Gambling Itch turns into Gambling Fever

I’ve probably mentioned that every 90 days, I have to leave Costa Rica per immigration regulations because I’m not a resident of the country. Regulations mandate that I must stay outside the country for 72 hours. More often then not, I end up going to Panama City, Panama. It’s only an one hour flight and the hotels are generally on par with above average USA accommodations. The trip is costly, but worth it in order to follow Costa Rican law and get out of my apartment/neighborhood for a couple days. There’s only one downside: many of the hotels in Panama City are located adjacent to casinos, which always gives me a gambling itch.

I haven’t placed a real money wager since March of 2004. I say “real money”, because I’ve played online poker, roulette, and blackjack for play money points, which don’t count as gambling unless you’re strict about abstinence from ANY kind of gambling. To clarify further, these play money points casino games didn’t cost anything to use, had no rewards, nor any sort of raffle/lottery/drawing associated with accumulating a lot of play money points. In other words, the only thing I waste playing these games is time, which is helpful for taking a break from my life once in awhile. It also relieves any occasional gambling itch I have by re-enforcing the fact that trying to win at these games is futile in the long run (while I’ll agree with any serious gamblers reading this post that major short-term wins are possible).

Before my most recent Panama trip, I exacerbated my gambling itch with mind games. You’d think after 7 years without placing a bet the addictive aspects of gambling would be gone. Truth is, they are never gone, just either under control or out of control. I told myself that if I could start with 1000 points and multiply my money fivefold – for a total of 5000 points – that I could consider gambling for real in Panama because it somehow indicated a better level of self-control than I used to have. So, I went to my favorite online casino site and played blackjack for a couple hours, and I did, in fact, turn 1000 points into just over 5000 points. This “qualifying” mind game was meant to give me permission to break 7 years of not gambling.

While flying to Panama City, all I could think about on the plane was getting to my hotel, unpacking my credit cards, and heading over to the closest casino (conveniently 5 minutes away). I kept picturing myself walking in, plunking down $500 bucks, and then walking out a couple hours later with $2000 or more. This sequence of thoughts repeated itself after I got off the plane, continued as I went through immigration and customs, and pushed on during my cab ride from the airport to my hotel.

This fantasy drove my gambling itch into gambling fever like I haven’t experienced in years. My mind further justified breaking 7 years of abstinence from gambling with thoughts like “You deserve to have fun”, “Why not socialize for a couple hours?”, and “You need the extra cash, so why not give it a chance?”. That voice that usually stamps out these irrational thoughts was markedly smaller, a mere whisper compared to these pro-gambling mental shouts.

Like clockwork, the minute I arrived in my hotel room, I started breaking out my credit cards and cash, getting ready to gamble. I stuffed my passport in my pocket just in case the casino would request ID for cash advances, which they almost always do unless they know you as a regular customer. I headed down the elevator, out the hotel, and right into the middle of the casino, checking out the blackjack tables.

I nearly pulled up a chair and whipped out my money, but for whatever reason, this didn’t happen. For a few minutes, I watched a guy buy $500 worth of chips, and proceed to lose it within 10 minutes at the blackjack table. He was betting between $50 and $150 a hand, and did win a couple times. Unfortunately for him, however, the dealer was eventually victorious (as usual). She drew a 4 card 21 a couple times, with a few 20s thrown in for good measure. The guy could do little against these cards, with his only recourse being to wait out the run of bad luck with smaller bets, and then return to larger bets when the cards were more favorable. He didn’t reduce his bets, but instead kept them big, hoping to double up. That made his first $500 disappear fast.

After finally losing to a dealer natural 21 (blackjack), the gambler went to his wallet and brought out another $500, changing it for $25 and $100 chips. He was clearly chasing his losses, hoping to make back the first $500 and maybe a little more to justify his trip to the casino for the evening.

Once I saw him burn through this second cash infusion, I slowly, begrudgingly, left the casino and returned to my hotel room. It seemed like the dealers were all pulling perfect and near perfect hands, destroying the gamblers at their respective tables. I knew that if I sat down and played, I’d be opening myself up to substantial losses, in part because when I lose a lot of money, I tend to “chase” it with larger buy-ins, until I’m literally broke or my credit card company shuts me down (yes, it happened several years ago on multiple occasions).

Leaving the casino, I still wanted to gamble desperately, but decided it would be better to sequester myself inside my hotel room behind the TV. I sat on the bed and watched 3 hours of TV and also bought a movie to see, before going to bed late at night like I always do. A $9.99 movie purchase made more sense than a potential $500 casino loss. For the remainder of my trip, I did the same thing: eat my meals, use the internet cafe in the mornings, and then hide in my room at night, to evade the powerful gambling devil that has never quite disappeared.

I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, what a waste of trip…You’re in Panama City for 3 days and all you did was watch TV in your room and go downstairs for meals? You could do that anywhere, why not do some touristy stuff?” That’s a fair criticism. To be fair to myself, though, I was traveling alone and have done most of the local tourist destinations before. Traveling alone in Central America can be hazardous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Although I’d like to think I have some street smarts after 7 years in Latin America, you never know what can happen if you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s far better to adventurous with a couple friends.

Flying solo ultimately made the casino the most likely leisure activity: it was close to my hotel, had strong security, and I’m usually much more social and happy when I’m gambling. That’s why my mind was trying to push me towards playing cards.

In the end, I never did actually gamble, and maintained my 7+ years of freedom from problem gambling. The trip was uneventful and boring, but at least I didn’t put myself at risk financially, or more importantly, put my sanity on the line for a few hours of pointless gambling. It took a lot of mental energy to keep myself away from the casino. True, my trip was nothing overly memorable in terms of sites and sounds, but more of a psychological boost to my anti-gambling will power.

It’s hard to say no to something you love to do, especially when the chance of winning money is involved. I chose to abstain during those few days in Panama, knowing that I would hate myself later on for trading 7 years of being wager free for a couple hours of blackjack that probably would have bankrupted me on the spot.

Whatever your addiction is, take care of it, and don’t let it control your life, or more importantly, control your mind.