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Gambling was legalized in the United States in 1931 with the birth of casinos. In 1976, 13 states had lotteries, one state had off-track wagering on horse races, and there were no casinos outside Nevada. Since this time, gambling has exploded across America. Presently, a person can make a legal wager in almost every state. Most states and the District of Columbia operate lotteries. Riverboat gambling has been legalized in various states since 1993.

Many people who gamble do so for entertainment and are considered social gamblers. According to the American Psychological Association, gambling becomes pathological when there is loss of control, an increase in frequency and in the amount wagered, a preoccupation with gambling and a continuation of the behavior despite negative consequences. Pathological gamblers report an intense need for "action" and money. Many will gamble to escape problems.

According to Rosenthal and Lorenz (1992), the typical compulsive gambler progresses through four phases.

  1. Winning
  2. Losing
  3. Desperation
  4. Giving Up

The first phase is the Winning Phase. Here, many people become involved in gambling due to recognition for early successes. Gamblers invest more time in gambling and there may be a "big win" that reinforces the behavior.

The next phase is the Losing Phase when "chasing" typically begins. Chasing occurs when the gambler returns the next day to win back what was lost. He or she now gambles out of need, rather than to participate in a social activity. It is during this phase that the gambler often needs a "bail out" and may turn to family or friends for a loan.

When the gambler writes bad checks or steals from family members or employers to continue gambling, the Desperation Phase has begun. Once the gambler crosses this line, a pattern of behavior with serious consequences is generally established. In this stage, the gambler often believes that he or she is one bet away from solving all problems.

Giving up is the final phase. The pathological gambler no longer cares that he or she cannot break even and "action" is needed for its own sake. During either the Desperation or Giving Up Phases, many gamblers sink into deep depression or consider suicide.

Several states offer financial support for education, treatment or research for pathological gambling. State-funded treatment is becoming available in some states and special interest groups are currently working to expand the number and range of services needed to treat compulsive gamblers.

If you or someone you know has a problem with gambling, help is available. For more information about gambling and gambling Resources, please contact your Employee Member Assistance Program at 800 292-2780.