By David Payne Purdum / @DavidPurdum
It was 1968 in North Bergen, N.J. Two grand bought a new car. Compulsive gambler Arnie Wexler was down $5K, approximately a year’s salary.
He was on his way to see the man.
Wexler, a 30-year-old plant manager for a Fortune 500 company, stepped inside his regular social club. He walked through the downstairs card room, where he had played in a Greek Rummy game full of “bookmakers and shylocks” since he was a teen.
Then, he headed up the stairs to Petey’s office.
Wexler had spent a lot of time in that office, which had a refrigerator, five telephones and minimal furniture. He had worked the phones and hooked up bettors with Petey for years. He received a cut of the players’ losses, but almost always gambled away any profits before he saw any.
Five months earlier, in November of 1967, Wexler had borrowed $5,000 from a loan shark, who also happened to be Petey’s brother. He had been paying $550 a month in interest, while making $125 a week. He was betting much more, sometimes on 50 games over a weekend.
Married with two kids, Wexler’s home life had fallen apart long ago. He had made three trips to the racetrack while his wife went through 37 hours of labor during the birth of their first child. With six outstanding loans, he’d look at his family, swear that he’d stop gambling then cry himself to sleep. The first thing he did when he woke up, however, was buy the daily racing form. When a bookie cut him off, he went straight home and sold the family car to a neighbor. It was one rock bottom after another.
But this particular April day was different. He entered Petey’s office, looked at his longtime bookie and told him that he was a compulsive gambler and was quitting.
Petey wasn’t buying it.
“He opened a drawer, and said, ‘I don’t care where the fuck you get the money,’ and pulled out a gun and gave it to me,” recalled Wexler.
It’s now been 44 years since Wexler last placed a bet.
On Opening Day of the 1968 baseball season, he put $20 on a two-team parlay. Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals cashed the first leg of his parlay. He needed Tom Seaver and the Mets to beat Juan Marichal and the Giants to cash.
“In the bottom of the ninth, the Giants came up with four runs and beat me,” Wexler said during a recent phone interview. “That was the last bet I ever made.”
Days later, he was in Petey’s office, contemplating the offer of the gun. Wexler left the gun there and came back to see Petey 10 straight days until he finally convinced him to take a $25-per-week payoff plan.
Fans of Arnie: From Oprah Winfrey to Howard Cosell
It was 1994. The phones kept ringing.
Wexler, who was head of the Council on Compulsive Gambling at the time, had just done the Oprah Winfrey Show.
He and his staff were manning six phone lines. They couldn’t keep up with all the calls from distressed gamblers looking for help. At the end of the day, the phone register showed 5,000 calls. By the end of the week, there had been 10,000.
Wexler wants to help them all, but admits keeping 1 of 10 clean is a lofty goal. But even now, the 74-year-old tries. He and his wife Shelia have trained approximately 40,000 casino employees on the signs of compulsive gambling. He blogs and sends out press releases about his story. He holds nothing back.
“Why do you open yourself up like this and admit these things publicly?” Howard Cosell once asked Wexler.
“The answer is I’ve been there,” Wexler replied. “I know what it does to people and that’s what helps me recover, opening myself up and be real about what I did with my life. But the real thing that I’ve done is the recovery piece.”
‘He’s saved a lot of lives’
I’ve been covering the gaming industry for four years. I’ve written hundreds of stories about big bets, line movements and crazy long shots. Sadly, this is my first about compulsive gambling.
“I am sure you have come in contact with lots of addicted gamblers and never knew it,” Wexler told me. “And they for sure would not tell you had the addiction; some may not have known it. Gambling is the invisible disease. There are no track marks, dilated pupils or the smell of alcohol. I’ve had judges refuse to acknowledge it.”
There is no debate that compulsive gambling can be destructive.
Popular sportstalk radio host Sid Rosenberg knows all about it. He’s struggled with compulsive gambling off and on and first met Wexler on a Friday night at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., sometime in the mid-1990s. They’ve been close friends ever since and stay in regular communication.
“The guy has saved a lot of lives, a lot of lives,” Rosenberg said of Wexler.
On July 12, it will be eight months since Rosenberg has placed a bet, he says. He credits Wexler in his recovery, but says he still plans on talking point spreads when he takes over the morning spot on WMEN-640 AM in August.
“I can’t stand those guys who used to smoke cigarettes, but now says he can’t stand them,” said Rosenberg. “I’ve been through about everything and don’t look down on people who use drugs or gamble. But I just can’t do it anymore. It’s caused my family a lot of heartache and a lot of money out the door … a lot of people knocking at my … it just caused my family a lot of heartache.”
Before our final phone interview, Wexler had just hung up with a concerned mother of a professional poker player. He has worked with several poker pros as the game’s popularity exploded in the last 10-15 years. This mother was particularly scared.
“This kid won a couple million dollars playing poker, but has a house in foreclosure in Florida,” said Wexler. “The last word he told his mother yesterday that he wanted to kill himself.”
Wexler’s voice quivered when he said it.
‘A special place in heaven’
Professional handicapper and Libertarian politician Wayne Root remembers meeting Wexler on a TV talk show in the late 1980s.
The two came from opposite sides of the gaming industry but became immediate friends.
“He is like an uncle to me,” Root said of Wexler in an email. “He is one of those special souls you meet just a few times in your years on this planet. There is a special place in Heaven for him.. Arnie cares for people with the worst gambling problems. No matter what they’ve done, no matter how bad they’ve been, Arnie is there for them. When you see something like that, how can you not help?”
Help is exactly what Root has done. He is one of the only—if not the only—professional pick seller who has a link to Wexler’s site and phone number for his gambling problem hotline listed on his own site, Winngedge.com. Root has also made numerous donations to Wexler’s cause.
“I built a wonderful career as a professional sports handicapper,” added Root. “And while 99 percent of my clients enjoy sports gambling and see it as a combination of entertainment and investment, it is a fact that some gamblers have addiction issues.
“Those of us who do well in this industry have an obligation to help that group,” he continued. “Arnie Wexler is the best in the world at doing that- because of his background (he’s been there) and because of his compassion. So I’ve always made it my obligation to donate to his cause and to be sure my clients knew that help existed if any of them should ever need it. That’s why the banner for Arnie’s organization has been on my homepage since the first day my site went up in 2000. And that’s why when Arnie called for financial help, I was always there.”
Q&A w/ Arnie Wexler
Q: What is the closest you’ve come to gambling in the last 44 years?
A: “I was speaking in Oklahoma City and was in a cab on the way to the hotel. I saw this sign that says, ‘Get your juices flowing.’ A new racetrack was opening. It showed a jockey on a horse, and I got juiced up just looking at this ad. We got to the hotel—I’m 20-25 years clean at the time—and ask where this racetrack is. And the doorman says, ‘It’s not open yet.’ “
Q: How many games were you betting at your peak?
A: Every game on the board. It wasn’t like I was smart enough to pick two or three games.
Q: What was the biggest bet you ever placed?
A: In December of 1967, I’m in a phonebooth in Queens. I put in the 10 cents to call the guy. I said, ‘Matty, I want to bet a 36-hundred-dollar round robin.’ The bet is $10,800. At that point, I’m making $90 to $100 a week. He says to me, ‘Arnie, don’t jerk me around. If you don’t have this money, don’t make this bet.’ I told him I had the money, but if I would have lost the dime in the phone booth, I couldn’t have called him back.
Q: Do you think you’ll ever place another bet?
A: I can’t answer that. I hope not. No one knows the answer to that question. I’ve seen too many experiences, people who’ve been clean for 20, 30 or 40 years, that go back to gambling. But I think I have enough protection in place that it shouldn’t happen to me.
Q: Your thoughts on Pete Rose?
A: I once did an ESPN special, “Should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame?” My take on it is, yeah, he should be in the Hall of Fame. But it’s his fault that he’s not in the Hall of Fame, because if he turned around and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to a 12-step program. I’m in recovery, and I’m not gambling anymore.’ I think he’d be in the Hall of Fame.”
Q: Tim Donaghy?
A: “When Tim got in trouble, we met twice and I helped him and got him in a 12-step program. I was in the court room for his sentencing and ended up sitting next to his father when he got sentenced. I was talking to Tim every week, but I’d say over the last six months we haven’t communicated much.”
Q: Nevin Shapiro?
A: “His lawyer contacted me several times and wanted me to don an evaluation on him, but it never happened. Six weeks later, I saw him getting sentenced.”