Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling, Inc.

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Action Gamblers - The Four Phases


Note: Escape gamblers also move through four phases.

However, the characteristics of those phases are distinctly different.

Phase 1 -- The Winning Phase:

During the winning phase (first 3 to 5 years), the Action gambler wins more often than he loses. He probably experiences a "big win" -- an amount equal to at least a month’s normal salary and, sometimes, as much as a year's normal salary or more. This winning phase and, specifically, a major early win, gives him the illusion that he is smarter than others and, of course, a superior gambler. Action gamblers frequently believe themselves capable of "turning professional" and may even consider themselves professional gamblers.

As these gamblers progress through the winning phase, they begin to increase the time spent gambling. They begin to gamble more often and for larger amounts of money. Eventually, they begin to lose consistently.

Phase 2 -- The Losing Phase:

The losing phase usually lasts more than five years. The Action gambler begins betting even larger amounts and gambles more often. He believes he is simply on a "losing streak." He doubles up on bets and stays in hands when he knows he should fold. He bets on "long shots," knowing they don’t have much of a chance but will pay more. He loses much more often than he wins. These frequent losses cause him to gamble even more in order to win back his money -- he is now "chasing his losses." He borrows money with which to gamble. The lying has already begun; he must lie to cover his tracks. He must lie to convince people he is still the "happy go lucky gambler" and all around "good guy." He begins to lie about everything, often when the truth would serve him better. He continues to boast about his gambling skills. He talks often about his wins, rarely about his losses.

At some point, he has his first major set back. Deep in financial trouble, he may convince his family or employer of some phony catastrophy or disaster which requires a loan. Most probably, he obtains his first "bailout." He asks for more than he needs to cover his losses, providing extra "gambling dollars." He sees the "bailout" as a win. He is back in action, gambling even more feverishly than before.

These bailouts may occur numerous times. Eventually, however, it becomes impossible to persuade others to provide yet another loan. He is losing consistently. His life has become unmanageable, and his family life is deteriorating rapidly.

Phase 3 -- The Desperation Phase:

This phase may be short or may last many years. The majority of the gambler’s time is spent either thinking about gambling, planning his next bet, or in action. He no longer has control over his actions. In order to relieve the inner pain, he must gamble. He knows he will lose, but it does not matter. His lying is completely out of control. When others don’t believe his lies, he becomes angry with them. He blames others for his problems. He must obtain the money with which to gamble at all costs. His family life is in shambles. His loved ones have already left or are on the verge of leaving. Illegal activity may be present. He may be embezzling money or stealing it in other ways. He will consider these as "loans" to be paid back as soon as he makes a big win. He is still often able to present an outward appearance of being in control.

His wife and children (if they are still around) are suffering in many ways: the rent or house payment is overdue; the utilities may have even been turned off. Few relatives even speak to them anymore. They are on a cash only basis with merchants. Credit cards are "maxed out." His wife knows he is gambling. She knows he continually lies. She has heard him say a thousand times that he will stop, that everything will be okay. She is suffering from depression but, because she still has a sense of false pride, she doesn't want anyone to know how desperate they are. She pleads with him to just stop. Yet he continues to gamble. She is afraid to answer the phone, fearing it will be still another bill collector or, worse, her relatives wanting their money. Her life and her children's is spiraling downward toward an unknown end. She is frequently convinced that it is somehow her fault. The gambler often has an outward appearance, even at this stage, of being in total control. He is still convinced that everyone believes his lies. He becomes angry when they don't. Outwardly, he blames everyone but himself for the unfortunate circumstances now occurring. Inwardly, the gambler is in severe anguish. He truly loves his family and wants things to be as they used to be. He wants respect and stability, but he has to gamble. He can't tell you why, but he has to gamble. He has to be in action. He is living in a dream world, knowing he can't win. Punishing himself, he wants it to end. He has to gamble because it is the only way he can relieve the pain. He thinks about self destruction and, probably more often than most would like to believe, attempts or commits suicide.

His significant other’s pride and lack of knowledge about the disorder will not allow her to face the fact that she must take action. Unfortunately, it may take something like an arrest, a suicide attempt, or some other traumatic event to occur before she finally offers an ultimatum or takes the kids and leaves the gambler.

In Phase 3, Action and Escape gamblers share many of the same symptoms. They no longer have any power over gambling. Gambling itself is in control.

The Action gambler, more often than not, is forced into recovery only after he has exhausted all means of obtaining money with which to gamble. Frequently, he is facing legal issues. His spouse or significant others force him into recovery with ultimatums, or his employer mandates a 12-step program, or a court orders him into a recovery program.

An Action gambler rarely searches out a recovery program of his own accord. Though he may make the first call on his own, he may later admit that it was only at the prompting of someone else. Rarely will an Action gambler seek professional help unless he is advised to do so by a lawyer, or his spouse gives him an "or else" ultimatum.

When a typical Action gambler enters a self-help recovery program, he often believes that his family should immediately rally to his aid. He expects them to forgive him instantly for his misdeeds. He frequently still blames others for his actions and usually does not face the facts squarely. Often, he considers the fact that he has stopped gambling as a "badge of honor" and his ego is once again inflated. Not taking the recovery program seriously, he merely stops gambling. He does not involve himself in the recovery process and, before long, after a few meetings, after he has convinced his family that he is once again a "hero," he stops attending the program. In the blink of an eye, he is gambling again, on a progressive downward spiral through the remainder of Phase 3.

Once again out of marbles, he returns to the recovery program. Finally, he may take his gambling disease seriously. When this occurs, he has a better chance at recovery. Yet, often, the action gambler attends meetings, gambles, returns to meetings, gambles and so forth. This cycle of periodic recovery and periodic gambling may last for years and often leads to criminal activity, imprisonment or even death.

Phase 4 -- The Hopeless Phase:

Early in the study of pathological gambling, experts noted only three phases of the addiction. Many clinicians and experts who treat pathological gamblers now say that a fourth phase -- the Hopeless Phase -- exists for both Action and Escape gamblers.

For a gambler who has been through the Desperation phase, it would seem that everything bad had occurred. However, in the hopeless phase, both types of pathological gamblers emotionally "give up." They don't care if they live or die. In fact, for many, the latter is preferable. They will consider suicide during this phase. Most will commit actions which could place them in jail or prison. Clinical depression is a given. In their minds, no one cares and, no hope is available.

The Hopeless phase is the end of the road -- the time when the pathological gambler either gets help, is imprisoned, or dies.


Approximately 2 to 2.5% of Action pathological gamblers succeed in remaining abstinent for the first year. Rarely does the Action gambler remain in recovery for more than five years. These percentages reflect only gamblers seeking assistance in programs with which ACCG is familiar.

Recovery among Action gamblers is much higher when the gambler receives help through a professional provider who is trained and certified in the addiction of pathological gambling. If he completes the program, his family is involved in treatment, and the gambler and his spouse enter and remain in a 12-step recovery program, recovery is greatly accelerated. (Recovery in this instance means not gambling for at least one year).