I'm not prone to barging in on people's personal lives, so it's with some reluctance I enter a downtown storefront where men and women are about to bare their souls. To be admitted to this stark room, with its vinyl floor, harsh lighting and a chill that says this place isn't supposed to be a comfort zone, one must be ready to admit failure.
You show up at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting because you need help.
I'm allowed to stay by permission of all 11 who show up. "If it will help someone else," several say. I promise to just listen, and to change their names in print.
They give their first names and announce the date of their last bet. Feb. 15, 1999. March 23, 2009. Nov. 9, 2008. June 4, 1990. Jan. 29, 2006. Then one man says Jan. 7, only four days before today. But nobody sighs, gives him a sidelong glance or expresses disapproval. Instead, they proceed to the next step.
They read from the Gamblers Anonymous booklet, giving the organization's 53-year history.
"Many pursue [gambling] into the gates of prison, insanity or death," David reads, leg twitching nervously. "We learned we had to concede fully to our innermost selves that we are compulsive gamblers."
They recount the recovery steps and the unity program, whose only goal is to help each other. They also run through a series of questions to affirm their addiction. Did you lose time from work? Did you gamble to get money to pay debts? Did you gamble away your last dollar? Did you borrow to finance your gambling? Have you considered suicide as a result?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, they all say.
'I won, unfortunately'
After a short break, the real self-confrontation begins. Joy's story starts with frivolous trips between her California home and Reno, Nev., to play poker machines, and ends years later with a suicide attempt. Next week, she'll mark her fourth anniversary of not gambling.
"I wish there were more of a way to get hold of people who are compulsive gamblers," she says.
She then lays the groundwork: Don't discuss personal therapy or unresolved criminal issues.
Mick talks about his childhood in the Midwest, when his mom sent money to a relative in New York to buy lottery tickets. Later, he played, even more after moving to California, where he graduated from lotto to keno, in which winning numbers are reported minutes after tickets are bought. He worked his way through three convenience stores every day en route to work.
"Then I won, unfortunately," he says. "Then the chasing began. It fed the desire to go to a real casino to do some serious gambling."
His last bet was three months ago.
Kevin remembers being a kid and his parents driving to a racetrack east of Denver for dog races. Only after getting there did they realize children weren't allowed at night.
"I saw dozens of kids in cars in the parking lot," he says.
After stealing from his boss to gamble, he sought treatment, including attending GA meetings. He placed his last bet in 1990.
"For the first time in my life," he says, "I don't feel this dark place in my life."
'Where stuff starts'
Robert says he's a racetrack gambler and doesn't play the lottery, but he's noticed store counters crammed with games.
"It's in supermarkets, 7-Eleven, all kinds of places. You probably can't get away from it," he says. He once observed a man buying 100 Powerball tickets.
"It takes a long, long time to heal the damage that gambling does," Robert adds. "You shut out society, your family. You lead an isolated, crazy life. It's a miserable existence. We come here, because the sick heal the sick."
Mark takes his turn, saying he's done it all: Vegas, dogs, horses. He used to buy scratch tickets 200 at a time. One GA member he knew nearly lost his delivery job, because he stopped so often to buy lottery tickets.
David says his first brush with gambling was as an 11-year-old, when he won $98 in a bingo game.
"You think you have the power," he says. "You can out-fox anybody."
He played high-stakes poker, but the lottery, he says, is "where stuff starts."
Carl says he's been up, then down, then up again, and now down again. His last bet was four days ago. An alcoholic who's been sober for 32 years, he quit gambling 15 years ago and joined GA. But he backslid when his son invited him to a poker party where he discovered online gambling.
"The rest is history," he says. "Back to the dog track, back to poker, back to Cripple Creek, Santa Fe, Omaha."
"Gambling sucks. It's not just the money. It's time you lost with your family or the time you went through the motions with your family. ... You're sitting there Christmas Day, and all you want to know is the score of the game.
"Today, I thought about how soon 7 o'clock would come," he says. "So thank you for being here."
An hour after it started, the meeting ends. Everyone stands up, joins hands and repeats the serenity prayer, ending with, "Keep coming back. It works if you work it."
Maybe this room isn't so cold after all.