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‘I Was a 30-Year-Old Loser Addicted to Poker’

How overcoming a gambling obsession helped one man reevaluate his entire outlook on life

Every person has a lowest point: A moment in their life where, whatever the cause, it seems impossible that things could get any worse. These intensely personal experiences come in many different forms, but they all share one thing in common: The question of, how will I ever dig my way out? In this series, we’ll be talking to the people who somehow managed to pull themselves from the deepest depths and once again find steady ground.

Name: Drew
Age: 39
Occupation: Biopharmaceutical industry; blogger
Rock-bottom moment: Losing ten grand in a single hand of online poker while at work

The First Taste

Back in college, a buddy of mine from high school and I drove to Atlantic City (from D.C.) when we were both home for the weekend. We put on sport coats because I remember him saying they would make us look older. We gambled all night and drove home through the wee hours because we’d lost all our money and didn’t have enough to stay up there in a hotel.

Being 19 or 20, the whole thing just felt exciting and grownup. There was a sort of carelessness about it, too, that was a little bit rebellious: You win on one hand, lose on another, and it’s like, “Ah, I have the emotional maturity to deal with that.”

We made subsequent trips with our buddies. I remember feeling bad when I won and my friends lost, and I’d offer to replace their original stake so that they at least came home even. It wasn’t really altruistic, though — it was because I wanted the high to continue, and I didn’t want their losses dragging me down. It was like, “Here, take some of my winnings so that I can enjoy my winnings.”

The Love Affair Takes Hold — And Starts to Spin Out-of-Control

In 2003, Chris Moneymaker, a no-name accountant, won more than a million bucks at the World Series of Poker, and poker just exploded. It exploded online and everyone was playing home games, so around then, I really got into poker.

There was an allure to the game: If you’re smarter than everyone, you can win money. It’s not just the turn of the card, it’s not just the roll of the dice, it’s, “I’m intellectually superior and cunning, and as such, I can win money at this.” So it fed my ego to learn something and then beat other people at it.

I started playing at work. But at this sales-operations job, nobody gave a shit, and I didn’t get fired because I wasn’t important. I was pretty worthless and that just kind of feeds on itself, like, “Well, fuck them, if they’re not gonna check up on me, I’m just gonna play more.” And if I play more, then I’ll feel more worthless. It’s a fucking spiral.

I’d never worked so hard at anything in my adult life like I did at poker — the last time I remember working so hard on something was learning to skate backwards when I first started playing hockey at eight or nine years old. I read poker books. I took training courses online. I was super disciplined about tracking my wins and losses. I’d come home from work — and again, fuckin’ loser, I was living with my mom at the time — and I’d fire up the computer, do an hour of training and reading and then I’d play for two to five hours. When you’re doing that, there’s very little sleep involved, but in the context of where players were back then, I got pretty good. I won tens of thousands of dollars — not hundreds of thousands or millions like the very good guys were, but I got decently good at something by working hard at it.

It was all incremental winnings, grinding it out and being disciplined — it didn’t come through one crazy risk and that felt really good. I didn’t capture that feeling again until years later when I started running marathons and understanding the incrementalism of training and preparation: The end result is the 26 miles, but prior to that, it’s mile after mile of grinding. That’s the positive out of it — I learned that if you do things incrementally in sort of a boring way for days upon days upon days, you get to that pinnacle moment.

I would have described poker back then as a hobby that made me some money and as an intellectual pursuit, because hey, I’m learning about numbers, and about emotional control and stuff like that. But the thing about addiction is it disrupts your normal, day-to-day life: It’s not okay to be playing till two, three or four in the morning and then getting up at seven to go to work — and it’s not okay to be playing during work.

My mom was concerned, but she also saw me studying books and watching online tutorials and this and that, so that helped justify it in her mind as well. I won a good amount of money, moved out, paid off my debts, went to Australia and visited my dad, bought a nice new MacBook and made a downpayment on a condo. But there, without my mom or someone else being there to take care of me so I couldn’t be all-consumed by this so-called hobby, I lost control. No discipline, no emotional control, living by myself and dealing with that… I don’t know. It just wasn’t good.

Losing Ten Grand on a Single Hand

Around this time, I had tens of thousands of dollars, so I started playing at much higher stakes on an “easy site” where the players weren’t very good. So I was feeling very confident. Sitting at my desk at work one day, there was a classic sort of movie moment: I had pocket aces. It doesn’t get more cliché than that. The other guy had pocket 10s. We shoved all our money in, pre-flop. A 10 came on the board, and I lost $10,000 just like that.

A coworker opened my office door immediately after it happened, and I just remember my heart beating out of my chest and having to talk to her in a complete daze. It felt like I was underwater, not hearing anything that she said. That night I met up with a friend in grad school. I got absolutely hammered and jumped into this huge bush, fell right through and tore off the middle of my lip. I ended up spending the night in the ER with the doctor sewing up my lip. It was like, “Yeah dude, you’re fucking up your life in every way possible.”

But I kept playing after that. You hear the clichés of addiction, of how everything has to be taken from you. One day in 2011, I was driving across a bridge into D.C. in traffic that was crawling, and a police car pulled me over. He said, “Did you know you have a DUI?” And I said, “Yeah, back in 2001.” And he goes, “You’ve been driving on a suspended license.” I thought, How is this possible? So they towed my car. I was 30 years old at that point, I was in a relationship with an alcoholic, and I was working at an internship three days a week for no money while I went to grad school, so I was piling up both student loan debt and personal debt from continuing to gamble and not being responsible and working a real job. I started having to ride to parties on a bike in the rain — I remember just getting soaked. I was a loser. All that stuff led to a spiral where I realized I had to get my shit together and grow up.

Getting Help

I’d been to a therapist in my teens, and it was a terrible experience. I tried a couple times in my 20s, and they were just uninterested. I remember one guy falling asleep while I was talking to him, so I was like, “Fuck that!” Then my mom got a recommendation for a guy, he was probably five years older than me and super engaged, totally understanding and on my wavelength. He’s like, “We’re gonna nip this.”

We only have so many hours in a day and months in a year and years in our life, so therapy helped me realize the hours and hours and hours I was wasting playing poker. You could imagine a guy with a needle in his arm, or an alcoholic, waking up years later and thinking, Where the fuck did those years go? It wasn’t dissimilar for me. I was sleepwalking through life, and five years basically melted away where I went from being a 25-year-old kid to a 30-year-old loser.

In therapy we started to replace the minutes and hours and days with different activities. One of those was CrossFit, another was learning to play guitar, another was trying to get out of dating alcoholics and date women who wouldn’t get drunk and hit me! So when you replace those hours and months and years with healthy activities, you’re just like, “Fuck, no — no, no, no, I’m not gonna sit in front of this goddamn computer and click this mouse.” There’s so much more out there in the world. And that broke the cycle.

Life After Gambling

When you’re not gambling anymore, your excuses, especially as an introvert, fall away. I had this hobby that was all-consuming, so I had an excuse not to go out on a Friday night. As that void reveals itself, you’re like, “Fuck, I haven’t read an interesting book in five years.” My high school friends, whom I love, have all been going on ski trips, meeting girls, getting married and having kids, and here I am at 30; I gotta fill that void. So I slowly started reconnecting with friends, and I slowly started dating in healthy relationships. I went on a trip out west with my dad and rediscovered some national parks. I went on some solo trips skiing and rediscovered my love for it. I got a dog. For the last seven years, I’ve been filling that void with old and new interests, but mostly old interests from when I was a teenager, like running, skiing and going to concerts.

What was the pain I was trying to numb that whole time? I just had this fucking void in my life since I got to college and was let down by it. I didn’t make much of myself because pretty much everything had been given to me; my view going into college was like, “Okay, I’ll just do this for four years, and a beautiful wife and a lucrative job will be given to me, and I’ll graduate with that degree and everything will be given to me.” I was a naïve, spoiled kid, and it took me another 10 or 11 years to grow up.

I’m married and have a three-month-old kid now. I’m so glad that I’m not some loser that plays video games and watches TV all day, because I’m psyched to go skiing with him, psyched to hike Glacier National Park with him — things like that. But mainly, I’m psyched to be a totally different person for him and not anything like the person I was before.