By David Payne Purdum / @DavidPurdum
It was 1968 in North Bergen, N.J. Two grand bought a new car.
Compulsive gambler Arnie Wexler was down $5K, approximately a year?s salary. He was on his way to see the man.
Wexler, a 30-year-old plant manager for a Fortune 500 company, stepped inside his regular social club. He walked through the smoky downstairs card room, where he had played in a Greek Rummy game full of ?bookmakers and shylocks? since he was a teen.
Then, he headed up the stairs to Petey?s office.
Wexler had spent a lot of time in that office, which had a refrigerator, five telephones and minimal furniture. He had worked the phones and hooked up bettors with Petey for years. He received a cut of the players? losses, but almost always gambled away profits before he saw any.
Five months earlier, in November of 1967, Wexler had borrowed $5,000 from a loan shark, who also happened to be Petey?s brother. While making $125 a week, he had been paying $550 a month in interest . He was betting much more, sometimes on 50 games over a weekend.
Married with two kids, Wexler?s home life had fallen apart long ago. He had made three trips to the racetrack while his wife went through 37 hours of labor during the birth of their first child. With six outstanding loans, he?d look at his family, swear that he?d stop gambling then cry himself to sleep. The first thing he did when he woke up, however, was buy the daily racing form. When a bookie cut him off, he went straight home and sold the family car to a neighbor to pay off his debt. It was one rock bottom after another.
But this particular April day was different. He entered Petey?s office, looked at his longtime bookie and told him that he was a compulsive gambler and was quitting.
Petey wasn?t buying it.
?He opened a drawer, and said, ?I don?t care where the fuck you get the money,? and pulled out a gun and gave it to me,? recalled Wexler.
It?s now been 45 years since Wexler last placed a bet.
On Opening Day of the 1968 baseball season, he put $20 on a two-team parlay. Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals cashed the first leg of his parlay. He needed Tom Seaver and the Mets to beat Juan Marichal and the Giants to complete the parlay.
?In the bottom of the ninth, the Giants came up with four runs and beat me,? Wexler said. ?That was the last bet I ever made.?
Days later, he was in Petey?s office, contemplating the offer of the gun. Wexler left the gun there and came back to see Petey 10 straight days until he finally convinced him to take a $25-per-week payoff plan.
It was 1994. The phones kept ringing.
Wexler, who was head of the Council on Compulsive Gambling at the time, had just done the Oprah Winfrey Show.
He and his staff were manning six phone lines. They couldn?t keep up with all the calls from distressed gamblers looking for help. At the end of the day, the phone register showed 5,000 calls. By the end of the week, there had been 10,000.
Wexler wants to help them all, but admits keeping 1 of 10 clean is a lofty goal. But even now, the 75-year-old tries. He and his wife Shelia have trained approximately 40,000 casino employees on the signs of compulsive gambling. He blogs and sends out press releases about his story. He holds nothing back.
?Why do you open yourself up like this and admit these things publicly?? Howard Cosell once asked Wexler.
?The answer is I?ve been there,? he replied. ?I know what it does to people and that?s what helps me recover, opening myself up and be real about what I did with my life. But the real thing that I?ve done is the recovery piece.?
I?ve been covering the gaming industry for five years. I?ve written hundreds of stories about big bets, miraculous winning streaks and crazy long shots. Sadly, this was my first about compulsive gambling.
?I am sure you have come in contact with lots of addicted gamblers and never knew it,? Wexler told me. ?And they for sure would not tell you had the addiction; some may not have known it. Gambling is the invisible disease. There are no track marks, dilated pupils or the smell of alcohol. I?ve had judges refuse to acknowledge it.?
This article was originally published in the summer of 2012 and has been updated.