All Bets Are Off is a gambling addiction recovery podcast created by three gambling addicts in recovery, along with a passionate researcher whose father struggled with a gambling addiction.
Recently, Ryan of All Bets Are Off sat down with Algamus founder, Rick Benson, to discuss Rick's past with gambling, and how he started Algamus Gambling Treatment Center.
Listen to the full podcast here.
How the Gambling Addiction Started
ALL BETS ARE OFF (ABAO): Rick, before we talk about the formation of Algamus, can you take us a little bit back in time and talk about your introduction to gambling? I know you started out flipping baseball cards. What is flipping baseball cards?
Rick Benson: Baseball cards are trading cards. One of the side activities that happened even in elementary school is there would be this game called flipping baseball cards.
Now, the way the game works is you and I flip a card at the same time. I say that the two flips are going to match, either they're both going to be heads or they're both going to be tails. If that's the case, I get your baseball card. If it's not the case, if it comes up one head and one tails, you win. It seems like a harmless activity, but it's really an introduction to gambling for a person who's in elementary school.
ABAO: So following on from flipping baseball cards, how did you get into more “hard core” levels of gambling?
Rick Benson: I was at that boarding school for three years. There were a number of very wealthy students from very wealthy families there. I was not one of those. I grew up around a bridge table. My parents were both very expert bridge players. I realized that I was the second best bridge player on the entire campus, and I partnered with the best bridge player on campus. This is at the age of 17. And we decided that we were going to play bridge for money against these students from wealthy families. I won a lot of money in my last year in boarding school. That was my real introduction to gambling.
ABAO: And I also know that you were keen on your horse racing, which I assume came a little bit after that. What attracted you to the sport of horse racing?
Rick Benson: I then graduated from college and was working as the general manager of a large rock and roll nightclub. There was a thoroughbred race course 10 miles away. A fellow staff member said, "Let's go out to the track one day." He knew how to exotically wager trifectas, et cetera. So he says, "Pick a number." And I picked three and he picked six and we boxed an exacta, six three and three six. That exacta paid $376.40. And I said, "Wow. I'm going to teach myself to be a professional horse player." I bought books on handicapping, and within three months I had resigned my job in the delusion that I was a professional gambler and I started playing horses every day.
ABAO: What did that entail and how did you cope with the swings? Were you often getting in too deep?
Rick Benson: Well, initially I was in the winning phase of the addiction, the first phase, and I was winning more than I was losing, but I was incurring other consequences, relationship consequences. My wife said, “either you're going to go get a job or I'm going to leave because I'm not going to put up with this.” And so I did. I went and got a management job in the hospitality industry.
Coincidentally, that job was two miles away from that same race track. So she would think that I was going into work at noon when I didn't have to be at work until 5:00 in the afternoon. Now, I'm hiding my gambling from her because I still have a burning desire to gamble almost on a daily basis.
I discovered bookmakers. So I started betting on sports. I was, and still am a very huge hockey fan, so I actually started betting on hockey and I wasn't doing all that badly initially - I was in the winning phase. But then over a period of six years, I moved from the winning phase into the losing phase. Now the losses are more than the wins. The bank account is depleting. I'm betting on sports very heavily.
When I discovered Vegas, I thought I had discovered Valhalla. I thought it was the greatest place on the face of the earth. I was just mesmerized and I immediately started to teach myself to become a professional blackjack player, a card counter. I became a good enough card counter that I was asked not to play blackjack in some major Vegas casinos. But it didn't matter, because the addiction was overriding all of the mathematical ability that I had.
Of course at that time, Nevada was the only state in the United States where you could bet on sports legally. There were sportsbooks in Nevada but nowhere else in the United States, otherwise you're gambling illegally with a bookmaker, which I was doing as well. I then set my sights on moving to Vegas and becoming a professional gambler. I'm back and forth between California and Las Vegas a couple of times a week. Meanwhile, I'm in the total delusion and the total insanity that I am a professional gambler.
ABAO: And that's what you would tell other people was your vocation?
Rick Benson: The lie started with me believing my own lie that I'm a professional gambler. Once I believed it, I sold that to people. I told people that, and they absolutely believed it.
I believed it in spite of the fact that my financial situation was becoming really disastrous. And I was doing whatever I needed to do to get money to gamble. And that went on for about four years until finally, my significant other helped me to get out of the worst of it because she said, "I've been accepted into a doctoral program at the University of Chicago and I want to go back to Chicago and will you come with me?" I said, "Yes." And I knew I needed to get out of Vegas because I was starting to get into some serious trouble with some serious people.
ABAO: You mentioned early on that you were better at certain games. I look back on my own story and I was a really good poker player. I would often make a lot of money playing poker, but the problem is that as a compulsive gambler, I had no bankroll management. It would just be depleted by other forms of betting or casino games.
Was that the same with yourself? You might be able to make a good chunk of money here, but because of your compulsive nature, it didn't really matter if you made any money here because it was going elsewhere.
Rick Benson: I would suspect that I was almost in the black profitable with my entire blackjack plight, but it was offset, as you just said, by being tremendously in the red with tremendous losses in my sports gambling. I knew that I wasn't a great poker player, so my Vegas play was almost exclusively blackjack and sports; hockey, football, basketball, baseball.
ABAO: It's incredible that you still had the foresight, though, to know where your strengths were, which often, in the haze of gambling addiction, that's not always the case. It can become quite muddled. And you start chasing things that, well, you sort of deep down know that that's not where your strengths lie, but that’s compulsion.
Rick Benson: It also has a little bit to do with statistical probability. I mean, I remember when I first came to Gamblers Anonymous and people said, "You can't buy a lottery ticket." And I thought, “that's absolutely ridiculous,” because I never bought lottery tickets. I knew that the chances of being struck by lightning twice was greater than the chances of winning the lottery. So it was the same thing with the slot machines. I'd walk past the slot machines in Vegas casinos and see these people sitting there and said, "Man, you're suckers. You're getting killed." I mean, the house has taken so much money.
ABAO: You touched upon your relationship and what it was doing to you. So I wanted to explore that a little bit more in terms of overall, what was it doing to your mental health, but also the impact that it was having on your persona, your relationships and your loved ones.
Rick Benson: I became very grandiose, very excessively entitled and very self-centered. My partner went to work every day and I went to the race track or the casino. She begged me on more than one occasion to go get a straight job. And this was my delusional response at the time. "Don't you see what I do every day? There's absolutely no time in the day for me to go get a job. I get up in the morning, I read three different newspapers' sports sections. Then I check lines in about five or six different cities around the country with bookmakers. Then I either have to drive to the racetrack or fly to Vegas. I don't have any time today to go to work. Don't be ridiculous."
ABAO: When I've watched documentaries around Vegas and the levels of poverty in the surrounding areas, people begging on the streets just so they can get inside and maybe have a few goes on the slots and on the tables. Was that how it was back then as well?
Rick Benson: There was some of that, but we didn't see too much of it because we were high roller gamblers, if you will, who were gambling on the strip in the major, huge Vegas casinos. We're all here about the action. It's not really about winning or losing any more. Now, that also characterizes the third and final phase of the addiction. And the chasing/desperation phase of the addiction doesn't have that much to do, if anything, with winning or losing anymore. It's all about having to stay in action. It's like the heroin addict has to shoot heroin every day, we have to gamble every day.
The Gamblers Anonymous Experience
ABAO: Now, Rick, I would love to hear about your recovery and the methodology that you used to get yourself free from the shackles of gambling. You first attended a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Chicago. Can you tell us what the experience was like?
Rick Benson: So what brought me to my first Gamblers Anonymous meeting, like many of us, was consequences. I had an arrest as a result of my gambling. I had a complete federal bankruptcy two years before I ever went to my first Gamblers Anonymous meeting. I had lost two jobs as a result of my gambling. And I was now losing the 10-year relationship.
She changed the locks for about the fifth time and this time I wasn't manipulative enough, charismatic enough to get a new set of keys to the new set of locks. She was done. In retrospect, she should have been done a lot sooner. So now I'm living in an apartment with another guy who's a compulsive gambler.
And it's December in Chicago and I have a car that has very little heat in it, an apartment that doesn't have much more, and I owe organized crime bookmakers a bunch of money. Prior to my relationship ending, she had put the Gamblers Anonymous phone number next to the phone. I looked at that phone number for about six months every night when I called my bookmaker. I never dialled it, but I looked at it.
And so now I'm really jammed up and I call the number and I go to my first Gamblers Anonymous meeting. I went to 90 meetings in 90 days, but I went to a meeting every night with impure motivation. There was more coffee in the meetings than I had in my apartment and one of the nice people would buy me a hamburger.
ABAO: Were you still gambling at that time?
Rick Benson: Not regularly, but very occasionally. I'd see a horse that I particularly liked or I was still following gambling activity. I then traded addictions to alcohol for a couple of years. And I had sworn I would never become an alcoholic because there was a lot of alcoholism in my family, a lot of negative consequences. But I did. I put down the cocaine and the gambling simultaneously, but then I started to drink.
I moved to Florida and I found a really good therapist who really understood gambling addiction. For about three months, I went to his office every day from nine to five. There were only two Gamblers Anonymous meetings within a 50 mile radius of me. I filled in with Alcoholics Anonymous.
The lie started with me believing my own lie that I'm a professional gambler. Once I believed it, I sold that to people. I told people that, and they absolutely believed it.
ABAO: How long was it until that light bulb moment, the realization that you just couldn't continue both gambling and or drinking?
Rick Benson: It was probably six months to a year into recovery when I was sitting in a GA meeting and I had an “aha” moment. I knew that I had a gambling problem. I've known it for a long time and also a drinking problem, but I'm finally realizing it that night because of what I've heard in this meeting and because of the therapy work that I've been doing in the daytime, that my life will never get better as long as I continue to drink and or gamble. So I have to do whatever I have to do to stay stopped a day at a time.
The Formation of Algamus Gambling Treatment Center
Rick Benson: My mom died, and I realized that my father cannot live alone. I called my buddy who's a real estate agent on the little island where I live and I said, "Find me a duplex. I'll put him in half and I'll live in the other half of the duplex."
And instead of bringing me a two bedroom, two bath alongside a two bedroom, two bath, he brings me a three bedroom, two bath on top of a three bedroom, two bath.
So now I buy this duplex. I move my father in on the first floor, I move in on the second floor and I still have four more bedrooms. So I have guys in Alcoholics Anonymous, new to sobriety coming up to me saying, "Do you have room to rent?" I say, "Yes." All of a sudden, without any specific business plan, I'm running an alcohol halfway house.
They pay for room and board every week. And then my GA sponsor says, "Why don't you convert it to all gamblers? There's no place like that in the country." And so I do that. And then he says to me, "It seems like you like doing what you're doing. Why don't you go back and do the clinical training that you need to do to become an internationally certified gambling counselor and start to offer modestly priced residential treatment?" And I do that and Algamus is born.
ABAO: In terms of Algamus itself, how do people find you and what's the methodology in terms of enrollment?
Rick Benson: My greatest referral source to this very day is all of the gamblers attending Gamblers Anonymous who were previously my clients. And I'm very, very grateful to each and every one of them for that. I also get calls from state councils on problem gambling advocates for information, education, treatment, prevention. And most of those state councils run hotlines. There's also a national gambling hotline.
My role at Algamus stopped being clinical in somewhere between 2005 and 2010. I became the marketer, administrator, and networker. Most of these state councils have a one day or two day annual conference. I would be there exhibiting, doing sponsorships, that kind of thing.
In 2007, a psychologist from Phoenix, Arizona who had been a referral source of mine for years said we need an Algamus in Arizona. The guy who was running my program, Jody Pegram, who's still my partner, had gotten sober in Arizona from gambling and drugs.
I said, "Let's go to Arizona, and you introduce me to the owner of this treatment center in Arizona. We'll see if we could lease some beds and maybe at least some office space.” We wound up opening in Arizona.
Algamus mountain lodge in Prescott, Arizona
Rick Benson: Now, we were freestanding, which meant that we only did self-pay. And then in 2013, we merged under the umbrella of an alcohol, chemical dependency corporation. And the big advantage of that is that now we have set major medical insurance as well as self pay. People normally stay four to six weeks. We ask people, unless there's a compelling reason otherwise, to make a minimum of a four week commitment to the program.
We have a lovely mountain lodge that you can see photos of on our website. We take a maximum of 12 clients at a time. Treatment is very individualized, led by a clinical director who's our psychologist, two very experienced gambling therapists, and two internationally certified gambling counselors. We absolutely are adamant that all of our clients attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings while they're in treatment, because I believe that treatment is about the process of self discovery and Gamblers Anonymous is about sustained long-term recovery and community.
Everybody leaves with a written individualized aftercare plan that is negotiated with the treatment team prior to departure, every client. Usual components of that are a return to outpatient counseling or therapy with a gambling specific therapist in their home environment, and a referral to Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
ABAO: Well, it sounds like you're doing a wonderful job, Rick. And can you just estimate since you started Algamus, would it even be possible to put a number on how many people have been through the service?
Rick Benson: Probably close to 3000. Next year will be our 30th anniversary and we get about 90 clients or more a year.
ABAO: In terms of people reaching out to you to get a hold of you, what should they do?
Rick Benson: Check out the website at algamus.org. You can call the 800 number on the website. We do accept people from all over the world. Unfortunately, we can't accept international insurance. So for anybody who's outside the United States, it becomes self-pay. I'll even offer my cell phone number, which is 941-778-2496. Call me directly. Even if you don't have an interest in coming to treatment, if you have interest in just talking about treatment resources around the world, outpatient resources, Gamblers Anonymous resources, I'll be glad to refer you accordingly, depending on what your need is.