NEW YORK (AP) – For Andrew, the neon buzz of the Strip in Las Vegas was his mecca. Once he was old enough, Andrew planned a pilgrimage from his East Coast birthplace to the bright lights in the Nevada desert.

Yet before he was old enough to enter a casino, the teenager was already struggling with compulsive gambling. His high school grades were dropping, his bank account dwindling, his hopes for the future fading. Now 18 years old, he explains in his own words how gambling quickly made his life a mess.

Growing up

“Ever since I was very young, in the movies or on TV, I would see the Las Vegas lights or Atlantic City all lit up. They always glorified it. I never had a desire to gamble, but I always thought it was cool. I thought when I was 21, I’d make that trip to Vegas.”

The first time

“Three years ago, during the winter months, I was hanging out with three or four friends. All of a sudden, one of them saw a deck of cards and started dealing out Texas Hold ‘Em on the floor. I didn’t know what it was. … That night, all we did was play for fun.”

Higher stakes

In his junior year, a friend (“a delinquent,” he now says) steered him to locations on Long Island and in New York City with big money illegal games.

“You’d play a minimum of 50 bucks a hand. The first night I was there, I won 7-800 bucks. It’s probably the worst thing that could have ever happened. I was king of the world.”

Out of control by age 18

“I became an insane maniac, playing as much as I could whenever I could. I started losing finally. … But when you’re in the throes of the illness, you have no concept of reality. Consequences mean nothing. …

“I was playing pretty much every night during senior year, seven days a week playing cards – at poker clubs, in house games. I was gambling my brains out. Over course of two years of gambling, I lost $10,000 to $12,000 just gambling in live poker games.”

Finally, the bill came due. He became involved in an illegal enterprise (“not drug dealing”) to finance his gambling. His parents found out, and confronted him. Andrew is now attending meetings of Gamblers Anonymous, and recently marked seven weeks without making a bet.

AP-ES-09-03-05 1000EDT

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