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Bucky Gleason: Looking for a safe bet? Take gamblers calling this man after Super Bowl

This week marks the calm before the storm, as they say, a time in which Arnie Wexler can hunker down and brace for the destruction ahead. With a week off between the NFL conference championship games and the Super Bowl, gamblers had no football games to bet and therefore none to lose. Come Sunday, it will change.

Wexler knows the mind of a degenerate gambler. He was one, after all, many years ago after he started pitching pennies, shooting marbles, playing pinball and flipping baseball cards as a kid in New Jersey. He was 14 years old in 1951 when a 19-year-old woman led him into a racetrack, placed his bets and watched him win $54.

He gave back his winnings and more, of course, because that’s what compulsive gamblers do. He wasted 17 years looking for his next big score, winning just enough to rationalize another payday was around the corner, never winning enough to keep him satisfied before he darned near ruined his life.

“I thought I could be a millionaire,” Wexler said from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where he offers counseling and treatment to addicted gamblers, "and I was sucked in."

Wexler, 79, hasn’t placed a bet since 1968. A decade passed before he fully resisted the urge to make a wager. It makes him a compulsive-gambling survivor.

For decades, he has held a sympathetic ear to the phone for gamblers who call his hotline (1-888-LASTBET) and need his help. Two years ago, he co-authored “All Bets are Off: Losers, Liars and Recovering from Gambling Addiction.”

He has dozens of stories about compulsive gamblers who transcend race, gender and social status, from a teenaged babysitter stealing a coin collection to desperate average Joes to former professional athletes squandering their money to a Monday Night Football executive who believed his job made him an expert.

Their accounts are all too familiar with the same basic ending, much like tales of woe that Wexler will hear in the days ahead.

“Usually, they don’t call until after the Super Bowl because everybody has this crazy dream that it’s going to bail them out for the football season,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s not until six months after because they’re waiting to get a big win, and they’re trying to turn their life around. The first week, we get bombed with calls.”

The American Gaming Association earlier this week estimated that some $4.7 billion will be wagered on the Super Bowl. The Washington-based lobby suggested 97 percent of the bets placed will be illegal. Las Vegas will account for only $132 million, a pittance compared to the overall stake.

In its view, illegal gambling is a lost opportunity for the federal government in an industry that has grown exponentially over the years. The gaming association has doubled down efforts and spent millions of dollars in hopes of lifting a federal gambling ban in place since 1992, excluding Nevada.

The general theory falls in line with Prohibition: People are betting anyway, so it might as well be taxed and regulated by the government. AGA has argued that legalizing gambling would create jobs, protect consumers and minimize offshore companies that have made billions of dollars at the expense of the United States.

“The thinking is, ‘Let’s make it legal so we can make money from it,’” Wexler said. “You look at the National Football League. Every week, they hand out an injury list. Why do they give out an injury list? Gambling, absolutely. The National Football League is the biggest gambling event for compulsive gamblers all year round.”

People can bet on just about anything involving the Super Bowl, from the over-under on Chris Hogan’s first reception (11.5 yards) to Atlanta’s Eric Weems scoring the first touchdown (66 to 1) to the over-under on the number of times “Gronk” or “Gronkowski” is mentioned during the telecast (3).

Sports writers across the country, including The Buffalo News, make weekly picks on NFL games. It’s for entertainment purposes in our case, but I’ve been told that it’s also a means of showing readers the difficulty in picking games by people who cover the sport. For evidence, look at our records.

Four of our eight writers were below .500 this season. None was over the 54 percent required to break even, including service fees, if we were actually betting on games. An editor estimated Thursday that our winning percentage is less than 20 percent when everyone picks the same team.

My worst week came after convincing myself that it would be my best. My best week came when I added up the variables, decided which teams would win and picked the opposite. Our failure rate isn’t a referendum on football knowledge. It’s proof that we shouldn’t gamble. There’s a reason Las Vegas stays in business.

This is where it gets tricky for me. I’ve long believed that casinos cause more problems than they solve. However, there’s also little disputing that billions of dollars generated from gambling could be used for other purposes, which would include anti-gambling education and assistance for people in need.

Seven years ago, the American Psychiatry Association classified pathological gambling as a disease. Other studies have identified a specific gene called the D-2 receptor that can be stimulated in certain people by such things as alcohol, drugs, sex, food and gambling. It sounds like a Super Bowl smorgasbord. That’s not a joke.

For many, it’s a fact.

But that doesn’t include everybody. I would imagine many people are casual gamblers like me. I’m in three fantasy leagues and participate in two Super Bowl pools every year. I’ve visited a few casinos, and only a few, in my lifetime. I played poker with friends years ago and have made fewer than 10 bets on individual games.

“For somebody that doesn’t have that gene, it’s no problem,” Wexler said. “They walk away. Compulsive gamblers can’t walk away.”

Alcoholism is a problem in our country, but it doesn’t mean the government should shut down liquor stores. I don’t smoke marijuana but firmly believe it should be legalized, regulated and taxed to high heaven. I’ve watched lives get ruined and families torn apart from gambling. My kids have heard dozens of lectures about gambling, how it’s just as dangerous as abusing drugs and alcohol.

“Nope, it’s worse,” Wexler said.  “Because you can’t smell it, and there’s no track marks. It’s invisible. If I was an alcoholic and came home drunk, my wife would know it. If I came home tipsy from drugs, my wife would know it. There are no telltale signs with gamblers. It’s bigger than drugs and alcohol because it’s hidden and pervasive.”

Does that mean it should be banned?

That’s the multibillion-dollar question.

My biggest beef isn’t with gambling but the hypocrisy that’s connected to gambling. New Yorkers can hit the racetrack, play Quick Draw all afternoon, buy lottery tickets and walk into a casino. All generate state revenue. But it’s illegal to bet on games partly because participants are human and, therefore, susceptible to corruption.

For some light reading, google: Albany and corruption. I’ll see you in a month.

The NFL for decades has taken an anti-gambling stance, hiding behind its mantra of preserving the “integrity of the game.” It has become laughable in recent years. The league was collecting billions of dollars in gambling-related revenue while being partnered with the likes of DraftKings and FanDuel.

Meanwhile, look at its television deals and sponsors. The league couldn’t possibly believe that adoring fans ordered the Sunday NFL Ticket because the games were so entertaining. That’s how many fantasy owners track their teams. Actual owners like Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft were among investors in DraftKings.

Fantasy sports companies were outlawed in New York until … state lawmakers figured out how to get a piece of the action. Once the finances were settled, fantasy sports were rationalized as games of chance (see: lottery) and not sports betting. In other words, you can place wagers on individual players but not teams.

“If you took away gambling from the National Football League, you have American soccer,” Wexler said. “If you put machines in every stadium seat so people could bet on the game and bet on things during the game, you wouldn’t have a seat available in any place in the NFL. That’s the two ends of the stick.”

Many will reach the end of the line Sunday. Wexler will be waiting by the phone to assess the damage. Somebody will call. At this time of year, they always do.

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