this...", the dealer flips a picture card under the 5, for 15, then an ace, then a five of diamonds. 21. Everyone else is shocked. Tough one.

What makes it tougher is that I'm supposed to feel robbed by this. Somehow, in the time between being dealt my strong natural 20 and the moment the dealer pulls his miracle 21, a certain sense of entitlement is supposed to creep up into my consciousness. "I was entitled to win. I had 20! He had a 5." Of course, the expectation of winning is sort of illusory: I didn't do anything to 'earn' the 20 against the 5. So why feel married to the rights that it's supposed to confer upon me?

If we were betting on a slightly-rigged coin flip, I wouldn't feel robbed when heads came up and I bet tails, no matter what bizarre trajectory the coin took on the way down. I mean, has anyone ever said "I should have won that coin flip!"? Blackjack, and all games of chance against the house are essentially the same thing. Blackjack is no different from a slot machine is no different from Let it Ride is no different from craps. The only thing that is different is the show the casino puts on for you, and the illusion of control and involvement you get to feel in what is essentially a series of slightly-rigged coin flips.

(Sure, the house edges are different, but they're all negative expecatation games for the player.)

Friends and "Gambling-Friends."

Most of my personal relationships with women involve me pretending that I don't gamble at all.

Most of my personal relationships with other men are steeped in gambling -- gambling together, talking about gambling, whatever.

The fact is, there is a great camaraderie that comes with participating in gambling with your friends, as co-adventurers. A shared experience. An opportunity to make jokes. To tell stories. To build a feeling of togetherness and community. The intimacy that comes with being able to call someone with whom you're driving from a casino at 5:00 am 'a fucking degenerate.' It's almost a compliment in my old circle of friends. "That guy is a complete degenerate." "I am such a degenerate." "We are such degenerates."

The whole thing is somewhat illicit, even in legal cardrooms. There's a vague element of rebellion that attends the whole enterprise. Watching a college basketball game with your friend in a bar, and making inside jokes about half-points and line movements.

These are all ways that I've obtained and maintained emotional intimacy with my male friends. Now I can't do that anymore without risking my life and what little I have left to live for. And so a really big part of me is dead and buried already, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it was really sad.