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Putting their luck -- and lives -- on the line

The young man wearing a Rod Stewart jacket and a small gold earring looks like your average '80s rocker cruising to a Bruce Springsteen beat. But something besides music is on his mind.

Gary S. is a compulsive gambler. This means that he has not been able to stop himself from betting, the same way an untreated alcoholic cannot stop himself from drinking. Right now, he's sitting in a Gamblers Anonymous meeting trying to come to grips with the fact that, given half a chance, he throws away all of his own money and cheats, lies, and steals from parents, friends, and his employer just to keep feeding on the ``action,'' as gamblers refer to the frenzy of betting.

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In this state -- with its 10 glitzy casinos, four race tracks, legalized sports betting, and ubiquitous state lottery -- he has more than half a chance of doing just that.

``There's no question that the availability and promotion of legalized gambling increases the number of compulsive gamblers,'' says Dr. Robert Custer of the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C., a pioneer in the study of compulsive gambling. ``It works that way with every other addiction. I don't know why it shouldn't apply here.''

Despite this, ``vast sections of the country are trying to gamble their way into prosperity, and it's not working,'' says Chuck Hardwick, the diminutive soft-spoken minority leader of the New Jersey General Assembly, who has for years fought an often lonely battle to get state recognition of the mushrooming compulsive gambling problem here.

According to Arnold Wexler, vice-president of the National Council on Compulsive Gambling and president of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling, ``New Jersey is the `gambling-est' state in the Union, topping the take in Nevada this year.'' As such, the state has become almost a laboratory for analyzing the effect of widespread availability and promotion of gambling.

The number of compulsive gamblers in the state today is hard to estimate. Compulsive gamblers, like alcoholics, try to conceal their problem. The unofficial, often disputed estimate -- extrapolated from a 1960 US Department of Health study that showed 5 percent of the general population has a gambling addiction -- is that there are 400,000 compulsive gamblers in New Jersey out of a population of 7.4 million.

A few things are known for certain:

A survey done by Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics asked a random sample of 500 New Jersey citizens if they had ever gambled. In 1980, 33 percent said yes; by 1984, that figure had leaped to 59 percent.

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Since 1977, when the casinos arrived, the number of calls to a statewide gambling hot line, where compulsive gamblers can call for help, has quadrupled; membership in local Gamblers Anonymous groups (similar to Alcoholics Anonymous) has jumped from 200 to 1,240; and the number of GA chapters has risen from 15 to 51 in the past six years. Five GA meetings are held weekly in correctional institutions in the state.

Heavy gamblers are not hard to find here these days, amid the constant ring and flow of coins and chips at the Atlantic City casinos, in which everything possible has been done, it seems, to create an unreal world in which the passing of time (there are no clocks) and the losing of money will not be noticed.

One weekday afternoon recently, a man in sweater and slacks sat in the high-roller enclave at the Golden Nugget, where minimum bets range from $50 to $500. He was alone except for the dealer, shoving $500 chips into the betting circle of a blackjack table. He watched, wincing and snapping his fingers each time his cards started to run bad. As much as $2,000 rode on the fall of a card.

Dozens of such gamblers, who seldom smiled and played in a seemingly transfixed silence, could be spotted in a recent walk through several Atlantic City casinos. But they are not the most visible sign of gambling in this state.

Drive down the New Jersey Turnpike, and vivid billboards beckon you to try your luck and strike it rich -- most often at the casinos, but frequently with one of the state's numerous lotteries. Flip on a television set here, and you are likely to be hit with the well-heeled lottery advertising campaign.

``No one ever envisioned [when instituting a state lottery was being considered in 1969] that the state would wind up spending over $3 million a year to get people who are not gamblers to start gambling, and to get those who are gambling to gamble more,'' says Mr. Hardwick. ``We don't know the impact that will have on people.''

For some people, the lure of lotteries and other forms of gambling becomes altogether too seductive, he explains. It leads them into a downhill slide that eventually crashes into bankruptcy, divorce, unemployment, deep indebtedness, despair.

People who reach this point are sometimes not identified ``until they jump off a building,'' as Commissioner Carl Zeitz of the Casino Control Commission puts it, adding that many more compulsive gamblers remain hidden all their lives.

But they are there. ``Just read the newspapers, and you see professionals, like lawyers, getting indicted and convicted for embezzling from trust funds and the like,'' he adds.

Not every gambler gets down that far. But the thrill of the ``action'' -- in casinos, at the track, with the lottery -- has brought along a nightmare of social ills from which compulsive gamblers, and the state of New Jersey, are having great difficulty waking up. One chart: History of gambling in New Jersey 1939 - Horse racing introduced into state* 1959 - Bingo and raffles made legal* 1966 - Night bettng on horses allowed* 1969 - Lottery established* 1974 - Casino gambling defeated at polls* 1976 - Casino gambling voted in* 1978 - Jai alai defeated at the polls* 1983 - Simulcast race-track betting approved by Legislature 1983 - Gambling age raised to 21 1985 - Simulcasting legislation reversed by state Supreme Court *Constitutional amendment presented to voters.

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