Betting against a dragon by
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Beating the odds in gambling can feel like slaying a dragon. (Photo by Josh13 via Pixabay)

I’ve always liked the acting of James Caan, although there were a few years in the 1990s when I came way too close to emulating one of his conflicted film characters. That was Axel Reed, a college professor who lived a shadow life as a compulsive gambler, risking losing everything and everyone he valued.

After years of struggling with gambling, I learned the only way to win is to never play the game at all.

Reed’s story was laid out in the 1974 film, The Gambler. But it was also my story as an endowed professor at the University of Memphis in the 1990s.

Time on my hands

With a mandated load of only one class per semester, I had a lot of unstructured time on my hands. Much of it I used wisely; some I did not.

On the plus side, I developed ideas for journalistic workshops, planned, and implemented them. I also wrote a lot.  For a while, I was turning out about a book a year. My work got noticed in Europe, and I was asked to do several lectureships in Germany, Spain, and Latvia.

I was proud of my contributions and I would have felt even better about myself had I not put some of my free time to use in the worst possible way: gambling in the casinos just a few miles away in Tunica, Mississippi.

To distract me from the pain of losing my wife, I turned to gambling during my free time. This was a life I kept secret, and it resulted in my living a double life, each with a different set of values.

A taxing duality

This dual life was taxing, both mentally and physically, as sleep came hard and keeping my stories straight with others became even harder. Then there was the inner turmoil of dealing with a side of me that seemed a stranger. I had never been in the grip of something so dark before, and had never lived life as a double agent, serving opposing identities and values.

As an introspective person, I spend a lot of time trying to figure myself out, especially when I feel I am not living the life I want to live. As a movie buff who enjoys films that are good character studies, I have often learned things about myself in watching meticulously drawn characters on the screen.

Lesson from the desert

During my time living this double life, I remember watching the 1962 David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia. I had seen it decades before, but this time I found myself focusing mostly on the inner angst of Lawrence.  I realized the film was relevant to a lecture in my intercultural reporting class. It was also relevant to me personally.

The film is drawn, in part, from  the 1926 autobiography of Col. T. E. Lawrence (the famed Lawrence of Arabia), called Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I was trying to show the students how difficult it is to truly assimilate into another culture and, in a real way, another identity.

The young Lawrence was an adventurer and intellectual who was disillusioned with his own English culture. The Army deemed him a good man to send to Arabia as a military advisor to Bedouin forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire  of 1916 to 1918. That was beneficial to England, because Turkey had joined forces with Germany in the First World War.

Col. T.E. Lawrence

Unease at home

While in the desert, Lawrence quickly became transfixed by the Arabs and their culture and tried to replace his own English identity – with which he had become disenchanted — with an Arab one.  Here is how he describes that attempt, and its results, in his book:

“The efforts to live in the dress of the Arabs and to intimate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes; they destroyed it all for me … At the same time, I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin; it was an affectation only. Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith. Sometimes these selves would converse in the void. And then, madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.”

A maddening split

Although my situation was vastly different from Lawrence, the concept of living in two different cultural identities at the same time – the compulsive gambler and the esteemed college professor – was, in fact, similar … and maddening.

I wondered how long it would be before madness would indeed befall me as it nearly did Col. Lawrence, or when I’d be discovered and have to face a reckoning. There were times, when I actually wished that day would come soon so the double life would end. If I was going to be a career gambler and live in and out of my car, so be it. At least it would be an honest life.

In my saner moments, however, I knew I had to keep fighting my gambling addiction and work toward the time when my worthwhile life as a positive force in society would win out.

A downward spiral

I had been stacking up too many nights at the casinos losing money I could now not afford to lose. My nest egg I had saved was not nearly gone, and I was hitting the credit cards too hard, maxing out their available cash limits.

But I couldn’t shake the siren call of these damned Tunica, Mississippi, haunts, no matter what I did. I lost count of the number of nights I had tried to beat the odds by simply shoving more money at them, but the more I shoved, the more I lost. One night, it topped $10,000.

I knew I would have to reach the bottom of the pit before mounting a sustained effort to repair the holes in my sinking ship. I took a few spins at attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings, but the group therapy concept didn’t work for me and, in fact, made things even worse for a while.

GA was problematic

I realized that the last thing I needed then was to sit in a room listening to other compulsive gamblers talk about the ill-fated excitement of gambling and how it had become the most important thing in the world to them. My mind seemed to dismiss the “ill-fated” part and focus instead on the “excitement” part instead, and that triggered my own memories of how great the dopamine high of winning felt.

Most compulsive gamblers learn to minimize the memories of the losses, and that was true with me.  Time after time, I would be feeling so good driving to the casino, willingly risking the cash I had on me in the expectation of winning much more. Time after time, I would be feeling so low driving home, having lost what I brought and then gone to the ATM to withdraw even more to lose.

Although I was making a fine salary at the university, money went through me like water through a hole in the bucket.

A voice in the kudzu

It was on one of these dismal nights that a strange thing happened, which proved to be the first rung on my ladder up and out of the seemingly bottomless gambling pit. I had just lost another bundle and was feeling the utter desolation and self-loathing. I was driving back home when I pulled over to the side of an isolated stretch of country road in northern Mississippi five miles from the Memphis line.

It was around 3 a.m. as I sat there staring at nothing but the field of clinging kudzu and thinking what an apt metaphor it was for the grip that gambling had on me. Then, out of total exasperation, I began pounding the steering wheel and screaming, “I can’t take this anymore, God! I’ve tried so many different ways to get this monkey off my back, and I’ve pleaded with you for help!. I’ve tried it on my own and it’s not working.  What the hell do you want from me?!”

I don’t mean this to sound any way other the way it sounded that night, but immediately I felt a quiet but genuine response saying, “I want you.” It was both direct and enigmatic at the same time. In my mind at least, this was audible, and it stopped my ranting cold. I sat silent for a couple minutes, but it was as if I had just been able to take a deep breath for the first time since my eruption began.

Rod Serling stuff

Was it a manifestation of God? I’d like to bet on it. Even so, my faith in such a personal supreme being has ebbed as much as it’s flowed in my life. I have no sure answer for where that response came from this night; I just know it was there, and it calmed me and gave me a sliver of hope that help was not far off.

I knew this was a battle I would have to fight myself, but I also knew a loving partner would be nice to have.  Such a soul mate would give me someone else to focus on and provide me with even more reason to walk away from gambling.

A new vow

I vowed that until I found my other half, I would make what strides I could on my own, and I managed at least to greatly minimize my number of gambling days each month. I knew, however, I’d have to give it up altogether. All addictions work like that.You have to give it all up. Monsters and dragons tend to be greedy.

In time, I did summon the strength to slay this dragon, although I’m still not quite sure how I pulled that off. I was already inching away gambling when I met Annie, who would become my wife in the year 2000. All of a sudden, I had even more reason to leave the casinos behind. There was no way I wanted to lose her. But I also wanted to do it for me. I just flat wanted to be a better person, and gambling had been standing in my way.

The choice of moving forward in love, instead of allowing gambling to ruin me, was a no- brainer. Once I made that commitment, it stuck.

Gambling is now just a bad memory and one of the former hardships I speak of when I utter the thought, “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”


Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."

Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Thank you for sharing this honest portrait of gambling addiction. So glad you were able to overcome it and find love again.

  2. Dave Ventre says:

    There was a time in my life when I drank WAY too much, but I am not sure it rose to the level of addiction. In fact, for a long time I used to think to myself that I was one of the few in my family who had never experienced addiction, and thus I simply could not understand it. Then I was finally able to take a hard, analytical look at my behavior during the Maria phase of my life and thought “Ohhhhhhhh….”

  3. pattyv says:

    jim, this story was absolutely fascinating. I loved how you compared your duo self to Lawrence of Arabia. And by doing so you actually helped me to better understand the split. Also commend you for your raw honesty in detailing your struggle with that fascinating moment at 3AM on the Mississipi/Memphis line when you heard the voice “I want you!” So happy you found your way back and your lovely soulmate, but I’m real curious Jim, did you ever hear the voice again?

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thanks so much, Patty. Most of the reason I wrote this was to hopefully offer some insight into what addiction does to a person and how hard it is to break free. As to the voice, I don’t recall hearing it again. Two things, though: first, I’ve never been that lost since, so maybe there’s been no need. Second, I have experienced many small and large graces before and since. Although they were audibly muted, they nevertheless got me out of tight spots. I do know one thing about that night, though: it was not the kudzu speaking.

  4. Jim, what a painful story and what a salvation!

    We all lead somewhat of a double life, perhaps not one as potentially dangerous a one as you once did, but may we all find as happy a resolution!

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for this honest, painful story, Jim. I, too, loved the Peter O’Toole movie (his first) of T.E. Lawrence, but didn’t know about the real character’s dance with insanity, which nearly gripped you. And your amazing moment when the voice called out to you from the kudzu and you answered the call. Thank goodness you were strong enough to spin away from your dual life and find a partner who made it worthwhile.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you, Betsy. Yes, I think what Lawrence went through is what most exlerience who live a double life and/or try to embrace two vastly different cultures at the same time. I agree with his realization that such is the stuff of madness. I was fortunate, indeed.

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