marchFor you, it might just be an office bracket pool or a $20 wager online or at your local sportsbook.  But for compulsive gamblers, March Madness, the annual college basketball championship finals surrounding the NCAA’s single-elimination Division 1 tournaments each year, it’s living hell.

Take “Frank,” a Gambler’s Anonymous (GA) member who, as such, won’t reveal his full name.

Lost Everything

Frank, now 75, once had a well-funded IRA and 401(k) awaiting him at retirement, but not anymore. After gambling away a cool half-million bucks, Frank won’t be looking at retiring anytime soon; and he’s hardly alone.

“For a recovering sports gambler, March Madness provides madness in a very real sense of the word,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, headquartered in Washington, D.C.  “The incessant talk of brackets and relentless media coverage can be an irresistible trigger,” he added. “For the problem gambler, the psychology is they are only a bet away from winning everything back.”

Whyte sees the addiction free fall every year during this time, which is one reason March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month as well.

What It Is

Problem gambling, also called ludomania, is the urge to gamble despite harmful negative consequences. At its worst phase, it can be categorized as pathological gambling, when enormous social, financial and family detriments are seen.  While recovery groups refer to it as an addiction, the American Psychiatric Association prefers to categorize it as an impulse control disorder.

Frank’s Story

Franks’ story, while unique, may be symbolic of the struggles of many compulsive gamblers when faced head on with temptation. His problems started 50 years ago when he started putting money into college football pools at work. But it was in 1990, playing stock market options, that he hit really big for the first time with a $10,000 score, and from then on, he was hooked like a heroin addict to the possibilities that gambling presented.

After that, it was anything he could bet on – sports, lottery tickets or live casino games – that kept him wrapped up in the highs and lows of winning and losing. Needless to say, March Madness provided plenty of opportunity for both. “I’ve always said March is hardest to get through because of the tournament,” said Frank, who now regularly attends GA meetings to help keep his addictive tendencies in check. “I can’t gamble on anything,” he added. “A lot of people this time of year will say, ‘Well, brackets are not really gambling.’ But when you put money down, even in an office bracket pool, it’s gambling, and that can suck you right back in.”

Now Frank and others like him are helping fellow addicts via GA meetings. If you know someone with a serious gambling addiction, you can seek help via Gambler’s Anonymous at 888-424-3577 or at the National Council on Problem Gambling at 800-522-4700.