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A Life Lost...and then Restored

Published Sunday, September 26, 1999, in The State:
'You're hypnotized by the buttons, the flashing lights'

By LARRY JENKINS, Special to The State

Video poker nearly ruined the life of Larry Jenkins, a 47-year-old maintenance mechanic from Marlboro County. A 1997 study estimated 20 percent of video poker gamblers in South Carolina are addicted to the extent that Mr. Jenkins was; another 20 percent may show signs of addiction. Mr. Jenkins, who hopes his story will help those addicted to video poker, was interviewed by editorial writer John Monk. This is his story:

When I see those signs "Vote Yes for freedom" in the Nov. 2 referendum on video poker, I think somebody needs to go see a psychiatrist.

When a person is playing those poker machines, he is not free. He is locked into that machine. My freedom finally came back when I was able to quit playing.

I would be at work, thinking about playing. And I'd get up and leave to go play. I wanted to get to that machine. It was like a god; I worshipped it. I put my money in it. And all the time, what was it doing? Drawing me down, and taking everything I owned, me and my wife, and tearing us apart.

People don't realize how addictive these machines are. For more than a year, I couldn't leave them.

Now, nobody twisted my arm to play. But there ought to be a sign over them warning that to some people, video poker is addictive. At least people would think then.

I've been free, clean from video poker for five years and four months now. Here's how I started:

I had seen some of my friends playing, and they would tell me how much they won. They never told me how much they'd lost.

The first time, I put in $1 and won $35. Then I put in $100 and lost it. When you win, you feel this power like -- wow! --I'm beating these machines!

I began spending from $50 to $75 a day on machines around Bennettsville and Cheraw. I would stand there sometimes eight to 10 hours. When I would go to a place that was crowded, I would get on the telephone and call around to other places and find out which ones weren't crowded. Then I'd go there. I'd park in back, because I didn't want anyone to see my car.

Most people who play the machines around here are repeat gamblers. Like me, they had a problem. They weren't there for their health, that's for sure.

It's kind of like people have got metal in their brain, and these machines are magnets -- bang! They draw you to 'em.

When you're winning, you're not paying attention. I have sat there and won 20 games and not known I won. It's like you're hypnotized, punching those buttons and watching the flashing lights.

A couple of times, I won $50 to $75, but I sat there and put it right back in. I was always doubling up, double or nothing. You may punch off 100 games and not realize what you're doing. Afterwards, you say, "What'd I do that for?"

I've seen people get a $700 to $800 Social Security check, go in there, cash it and not win anything.

The owners, they just smile. They don't tell you to slack off when they see you losing. The only thing they say is, "Need change for a hundred? I can break it."

To pay for my gambling, I began working two jobs. I called finance companies to borrow money. It only took an hour or so for them to do a credit check on me and write a $500 check. I also pawned stuff and swore up and down to my wife I didn't know where it was.

After a year, thousands in debt and not knowing how I would pay it off, I was at a breaking point. On a Sunday afternoon, my wife and daughter were at church. I lay down on my bed with a .22 bolt-action rifle in one hand and a .22 hollow-point bullet in the other.

It came to me that killing myself would be wrong. I thought: "You may take your life, but what you're doing will affect your daughter and your wife. Someday, someone will come up to my daughter and say, 'Your daddy killed himself because he was a compulsive gambler.' "

I knew I had to get help. I called a friend who talked to me. I wound up going to a psychologist in Florence and to Lancaster to Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

At Gamblers Anonymous, I was in a group of about 15 people. A millworker had lost everything she had saved for her retirement. A young man told us he had just gotten back a $3,200 federal income tax refund. Instead of going home, he cashed it and put it in the machines. Then a few days later, he got an $1,800 state tax refund, and he gambled that away. He said he didn't have a job, and he and his wife have a four-month-old baby.

I was in pitiful shape, but there are people out there in much worse shape. I admitted I had a problem.

Here's what I say: Save your life and save your money. Don't start playing video poker. I'll tell anybody that plays that you can lose your wife, your family, your car and you can lose your mind. My wife is a wonderful woman who stood by me, but she said if I played those machines one more time, she would have left.

Freedom will come when we get those machines out of South Carolina.

[For help with a gambling problem, call Gamblers Anonymous, at 1-800-313-0170.]
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(posted 26 Sept. 1999)