Compulsive gambler wagers on better life away from games

Arnie Wexler remembers the sweet sizzle of easy money. How could he forget in a million years?

It was Memorial Day 1951. He was a 14-year-old Brooklyn boy earning four bits an hour in an after-school job when he made his first score gambling at Roosevelt Raceway in Westbury: $54 cash — genuine folding green.

“It changed my life,” he says in a nasal voice like one of the kids from “Welcome Back Kotter.” “I thought in that moment, that day, what a euphoria, what a high, what an easy way to make money. And what a schmuck I was working for 50 cents an hour.”

By 17, when most kids were hustling to buy their first car, Wexler had his own bookmaker. By 18, he was winning and losing thousands.

When it came to sports betting, he didn’t discriminate. He bet hockey without knowing what a puck was. He bet horses daily, sometimes gambling away his bankroll before he was able to play the mob’s fixed race of the day.

“I’d bet on a cock-a-roach race,” he says. “I bet everything and anything.”

It was December 1967 when he learned the bottom line from Matty, his North Bergen, N.J., bookmaker, about the incredible popularity of football with the betting public. On that day, Arnie could have told you the stats for the starting lineups of the American League, but he couldn’t have named five NFL players.

Soon he was gambling way over his head on football. He was on his way to losing his career, his friends and his family. While earning $125 a week, he once called in a $10,800 bet. “And if I lose the 10 cents in the phone booth, I can’t call the man back.”

He doesn’t blame Las Vegas. Without setting foot in a casino, he gambled with bookmakers, in backroom card games, and at the racetrack.

He won a lot — and always lost more.

His life eventually careened through the doors of a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, where he began to learn about the nature of addiction. Ever a man with a head for numbers, Arnie reminds me he placed his last bet on April 10, 1968.

Today, Wexler and his wife, Sheila, are two of the nation’s most vocal advocates of a greater understanding of gambling addiction. Today, on Super Bowl Sunday in a nation that worships sports and the betting that is an integral part of its reason for being, the Wexlers are lone voices drowned out by the roaring crowd.

When I ask his opinion of the importance of betting to the NFL and the Super Bowl, he doesn’t miss a beat.

“Take away the gambling from football,” he says, “and you’ve got soccer.”

Allow gambling on high school football, he adds, and watch the grandstands fill.

The Super Bowl is not only the biggest betting day of the year for the Las Vegas sports book fraternity, it is the one game on which just about everyone from Seattle to Sarasota has a little action. Wexler appreciates the excitement, but thinks the NFL and the legal gambling industry are hypocrites for not taking a stronger stance on the issue of addiction.

“I’m not a prohibitionist,” he says. “I’m a recovering compulsive gambler. Compulsive gamblers cannot walk out with the money. It’s not about the money that you win. It’s about being in action. That’s the sickness.”

What does a recovering compulsive gambler do on the biggest betting day of the year?

“We’re probably going to go out to dinner with my father-in-law and his girlfriend,” Wexler says. “After that, I’ll probably end up at some kind of meeting.”

Old gambling stories aside, that’s what keeps him money ahead in real life.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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