Second of three-part seriesHe can still remember that first rush, that first teenage taste of the addiction that would rule his life for the next 12 years - the feeling of omnipotence and control, the happiness that billowed through his vacant soul, the craving for more of the same that soon became a constant hunger.
It wasn't a line of coke or a spike of heroin that hooked him. It was a bet on a jai alai match at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., fronton. At age 14, while he was an eighth-grader. At the innocent urging of his mother, during a family outing aimed at being different and more exotic than a day at the beach or zoo.He can even remember the amount he won - $60.30. Within a year, he was cutting class, hitting the matinees at the fronton. Within two years, he was betting $500 a night on jai alai, skimming $200 a day from the theme park where he had summer work, scamming his folks for a playing stake, pumping cash advances from the credit card they gave him for emergencies only, flying to the Bahamas to play the casinos, running the constant con any addict runs to cover the tracks of his habit.
The dozen years of Michael G.'s unchecked habit underscore one of the more alarming facets of America's torrid embrace of legalized gambling - this isn't an adults-only affair. Nearly 3.5 million teenagers are either hooked on gambling or exhibit behavior that could lead to out-and-out addiction.
"I didn't have any happiness when I wasn't gambling - it filled a void in my life," said Michael G., now 26, a recovering gambling addict who asked for anonymity because he still owes $15,000 to Florida bookies who are probably mob-connected.
"I always bet way above my means because that produced that intense adrenalin. I'm an extremist. It always had to be a real scary endeavor. It had to be `If I lose, I'm gonna be in deep trouble.' "
A recently released study by the Harvard University Medical School's Division on Addictions shows the percentage of American teenagers addicted to gambling is more than twice as large as the adult rate of addiction - 3.88 percent to 1.6 percent. Teens also show a far higher rate of problem gambling that could lead to full-blown pathological gambling than adults - 9.45 percent to 3.85 percent.
This trend is particularly pronounced among college students crossing from their teens into young adulthood - 672,433 American college students are addicted to gambling, the Harvard study concludes. People in this group show the highest percentages of pathological and problem gambling in the Harvard study, which was funded by a grant from the commercial casino industry and is a statistical analysis of more than 100 smaller studies conducted in the United States and Canada.
These numbers give scientific spine to the avalanche of anecdotal evidence about the rampant growth of illegal sports gambling on college campuses and show that betting scandals involving athletes at Boston College and Arizona State University aren't just isolated incidents. The Harvard study also dovetails with a National Collegiate Athletic Association survey that shows a quarter of the nation's college athletes bet on sporting events.
"It's organized and blatant," said Bill Saum, the NCAA official in charge of monitoring problems with gambling and sports agents. "We admit we have a problem. We admit our athletes are wagering on games. We admit there are student bookies taking bets. We admit our athletes are at risk."
Said Chris Cosenza, one of the Boston College football players caught up in that school's athletic betting scandal: "The attitude was: `It's just part of the college experience.' To tell the truth, it never crossed my mind it was illegal; it was so commonplace. I'm an athlete, I love sports - having a little money in the game brings your interest up a little."
Anti-gambling activists give an ominous spin to these numbers, citing them as proof of an alleged conspiracy by the gambling industry to build up a younger clientele, comparing it to the tobacco industry's pitch to young smokers with hip ad campaigns such as the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s recently shelved Joe Camel promotion.
As corroborating evidence, gambling's opponents cite the casino giants of Las Vegas, who have reincarnated themselves as family entertainment centers, offering day-care centers for gambling parents and video arcades just off the casino floor for children.
Mix in 20 years of state-sponsored advertising for lotteries, a signal that government says gambling is OK. Add the spread of video gambling machines, cartoon-based lottery scratch cards and Internet gambling outlets that play right into the proclivities of a computer and visually oriented generation and you have a potent recipe for a bigger rate of gambling addiction than that seen in older generations.
"They are absolutely targeting children," said Valerie Lorenz, executive director of the Harbour Center treatment facility for gambling addicts in Baltimore. "You go to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and see a mother with a child in tow - that's imprinting. And it's a clinical issue because we say it's imprinting on the mind of children that gambling is OK."
Gambling industry officials fiercely dispute this conspiracy theory, pointing to programs aimed at discouraging underage gamblers from entering a casino and more than $1 million funneled to academics studying pathological gambling.
"We think we've stepped up to the plate as responsible corporate citizens," said Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association, the commercial casino industry's chief lobbying arm in Washington, D.C.
Among academics, there is heated debate about the higher rates of pathological and problem gambling among teens and young adults. Some say these younger generations will have a larger and more permanent problem with gambling than older generations - an explosion of addiction fed by easier availability and the erosion of social sanctions against gambling.
Other academics see the higher numbers as a temporary phenomenon, a measure of the risk-taking teens displayed in a variety of realms, from drugs to sex to drinking to fast driving.
Which model is correct?
"That's the million-dollar question, the one nobody has an answer for," said Henry Lesieur, president of the Institute for Problem Gambling in Pawtucket, R.I., and one of the nation's leading experts on addictive gambling among teens and adults. "We know that legalizing gambling increases the availability and increases gambling overall. It's creating the same type of atmosphere you created when you legalized alcohol - more people will drink and more people will become problem drinkers."
Gambling exerts a powerful pull on teens and young adults. In 1995 alone, the casinos of New Jersey reported that they had ejected 26,000 underage gamblers from their floors and barred an additional 136,000 juveniles at the door.
A 1994 Harvard University survey of Massachusetts high school students found that 5 percent had been arrested for a gambling-related offense, 10 percent reported family problems caused by their gambling and 13 percent said they couldn't stop gambling when they wanted to.
"I'd look around and there were people who were blatantly underage - younger looking than I was. The message was: Everybody gambles, it's fun and we'd be fools to enforce an age limit," said Michael G.
In 1997, researchers from the Louisiana State University Medical School found that 86 percent of the 12,000 sixth-through-12th graders they studied had gambled. Six percent met the measures of pathological gambling while 16 percent fit the profile of problem gamblers.
Lesieur says studies show a majority of America's youths like to gamble - the numbers range from 70 percent to 90 percent. In broad terms, kids from the Northeast tend to gamble more than kids on the West Coast; kids in Nevada are more likely to bet than kids in the Midwest. Northeastern gamblers play the sports book; Nevada gamblers play the slots and hit the blackjack tables. A quarter of the kids who have sneaked into a casino have been served a drink, said Lesieur.
The problem with young gamblers is the same one they bring to other realms of risky behavior - they think they're bulletproof. "Young people tend to think they have more control over their world than adults think they do," said Howard Shaffer, who headed up the Harvard study. "Kids tend to think they can handle the situation, be it drug use or drinking or gambling."
Michael G. found himself on a similar path. In high school, there was some balance - he maintained straight A's and a berth on the tennis and debate teams. But by the time he was a college senior at Indiana University, his life was rapidly spinning out of control. He was a round-the-clock gambling junkie with a major addiction to sports bets - a beeper with the latest Vegas odds, a cellular phone, four bookies.
"I could care less about life," he said. "I could care less about friends. I could care less about girlfriends. I could care less about school. All I cared about was gambling. In every other facet of your life, you're bankrupt, you're empty, you feel like a scumbag. You're not even immoral. You're amoral."
He welshed on $3,000 in bets placed with a bookie by his girlfriend's father. He walked away from an $8,000 loss on the Final Four his senior year, fleeing to his brother's house in Tampa. The bookie tracked him down. Confession time to his parents. A bailout - his third or fourth. Tears and a promise to never gamble again. A short stint in Gamblers Anonymous.
But by the time he went to law school at Florida State University, Michael G. was back in the betting life. He finally bottomed out in Vegas, using student loan money to chase $30,000 in losses. He lost all of his gambling stake - another $13,000. He bought a quart of vodka and a bottle of aspirin and went to his hotel room, using the vodka to wash down all the aspirin and a bottle full of prescription painkillers. A suicide note was waiting in Tallahassee, written before he ever boarded the plane for this final junket.
Three days later, he woke up. Still in a Vegas hotel. ESPN's SportsCenter was blaring the latest scores. Vomit streaked the bedcovers, the carpet, the bathroom floor. He called his parents.
"I believe you have many false bottoms, but only one rock bottom," said Michael G. "This was mine."
Coming Sunday: Gambling industry tossing chips into political game.