Gambling, Part II
Gordie Greco has been gambling ever since he was a kid in Detroit, but his service in the
U.S. Army dramatically upped the ante for him.
“I got into gambling big time in the service,” he says. “When we weren’t fighting, we found recreation in drinking, drugging or gambling – or a combination of all three. We were playing games with big pots, and our squad leaders were booking bets and challenging us to bet.”
Gordie was drafted into the Army in June 1969, joining the 4th Infantry Division in combat in Vietnam. He remembers the Army issuing punch cards, a kind of an early lottery ticket. But cards and dice were also close at hand.
Fighting in Vietnam with incursions into Laos and Cambodia, the Army also introduced Gordie to some of the demons that drove his life for decades.
“Every time we went out to ambush someone, we got ambushed,” Gordie told me over lunch in Las Vegas recently. “There were moments of silence and seconds of terror. You knew it was coming, but there was nothing you could do about it.”
Over the course of a year, Gordie estimates that his 100-man company lost at least 25 soldiers killed by enemy fire – and another 10 to friendly fire or accidents. “Several times we called in mortar support and air support, but they hit us by mistake,” he says. “You can’t believe the rage it causes when you lose your comrades in situations like that.”
When he came home, Gordie tried to go back to college at Michigan State, but felt horribly out of place. It got even worse when a professor noticed that the 20-year-old freshman was a veteran and asked him, in front of the whole class, whether he was one of those baby-killers. “I was stunned and humiliated,” he remembers. He struggled for two years, then dropped out.
“When I came back, I tried to drink myself to death,” he says. “I was crazy, and no one was gonna f— with me. Detroit was too tame for me in 1972, so I came to Las Vegas. The bars never closed, and the place was filled with tough and wise guys. I was at home here, fighting, drinking, gambling and making damn good money.”
It was natural for Gordie to work in the casinos, but that also introduced a new addiction. “I had dodged the drug scene until I came to Las Vegas,” he says, “but the whole town ran on cocaine in those days.”
Gordie married his high school sweetheart and gave up his drug use, but his constant gambling losses created a problem in their relationship. Finally, he and his wife Margie divorced in 1991 after 13 years, leaving all of his time free for gambling.
In 1993, Gordie joined Alcoholics Anonymous and stopped drinking, but his gambling went unchecked, He became an operations manager, setting up riverboat gambling operations in Chicago, Sioux City and Kansas City. And he kept gambling, by his own estimate losing at least one-quarter of his salary at racetracks or in sports betting.
Nearing the end of his professional career, Gordie found the biggest casino of them all, the stock market, and began betting heavily on tech stocks right in the middle of the dot-com bubble.
“In 2006, I negotiated a severance package with about six month’s pay,” he says. “And in the first two months, I’d lost about 40 percent of it so I knew I had to do something.”
Gordie sought help from the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas, run by Dr. Rob Hunter, and joined a local Gamblers Anonymous fellowship. While it’s a tradition in GA not to use last names, I interviewed Gordie outside the parameters of the program and he allowed me to use his last name for journalistic credibility.
Gordie’s biggest challenge was to understand why he was so driven to gamble. Greed or wanting more was one answer. A second was that he felt invincible. “I’d beaten the biggest gamble of my life, staying alive during combat, and I knew that cards and dice would have to be simple by comparison,” he says. “You’ve never lived until you’ve almost died, and after that there are no limits. You lose all bounds.”
Emotions pent up since Vietnam also came into play. It felt wonderful to beat the system, but it also felt natural to be beaten by the system, almost like a deserved punishment. “I had a lot of internal rage, self-loathing, and feelings of uselessness and shame. Everything you do as a gambler, you have to do in secret because no person in their right mind is going to make $100 bills just disappear.”
Gambling isn’t the sole problem, says Gordie, but it’s a manifestation of a thinking and living problem. A recovering gambling addict needs to dig deep to isolate and correct the things that are bugging him, and then he needs to re-invent himself. “You have to change your playgrounds and playmates,” he says. “I completed my education, earning two degrees, and scratched the last thing off my bucket list.”
“One of the hardest things I had to do was to learn how to forgive myself,” he adds. “To do that, I had to have something to live for, something positive in my life. That meant I had to change, to live a new life. As my life changed and things began to get better, I suddenly realized that I might live to see the person that I might have been if I had not become an addict.”
Gordie hasn’t placed a bet since May, 2006. Today, he’s spending time with his children and grandchildren when possible, walking his dogs, riding bikes and lots of reading. He also volunteers regularly at the Problem Gambling Center and runs many of its group therapy sessions while attending GA.
“Today I can do anything I want except use mind-altering substances,” he told me. “With what it does to my brain and dopamine system, it is evident that gambling is a mind-altering substance too. So getting rid of gambling is enormously freeing for me from the self-bondage of addiction. Life is good, I live it one day at a time, and it gets better every day.”