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His name is Arnie Wexler and he survived gambling addiction

Go ahead and say it. Arnie Wexler has heard it before.

Through the years, he has been called just about every name you can think of. A traitor to the sporting life. A quitter in the endless game of sports betting. A loser who couldn’t handle the action.

He’s none of those things, though. Wexler is, without doubt, a survivor who knows what the agony of gambling addiction is really like.

He spent much of his early life in debt to illegal bookmakers. He gambled on pinball. He bet with both fists. First his money, then his family’s. He won plenty, but always lost more. He watched a parade of paychecks and rent payments ride off into a cloud of track dust at places like Monticello Raceway, Roosevelt Raceway and Vernon Downs.

Wexler was so lost in his gambling addiction as a young man in the early 1960s that he actually placed a daily wager on the historically hapless New York Mets — to win.

Go ahead and laugh. Wexler manages to.

For the past three decades, Wexler has used his hard-won experience to help others beat the toughest odds imaginable: those compulsive gamblers face.

Now Arnie and wife Sheila teamed up with veteran sports journalist Steve Jacobson to produce an informative and entertaining memoir/self-help book just in time for the Super Bowl called “All Bets Are Off: Losers, Liars, and Recovery from Gambling Addiction.” Arnie’s self-deprecating sense of humor comes through in pages littered with tragic tales of compulsive gambling behavior and betting obsession.

Sheila had a front-row seat to Arnie’s betting obsession and eventual addiction. Her comments will remind strangers to the sports gambling world of the all too human frailties of the people involved. At one point she recalls, “Our second date was at Monticello Raceway, and I never had another date with him unless it was a sports event, a race track, or a casino night — except for an occasional Broadway show. He was as charming as the gamblers are in ‘Guys and Dolls.’ ”

The charm began to tarnish when Arnie was arrested on suspicion of bookmaking. It grew downright dingy when he came close to losing his kneecaps to bookies and loan sharks.

Arnie cheated, lied, and stole money to feed his obsession. He even blew his share of the young couple’s furniture fund. It’s a reminder that, as they observe, “Compulsive gamblers know no boundaries and have no offseason.”

He made big scores in the stock market and spent the winnings even faster.

At one point, he recalls, “I owed everybody and his brother a lot of money. I thought I would never ever stop gambling. When I stopped, I owed more than three times my yearly pay and thought about killing myself every day. I saw suicide as the only way out. At least I could leave Sheila the $5,000 insurance policy I had.”

Such dark thoughts commonly pass through the troubled minds of the addicted. Surveys note that more than 60 percent of Gamblers Anonymous members have either tried or contemplated suicide.

But thanks to a 12-step program he began in 1968, Wexler managed to pull back from the abyss.

Wexler and his wife, who must have a halo in their house somewhere, have spent the ensuing years providing training and education on compulsive gambling to companies and individuals. They run a toll-free national hotline, 888-LAST-BET, are consultants for Recovery Road addiction center in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and are living reminders that there is life after that final wager.

In his foreword, Problem Gambling Center of Las Vegas founder Rob Hunter cuts to the bottom line: “Like any other addiction, gambling addiction is a genuine psychological disease that can only be arrested, not cured. Yet, as Arnie explains so clearly in this book, arresting the addiction is not the end of the process — it is the beginning of a full and meaningful life.”

That’s the biggest lesson that emerges from “All Bets Are Off.” For those who seek help, there’s life after compulsive gambling.

It’s something to think about as America’s biggest betting day of the year approaches.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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