His introduction to gambling began innocently enough. Will says he was about 7 or 8 years old when his dad would let him scratch off instant lottery tickets. Reflecting now on his childhood, he realizes how excited he would get. He even felt a rush collecting Monopoly pieces in a popular McDonald's game promotion.
When he was 14, Will accompanied his dad to the racetrack and picked the winning horse on his first try. And during summer camp in his late teens, he recalls playing poker for a few dollars "here and there," sometimes using pieces of Jolly Rancher candy for poker chips.
Today, Will is a member of Gamblers Anonymous.
He is 22 and a college senior, with ambitions of pursuing his master's in business administration. He has not gambled for more than seven months, but he has no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead.
"I can never go to a horse-racing track or hit a slot machine. I can't go to Vegas," he says. "I'm a compulsive gambler and I will be in recovery the rest of my life."
Gamblers Anonymous recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and business is booming. As gambling becomes more accessible and socially acceptable, it is easier than ever for people to play roulette with their lives.
"We are extremely busy and have more than tripled the number of meetings in the last 15 years," says Karen H., executive secretary of the Gamblers Anonymous international service headquarters in Los Angeles. She's a recovering addict who began gambling as a girl.
"I came in this morning and had 180 e-mails (from people seeking help). I send out about 250 literature orders every week."
And indications are that many of those gambling with their future are not even old enough to vote.
According to the National Annenberg (Pa.) Risk Survey of Youth, 11.6 percent of males 14 to 22 years old reported playing cards weekly in 2006. That compares to 2 percent of women in that age group.
Among college-age men only, the total rose 4 percentage points in one year, to 16.1 percent. It was 2.4 percent for college-age women.
Overall, 13.3 percent of men and women between 14 and 22 took part in some form of gambling in 2006.
"Youth are always risk takers," says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "But what may be happening is that people are getting into trouble quicker and with more severe consequences. We have a generation of kids, some of whom believe they can play their way through school. Gambling has become a career choice."
Although Will is the youngest member of his GA group, the demographic is changing. Problem gambling no longer fits neatly into the stereotype of middle-age men poring over racing forms and gray-haired grandmas stuffing pension quarters into slot machines.
"I see my peers, people between 18 and 21, gambling harder and faster than ever before," Will says. "A lot of kids go to card shark rooms ... ."
Young people are getting in deeper at an earlier age because they have more disposable income, access to their own or a parent's credit card and an Internet connection where they can gamble illegally online.
While some older problem gamblers say the seeds of their risk behavior were sown in their childhood, the stakes weren't as high in the past. Karen H. says her proclivity for gambling manifested itself when she was a child more than 50 years ago and she "flipped" baseball cards against a garage door with other kids.
Whoever's card landed closest to the garage won.
"I lost my Willie Mays rookie card that way," she says.
It didn't stop there.
"When I was 7 years old, I was the best card shuffler in second grade," she says.
By the time she was a soccer mom, Karen was gambling at poker clubs with the mortgage money. She even forgot to pick up her son one evening after practice because she was at a poker club.
But while society regards drug and alcohol dependency as medical or psychological problems, gambling still is seen as a moral issue. Contributing to this perception is that gamblers don't get drunk or high. They don't appear incapacitated in any way.
But the consequences can be equally devastating. Instead of losing baseball cards, young people like Will are ringing up thousands of dollars in debt, often saddling their parents with the burden of paying it off.
Here to stay
The trend isn't likely to change soon. Gambling is pervasive in our society.
A National Impact Gambling Study Commission (NIGSC) reported that Americans lost $50 billion in legal wagering in 1998 (the most recent figures available), and that total continues a dizzying climb.
"Commercial gaming has grown more rapidly than the economy at large," said Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno. "It's an
$85 billion industry, and you're not just going to turn off the spigot on that."
There are gaming casinos in 21 states, and some, like Oklahoma, have a minimum age of only 18.
Thirty-seven states and Washington, D.C., have a lottery. An 18-year-old can buy a lottery ticket in Texas. Churches sponsor bingo nights, and raffles remain a popular way to raise money.
Poker competitions such as "Celebrity Poker" and the "World Series of Poker" are televised events. Betting lines fuel the popularity of professional and college sports. Horse racing is called the sport of kings but can make a pauper of the average Joe.
Day traders "play the market" on Wall Street. Office pools fuel March Madness -- college basketball's playoffs.
Illegal online gambling is only a mouse click away.
You can gamble on your cell phone, too.
Parents of high schoolers think nothing of sanctioning casino nights during the prom season, in part because it keeps their kids away from alcohol.
The poker player
Around his college dorm, Will was known as the poker player.
"I never had any skills," he says. "I was just Will, the guy who played poker."
What had been a diversion during summer camp became an obsession in his freshman year in college.
"I played regularly with guys in the dorm," Will says. "The first month of school, we played every night."
Between his freshman and sophomore years, he gambled extensively online and lost enough money that his parents noticed and recommended that he get help.
Will, however, thought he had the situation under control. He vowed never to gamble on the Internet again.
It was an empty promise.
He continued the card games at school, rationalizing them as different than online gambling.
Eadington says that is not unusual; people form a hierarchy of gambling, separating casino and Internet gambling from bingo and lotteries.
Adds Whyte about the double standard: "It's like having different legal ages for drinking beer, wine and liquor."
And one form of gambling tends to lead to another. When he was 20, Will and a friend drove to the WinStar Casino in Oklahoma only a day after he had wrecked his truck in an accident.
"I lost $700 the first night I went," Will says. "It felt so awesome that I had gone to a casino and played poker that I didn't care about losing the money."
Even when he won, Will was unable to walk away. Most of the time, he would lose his winnings and even more. It didn't stop him.
The NIGSC reported that problem gamblers are more prone to crime and are extremely resourceful at raising cash. When Will first maxed out his credit card, he used a debit card linked to his parents' bank account for cash.
"I would literally buy a stick of gum and get $50 back," he says. "I did it six or seven times and drove up to WinStar after work to play for a couple of hours. My parents saw their checking account going down and I lied, telling them I was buying some computer parts."
He was in denial, still convinced he was in control.
"But I'd gamble on anything," he says. "I was never attracted to sports, but I'd walk into a friend's apartment and people would be watching a game, and I'd say, 'I'll bet $5 on the team in the blue shirts.' I never realized how much gambling surrounds me."
Taking back his life
After his sophomore year, Will was preparing for a trip to Mexico where he would study Spanish for 10 weeks. As other students left school for the summer, he was a solitary man in his dorm, awaiting his departure.
Bored and lonely, he gambled on the Internet, maxing out his credit card again and losing the spending money an aunt had given him for his trip.
He didn't gamble in Mexico, because there was no opportunity to do so. But he missed it and read books about gambling strategies.
When the new school year began, the dorm room card games resumed, as did his Internet gambling.
Will lost half his tuition money -- about $1,600. His dependency had reached a crisis point.
Ashamed to face his parents, he e-mailed his mother and confessed he needed help. He reached out to a friend who is a recovering alcoholic and has been sober for 10 years.
The friend took Will to his first meeting at Gamblers Anonymous.
"It was like an out-of-body experience," Will says. "I felt connected to the people in the room."
He has been attending meetings ever since.
He also has a job that helps him pay expenses and his debt.
His mother worries about the stress of a full workload and suggested he cut back to two GA meetings.
"But I told her the reason that I'm not stressed is because I go to meetings," Will says. "I'm nowhere near the potential for recovery that I have."
His quality of life has improved, too. Will has lost 40 pounds and exercises regularly. He has a better relationship with his parents, even spending many Saturdays with them. He returned a raffle ticket that his dad sent him because "it's gambling."
Like most recovering addicts, he counts the days and months he has been clean. Someday, he hopes to boast about the number of years it has been. He says he is fortunate that he sought help early in his life.
"I see people who gambled for 30 years before getting help. They have a wife, kids and mortgages," he says. "I have my father, mother and friends. Those relationships are more easily mended."
If you or a member of your family or a friend has a gambling problem, call the Gamblers Anonymous national hot line, 1-888-424-3577.