Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling, Inc.

ARIZONA HELPLINE 1-800-777-7207

Action or Escape Gambler

Differences in Pathological Gamblers in Arizona

Until the 1990s, most clinical studies of pathological gambling were conducted using male compulsive gamblers; thus, much of the information available about the disease was specific to male "action" gamblers. Yet many of the problem gamblers who called the Arizona Council helpline during the 1990s clearly did not fit the "action gambler" mold.

We began to identify another type of compulsive gambler -- the Escape Gambler. Escape gamblers have a much different profile than traditional Action gamblers and include men as well as women.


Many "action" gamblers are domineering, controlling, manipulative men with large egos. They see themselves as friendly, sociable, gregarious and generous. Their average IQ is over 120. They are energetic, assertive, persuasive and confident. In spite of all this, they usually have low self esteem. Historically, they started gambling at an early age, often in their teens, placing small bets on sporting events or playing cards with friends or relatives. They progress through the four phases of the disorder over a 10- to 30-year time span.


Action compulsive gamblers gamble primarily at "skill" games such as poker or other card games, craps or other dice games, horse and dog racing and sports betting. These gamblers dominate both legal and illegal sports betting. They gamble to beat other individuals or the "house" and often believe they can develop a system to achieve this goal. During the desperation phase of the disease, action gamblers many begin to gamble specifically for escape, medicating the pain they are feeling from the destruction created by their gambling with the narcotic-like effect of slot or, more likely, video poker machines.


The Winning Phase:

During the winning phase (first 3 to 5 years), the Action gambler wins more often than he loses. He probably experiences a "big win" -- an amount equal to at least a month’s normal salary and, sometimes, as much as a year's normal salary or more. This winning phase and, specifically, a major early win, gives him the illusion that he is smarter than others and, of course, a superior gambler. Action gamblers frequently believe themselves capable of "turning professional" and may even consider themselves professional gamblers.

As these gamblers progress through the winning phase, they begin to increase the time spent gambling. They begin to gamble more often and for larger amounts of money. Eventually, they begin to lose consistently.

The Losing Phase:

The losing phase usually lasts more than five years. The Action gambler begins betting even larger amounts and gambles more often. He believes he is simply on a "losing streak." He doubles up on bets and stays in hands when he knows he should fold. He bets on "long shots," knowing they don’t have much of a chance but will pay more. He loses much more often than he wins. These frequent losses cause him to gamble even more in order to win back his money -- he is now "chasing his losses." He borrows money with which to gamble. The lying has already begun; he must lie to cover his tracks. He must lie to convince people he is still the "happy go lucky gambler" and all around "good guy." He begins to lie about everything, often when the truth would serve him better. He continues to boast about his gambling skills. He talks often about his wins, rarely about his losses.

At some point, he has his first major set back. Deep in financial trouble, he may convince his family or employer of some phony catastrophy or disaster which requires a loan. Most probably, he obtains his first "bailout." He asks for more than he needs to cover his losses, providing extra "gambling dollars." He sees the "bailout" as a win. He is back in action, gambling even more feverishly than before.

The Desperation Phase:

This phase may be short or may last for many years. The majority of the gambler’s time is spent either thinking about gambling, planning his next bet, or in action. He no longer has control over his actions. In order to relieve the inner pain, he must gamble. He knows he will lose, but it does not matter. His lying is completely out of control. When others don’t believe his lies, he becomes angry with them. He blames others for his problems. He must obtain the money with which to gamble at all costs. His family is in shambles. His loved ones have already left or are on the verge of leaving. Illegal activity may be present. He may be embezzling money or stealing it in other ways. He will consider these as "loans" to be paid back as soon as he makes a big win. He is still often able to present an outward appearance of being in control.

His wife and children (if they are still around) are suffering in many ways: the rent or house payment is overdue; the utilities may have even been turned off. Few relatives even speak to them anymore. They are on a cash only basis with merchants. Credit cards are "maxed out." His wife knows he is gambling. She knows he continually lies. She has heard him say a thousand times that he will stop, that everything will be okay. She is suffering from depression but, because she still has a sense of false pride, she doesn't want anyone to know how desperate they are. She pleads with him to just stop. Yet he continues to gamble. She is afraid to answer the phone, fearing it will be still another bill collector or, worse, her relatives wanting their money. Her life and her children's is spiraling downward toward an unknown end. She is frequently convinced that it is somehow her fault. The gambler often has an outward appearance, even at this stage, of being in total control. He is still convinced that everyone believes his lies. He becomes angry when they don't. Outwardly, he blames everyone but himself for the unfortunate circumstances now occurring. Inwardly, the gambler is in severe anguish. He truly loves his family and wants things to be as they used to be. He wants respect and stability, but he has to gamble. He can't tell you why, but he has to gamble. He has to be in action. He is living in a dream world, knowing he can't win. Punishing himself, he wants it to end. He has to gamble because it is the only way he can relieve the pain. He thinks about self destruction and, probably more often than most would like to believe, attempts or commits suicide.

His significant other’s pride and lack of knowledge about the disorder will not allow her to face the fact that she must take action. Unfortunately, it may take something like an arrest, a suicide attempt, or some other traumatic event to occur before she finally offers an ultimatum or takes the kids and leaves the gambler.

In the Desperation phase, Action and Escape gamblers share many of the same symptoms. They no longer have any power over gambling. Gambling itself is in control.

The Action gambler, more often than not, is forced into recovery only after he has exhausted all means of obtaining money with which to gamble. Frequently, he is facing legal issues. His spouse or significant others force him into recovery with ultimatums, or his employer mandates a 12-step program, or a court orders him into a recovery program.

An Action gambler rarely searches out a recovery program of his own accord. Though he may make the first call on his own, he may later admit that it was only at the prompting of someone else. Rarely will an Action gambler seek professional help unless he is advised to do so by a lawyer, or his spouse gives him an "or else" ultimatum.

When a typical Action gambler enters a self-help recovery program, he often believes that his family should immediately rally to his aid. He expects them to forgive him instantly for his misdeeds. He frequently still blames others for his actions and usually does not face the facts squarely. Often, he considers the fact that he has stopped gambling as a "badge of honor" and his ego is once again inflated. Not taking the recovery program seriously, he merely stops gambling. He does not involve himself in the recovery process and, before long, after a few meetings, after he has convinced his family that he is once again a "hero," he stops attending the program. In the blink of an eye, he is gambling again, on a progressive downward spiral through the remainder of this phase.

Once again out of marbles, he returns to the recovery program. Finally, he may take his gambling disease seriously. When this occurs, he has a better chance at recovery. Yet, often, the action gambler attends meetings, gambles, returns to meetings, gambles and so forth. This cycle of periodic recovery and periodic gambling may last for years and often leads to criminal activity, imprisonment or even death.

Hopeless Phase:

Early in the study of pathological gambling, experts noted only three phases of the addiction. Many clinicians and experts who treat pathological gamblers now say that a fourth phase -- the Hopeless Phase -- exists for both Action and Escape gamblers.

For a gambler who has been through the Desperation phase, it would seem that everything bad had occurred. However, in the hopeless phase, both types of pathological gamblers emotionally "give up." They don't care if they live or die. In fact, for many, the latter is preferable. They will consider suicide during this phase. Most will commit actions which could place them in jail or prison. Clinical depression is a given. In their minds, no one cares and, no hope is available.

The Hopeless phase is the end of the road -- the time when the pathological gambler either gets help, is imprisoned, or dies.
Reading Note: Although the pronoun "he" is used to describe the Action gambler and the Escape gambler is referred to as "she," it is NOT intended to imply that ALL Action gamblers are male nor that ALL Escape gamblers are female.  


The only way to assess the early days of compulsive gambling in Arizona is to look at the status of Gamblers Anonymous in our state. Prior to the early 1990s, the only people who walked through GA's doors and stayed were men. It was assumed that all fit the profile of the men who started GA, what we now call the Action gambler. "He" usually had started gambling in his teens and played skill games such as cards or track betting. He didn't attempt to stop gambling until forced into recovery by a spouse, employer or probation officer -- often after 10 to 30 years of gambling compulsively. If there were what we now call escape or late-onset gamblers among these early members, the distinction went unnoticed.

Prior to 1981, public gambling was considered socially unacceptable for women with the exception of local bingo halls. In fact, the first gambling available to the public on Indian Reservations was bingo. Then the Arizona Lottery introduced the first single scratch ticket. The Pick and Lotto soon followed and tens of millions of dollars worth of advertising convinced many that, "You gotta play to win." By the time tribal casinos were introduced in the late 1980s, the climate of acceptability had been established: it was not only okay for everyone to gamble, it was almost one's civic duty! Not only could women gamble at their convenience market or grocery store, they could go to a casino in groups or even alone. And the casinos offered the very games preferred by most Escape gamblers: bingo, slot machines, video poker and kino machines. In the mid 1990s when gambling became available on the internet, it provided another gambling venue for both Escape and Action gamblers.

As with many steps toward gender equity, women began to pay a price: they too found themselves in increasing numbers becoming addicted to gambling. When they arrived at GA, it seemed obvious that most women gambled differently than men. Rather than action or excitement, they sought relief and escape. The difference was attributed to gender.

As the years passed, it became evident that the differences between the two types of gamblers as a gender issue was a misinterpretation. The accessibility of casino type gambling is affecting men who had no previous history of gambling or compulsive gambling in the same way it affects women. Perhaps the least previously identified (and understood) compulsive gambler was the male escape gambler.

Women gamblers finally found their way into recovery in the greater Phoenix area by starting their own GA meeting. These meetings seem to be almost essential in areas where GA has already been established and is male dominated. As women gained recovery in their meeting, they attended the other rooms in two's and three's. Their "therapy" rang true for many men and helped pave the way for the male escape gambler to better understand his disease. Today women account for an estimated 50% of the membership of the GA rooms in the Phoenix area and the vast majority of gamblers presenting for clinical care are women. Escape Gamblers are now the majority of gamblers seeking help for problems associated with gambling.


Most Escape gamblers have been nurturing, caring responsible people for most of their lives. For the most part, they are not egotistical, have no indications of narcissism and are not outgoing. They appear to be "normal" and have an almost exact opposite character profile than that of the Action gambler.

During their lives, various psychological traumas have occurred. These individuals frequently suppress negative feelings and do not deal with them. As time goes by and the traumas increase, a single traumatic event may take place which causes situational or clinical depression. Friends and relatives of the person become aware of the depression of the person.

After the predisposing factors come to the surface, depression is prevalent. The individual will often do what most people do -- attempt to self-medicate or escape from the trauma (to make themselves feel better).

These individuals are prone to use drugs, food, sex, alcohol or gambling as a way to self-medicate. Often, a friend or family member will suggest to the individual that they do something "fun" to help forget about the problems.

When they choose gambling, the individual will realize that the act of gambling does help them forget about and escape from their problems. The individual may become addicted to gambling the first time they gamble and the progression of the disorder begins.

Escape gamblers literally get "relief" or "escape" from psychological and emotional pain. Many are actually afraid to stop gambling because they have no confidence they will be able to endure the pain they fear will come when they stop medicating themselves with their drug of choice, gambling. A drug addict is rarely expected to quit "cold turkey." The gambling addict must be offered the hope of an alternative way of dealing with the underlying factors that led them to want the escape-at-all-cost anesthetizing quality of slot machines, video poker, keno or bingo.

A 12-step program, in time, can lead to a better way of coping with the past as well as the present. Most escape compulsive gamblers would benefit from therapy by a certified compulsive gambling counselor, outpatient treatment, or even intensive inpatient treatment to help them deal with the sometimes excruciating pain of facing reality and addressing the issues that underlie the addiction.