Hitting the Jackpot
About the Guest
Michael DiMarco, CEO of Hungry Planet and co-author with his wife, Hayley, of several books including Marriable, The Art of the First Date, and The Art of Reflection, tells Dennis Rainey how he became a gambling addict and how he rationalized his behavior and kept his secret hidden.
Michael DiMarco tells how he became a gambling addict and how he rationalized his behavior and kept his secret hidden.
Hitting the Jackpot
Bob: The first time Michael DiMarco set his foot in a casino, he realized he had a problem.
Michael: It was probably about 9 pm or so, and I continued to gamble until 3 in the morning. I had no idea how many chips I had—I didn't know what time of day it was, and I was so tired. I gathered up all my chips. I slipped off my stool at the blackjack table. I took one step, and I fainted—I just face-planted into the ground—my chips went scattering. But when I woke up, I was staring up at a security guard. A bunch of kindhearted gamblers gathered up my chips and gave them to me. I just kind of stumbled back to my room and went to sleep.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, January 1st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. What started a one-evening diversion for Michael DiMarco ended, a few months later, in jail. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. Happy New Year to all of our listeners—welcome to 2015. Can I start today’s program and start the year with a true confession?
Dennis: Sure. I don't think that's ever stopped you in the past! [Laughter]
Bob: I lived for a while out in Northern California; okay? And there was a particular weekend when my wife flew back home to be with the family. I was all alone for the weekend.
Dennis: You did not go across the border.
Bob: I decided—I was just a couple hours from—
Bob: —from Reno; yes. I thought: “You know, I've never done this. I'm just going to drive on up and go in a casino and see what it's like. I'm taking 50 bucks, and I'll treat it like recreational money”; you know? Just like the same way you'd take 50 bucks and go to a football game—“I'll take 50 bucks and go play blackjack for the afternoon—just see how it is.”
Dennis: You did that?
Bob: I did.
Bob: Let me tell you the rest of the story; okay?
Bob: I played blackjack for about two hours. At the end of the two hours, I was up. My 50 bucks—
Dennis: —had turned in 55?
Bob: —had turned into 68; okay?
Dennis: Ooooh; Ooooh.
Bob: I was up—I was making money. I thought: "Do you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to cash out, and I'm going to go home a winner." I went over to the window—I cashed out. I walked to the door; and I thought: "Wait a sec. I'm hot today. Why am I cashing out when I am hot today?"
I went back—I got the chips back. I went back to the table; and two hours later, I was out of money. The 50 was gone, and I had actually—I'd saved 10 bucks aside so that I could get dinner before I went back home. I pulled those 10 out, and that was gone within about—
Dennis: Oh, really?
Bob: Yes; yes. I went home hungry that night; and I also went home, thinking: "It is not good for me to be here. This would not be a good place for me to be around." I haven't been back in a casino since then.
Dennis: You know, if you have a confession, I have one. When I was a college student, I took the southern route to Southern California. As you know, that comes—
Bob: It takes you across the Hoover Dam; doesn't it?
Dennis: It does, and it's close to Vegas. I'd never seen The Strip, so—I wasn't quite as wealthy as you. I took 15 bucks in; and I played what was then the penny slots. I'm sure they do not have penny slots.
Bob: Penny slots?—nooooo.
Dennis: But I lost it all. I don't think I was ever up.
Bob: All 15 bucks just ch-ching right down the slot.
Dennis: All 15 bucks. You know, there was a lot of entertainment for that, but I had a similar experience to you—I thought, "This is not good for me to be here." Now, I really
felt a draw—
I can't even explain it—the competitive nature of gambling, as a young man. I thought: "You know what? I don't think I belong in this place."
And I think there are, undoubtedly, some listeners who can identify with me and maybe some others, who don't identify, but who are hooked on gambling. We have a couple of guests with us on FamilyLife Today who know a little bit about the compulsive nature of a gambler. Michael and Hayley DiMarco join us on FamilyLife Today. Hayley, Michael, welcome to our broadcast.
Michael: Thanks a lot.
Dennis: Michael has written a book called All In: Gambling on Life, Love, & Faith in a World of Risk. Although the book is not totally about gambling, you used that metaphor throughout the entire book. Michael, you had a similar experience to both Bob and my experience about gambling—
Michael: I did but—
Dennis: —except you didn't—
Michael: I won.
Dennis: You won.
Michael: I won my first time. Like a lot of people in their careers, I had an opportunity—or, actually, a requirement—to go attend a business convention in Las Vegas.
Bob: Who were you working for at the time?
Michael: I was working for a university. I was head women's volleyball coach, and there was a huge recruiting opportunity. They have a large volleyball tournament there every year. I thought, "Well, I'm going to go down there and recruit."
Dennis: You were single.
Michael: I was single.
Dennis: How old were you, at the time?
Michael: I was—wow!—I think I was 30—29 or 30.
Dennis: Okay. So you went alone, pretty much.
Michael: I went alone, going to meet up with other fellow coaches and whatnot. I went to see a few volleyball matches—people that I had gone to scout. I went back to my hotel room, and I had never gambled before—ever—at least, in the traditional sense. I grew up as one of the original video gamers—as far as like playing. My best Christmas ever was playing—or getting—an Atari video game system when I was 13.
I mean, I was a video game junkie, which kind of stunted my maturity; but that's another story.
So, I go back to my hotel. I thought: "Well, I'm going to gamble a little bit. I'm just going to try it out."
Dennis: How much—how much?
Michael: I think I took $60 out of the ATM, which—
Bob: The same kind of thing I had in mind; right?
Michael: Yes, with the exception of—you know, he was up 18 bucks after two hours. I mean, in those days—that would be up a lot—but just in gas alone, now, that would just get you halfway to Reno probably. [Laughter] But, yes, I had $60. I played blackjack, a game that I fairly-well understood. I mean, I just could not lose—I mean, I lost a few hands; but I just could not lose. After about six hours of sitting—I mean, I have a bladder like a camel—so I can sit a long time. [Laughter] But after six hours / after $60, I was up to about $800.
Michael: And instantly—when I’m up and I’m starting to bet bigger, the pit boss—which is the person / not the dealer—but they tend to arrange tables in a semi-circle or a circle—he’s pretty much the manager of all those tables. They are trained—when someone starts winning big and betting big, they’re trained to go over and offer a free dinner, or a free meal, or if you really start betting big, maybe even “comping” your hotel room—so it’s free. He “comped” me a free dinner; and I was like” “Wow! Great.”
What he really wanted me to do was—get up, leave the table, leave that dealer / leave that hot streak, and cool off a bit. Also, he wanted me to feel like a “big shot.” The ultimate industry for hospitably—at least, manufactured insincere hospitality—is the gaming industry—from the temperature of the casino, to the price of the food, to the amount of the food, the lighting, the temperature of the casino.
Everything is tuned to you, physiologically, to get you in the right mode/the right mood to gamble.
Hayley: Well, and you told me the reason there’s no windows is so you don’t know what time of day it is.
Michael: That’s right. They’ve actually done scientific studies to measure the right amount of lighting in there so you don’t feel like it is day and you don’t feel like it’s night.
Bob: So, at the end of your six hours—here, in this place that’s all excitement—and you’re the new favorite in the casino / you’re their best friend—
Michael: At least, I feel that way.
Bob: That’s right.
Michael: I mean, they have the big whales, with their millions of dollars; but yes, I took a quick meal break. I came back, and it was probably about 9 pm or so. I continued to gamble until 3 in the morning—continuing to win—until about 2 in the morning. I started on a losing streak. Then, I realized I had no idea how many chips I had—I didn't know what time of day it was, and I was so tired. I wasn't hydrating.
I gathered up all my chips. I slipped off my stool at the blackjack table, and I took one step; and I fainted—I just face-planted into the ground—my chips went scattering.
Michael: Yes. But when I woke up, I was staring up at a security guard. A bunch of kindhearted gamblers, if you can imagine that, gathered up my chips and gave them to me. I just kind of stumbled back to my room and went to sleep. What the security guard told me was that it's very common for first-time gamblers to get so lost in the moment that they forget to hydrate / they forget to eat. They're just so enraptured—I forget the term—but I think they call it "gambling drunk" or "first-timer drunk"—things like that. So, the security guard sees it all the time.
Bob: And you'd turned $60 into hundreds of dollars in a few hours, feeling great about yourself. You had to think: "Man! Where has this been all my life?"
Michael: Exactly. The thing is—when I flew back home, I lived in a small town in northern Washington. I had always known about some of the tribal-run casinos in the area.
They weren't close to where I lived, but they were about an hour's drive. All of a sudden, I'm thinking, "Well, I can manufacture the same thing there.” And the thing is—at first, I did. I went from taking $60 and turning it into $800. Shortly after that, I took $400 and turned it into $10,000.
Bob: My goodness.
Michael: Right. But, really, that was not me doing anything. What that was—was dumb luck—if you want to call it that—because the odds are always in the house's favor. When you continue to gamble, you're guaranteed to lose. What I didn't realize was—at first, gambling, for me, was a curiosity/excitement—just recreation. That's the great lie: "Well, I'm going to spend it just…—I'd spend $60 on a lift ticket—“I'll just do this.”
Well, what gambling became for me was, basically, an escape. I would go gambling if I was happy / I would go gambling if I was depressed—to celebrate something / to get away from someone I was arguing with—a girlfriend, et cetera. So, it really became an all-encompassing thing, where I didn't care if I won or not.
Bob: Where were you spiritually, at the time?
Michael: Oh, I was in a spiritual desert. I was the king of living a double life, and gambling really is the addiction of the double life. With some addictions, like alcoholism or substance abuse, you can see physiological changes in your loved ones when they struggle with it. But with a gambler, there's no outward change. Everything looks the same, and gamblers become expert liars.
Bob: But you had grown up in a Christian home—you'd come to Christ when?
Michael: Actually, I came to Christ when I was a high school senior. I had grown up in a moral family but really never knew about a personal relationship with Christ.
Bob: Did anything ever click with you, as you sat down at the tables, going, "I'm not sure this is right"?
Michael: Oh, absolutely; absolutely. But as we're so good at doing—as sinful creatures/as fallen men—I was easily able to compartmentalize / to shut off that little voice that really was a big voice. I had been doing that a lot in my life decisions, over 10 or 20 years, where I was helping with college group leadership but, yet, I was sleeping with my girlfriend. I was going off and starting a career but, yet, not getting plugged into a church.
Really, my conversion, I think, when I was a senior in high school, was an intellectual one, which I think that link is necessary—I had that "Aha!" moment: "Oh, okay, I see a personal relationship with Christ." But the conversion that I really needed and I was waiting for was a conversion of the will, and that didn't happen until I was in a jail cell.
Dennis: Let me ask you a question about that because—and I'm not interested in placing the blame on the Christian community here around your addiction to gambling—but I would like to ask the question: “What could the Christian community have done differently in terms of equipping you to live your life in a culture that has all these opportunities for addictions?”
Michael: Boy, well, I'm right there with you. As far as my addiction and my life choices, they were mine. I often tell people that struggle with addiction, no matter what it is: “God doesn't take the shovel out of your hands. He lets you keep digging until you drop the shovel, and you've reached your bottom. For anyone that's out there—that's struggling with this—it can get deeper. Don't think that you're at your bottom, and you can continue the behavior.”
As far as the Christian community is concerned—I think, for me, the big problem, especially with men or young men, is that men are allowed to stay teenagers/or boys into their 30s—and that was my case. There's no “scarlet letter” in society anymore for young men living at home, or spending all day playing video games, or going out and snowboarding all day.
It used to be—in society—I grew up—my father was quite old when he had me, and he was a part of that Greatest Generation—fought in World War II, et cetera. For him, when he was 13 years old, his grandparents sent him across the United States to find a new home for them in California—this is right after the Depression. No one would ever think of sending their 13-year-old across country to do something like that anymore because society has changed. It's a much more dangerous place, but also just because we don't set goals for our young men to become men.
Bob: Well, let me take you back to when you're 30. You've just developed this new appetite. There are casinos, an hour away—that invite you to come and indulge your appetite.
How often were you going gaming?
Michael: Gaming, yes. Yes, that is—it's not the gambling industry—it's the gaming industry—like it is Monopoly money; right? I had a couple of instances within the three-/ four-year period that I was gambling quite a bit, where I did have moments of clarity, where I said, "I have to stop this."
And so there was a point where I was—I think it was about five months—cold turkey, where I stopped. I was attending, like, Gamblers Anonymous meetings—things like that. But I still kept it hidden. I didn't out myself as a compulsive gambler in public—I did in a small room, with a dozen other people—but it was daily. I mean, it was daily as long as I had money.
Dennis: I want to ask you just a real fundamental question—I think we're all assuming we know what gambling is—and I think we can compartmentalize it—but gambling is really pervasive across the country; isn't it?
Michael: It is. Surprisingly, there's only two states where gambling is outlawed—and that's Hawaii and Utah—illegal gambling. Gambling, in essence, is any game of chance that involves statistical odds where money or something else of value is wagered. So, that's not just casinos; but that's your lottery scratch ticket or your Pick Six numbers. That's—
Dennis: Horse racing.
Michael: Horse racing—well, sports betting is huge—huge one. There's a statistic that says close to 80 percent of teenagers have placed a bet—
Dennis: On what?
Michael: —on sporting events, playing Texas Hold 'Em poker, playing online gambling.
Dennis: You're saying girls too?
Michael: Girls as well. Texas Hold 'Em poker, specifically, is so in the public consciousness—it's on ESPN, it's on the Arts & Entertainment network as Celebrity Poker Showdown, where your favorite Hollywood celebrities play poker for charity.
The thing I like to remind people about poker is that's the only gambling where you're looking at actual human beings, across the table, just like you, that are trying to take your money; and you're trying to take theirs. The funny thing is—even though Texas Hold 'Em poker is about strategy, and mathematics, and reading people—it's really adversarial. I can't imagine a more un-Christlike attitude—to sit across from someone and say: "You know what? For fun, I'm going to try and take your money." It just doesn't compute.
Bob: Okay, then, let me just ask you this, as kind of a practical question for parents—because, when I was in high school, we used to go over to Tom and Tim Castley's house on Friday nights and played penny ante poker, just for recreation / just for fun.
Okay, I've got a son—because of Texas Hold 'Em all over the place, is saying, "Hey, I want to go over to Kyle's house—they're playing poker." Should I say, "No, son”? “Dad—it's a card—we're playing penny ante—it's not a big deal." What do you think?
Michael: Well, if you're asking me what to tell your son, I can't tell you that—I can't tell you that. The one—see—
Dennis: Okay, Michael, what would you tell your son?
Michael: I don't have one! [Laughter]
Dennis: No, no, no, no.
Michael: What I would say is—I would share with him my past experience because, really, we believe—my wife and I believe—that teenagers—because we work with them so much—teens need to hear parents' experiences, and how they either struggled, or were tempted, or triumphed over addiction or what have you.
So, what I would say to my son would be probably totally different than what you would say to your son just because of my experiences. But I wouldn't, categorically, rule out not letting him go.
One of the most fun times of my college experience, outside of getting straight As—right?—was playing—we called it "Piggybank Poker," where you brought all of your—it was nickel, dimes, and quarters. It was money that you never spent—it was sitting on the table.
The tricky thing, now, is how easy it is to get involved in real stakes, gambling online. For the very first time in history—two years ago, pornography was not the number-one moneymaker on the internet—it was online dating, which is how Hayley and I originally met—another story. Now, for the first time, online gambling has surpassed both of them. Just the availability of it, online, really creates another pitfall.
Bob: And I heard a statistic, Dennis, yesterday—that it's $12 billion, right now, every year in online gambling. The legislature is trying to decide, “Do we tax it, or do we outlaw it?”—that debate is going on.
But, in the meantime, you've got families that are being destroyed by gambling, whether it's online gambling, or casino gambling, or even lottery ticket gambling.
Dennis: Yes; and if I had a son who asked me that question, I think Barbara and I would have pulled back and said: "Okay, what do we believe about the subject? What do we believe the Bible teaches about it?" Come to your own convictions and your conclusions and then build the fence at the top of the cliff and decide what you're going to say to your son in terms of if you let him go, how you'd warn him, and what would be the cautions.
And going back to my question to you—what do you wish somebody had said to you? If you're sending a son into that poker game, are you, on the other hand, going to declare him to be man and call him to the right stuff, as a father? So, it's not just a matter of letting him go, which I know Bob's not doing that, anyway.
He's calling his son to be a biblical man—a Christ-follower man. That, in my opinion, is far more important than the issue of gambling; although it's a choice, and we have to decide what we believe.
Bob: You do have to wonder, as a parent—if a group of high school kids, coming over to your house to play poker on a Friday night, or if online blackjack games—where you are playing / you’re not gambling—you’re playing for fun/for free—but you wonder, “Is this just a gateway?”
I mean, I remember the very first cell phone I had—blackjack was included as a game on the cell phone. I thought, "Do they just put this on here as kind of a free candy to get you hooked on something that can ultimately lead you to…”—well, to where it led you, Michael—a place where it's got a stronghold in your life / it’s become an idol to you.
You remember, a while back, we had David Powlison and Ed Welch as guests on our program. Ed has written a book about addiction—it’s called Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave. I’m just thinking, as you start a new year, it’s a good thing to pull back and take inventory: “Are there places in your life, are there habits, are there patterns, are there strongholds, are there addictions that you want to take seriously this year—and you want, with God’s help, to get victory over some of these things? I think reading Ed’s book would be helpful for a lot of our listeners.
Again, the book is titled Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave. You can find out more about the book when you go to our website, which is FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link at the top of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.” There’s information available there about Ed Welch’s book, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave. You can order a copy of the book from us, online, if you’d like.
There’s also a link available there to an interview we did with Ed Welch on this subject. You can listen to the audio or download the audio for free. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link at the top of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.” Make 2015 a year where you really start to address some of these destructive issues in your life.
Now, let me say a quick word of thanks, again, to the many FamilyLife Today listeners that we heard from during the month of December. We won’t know for another few days exactly how our year ended up because we still have letters coming in that were postmarked yesterday. We have to sort through all the mail before we see how things end up; but we do want to say, “Thank you,” to those of you who support this ministry on a regular basis. We are grateful for your partnership with us—we couldn’t do what we do without your help. We hope that 2015 is a year of great spiritual growth in your life—a year where God is powerfully at work in your marriage and in your family. We appreciate you linking arms with us, here at FamilyLife Today.
Thanks for your financial support.
And we want to invite you back tomorrow. Michael DiMarco is going to be back, along with his wife Hayley. We’re going to hear—we’ll really hear Part Two of your story—how things ended up for the DiMarcos—and how God intervened and addressed this issue of compulsive behavior in Michael’s life. Hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. Welcome to 2015. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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