While men bet for the action, women gamble to escape, says expert.

PHILADELPHIA – To the public, she’s the Great One’s adoring spouse: a mother; an actress; a fit, stunning beauty.

She was named one of the all-time greatest sports wives in a 2001 ESPN.com survey.

But there is another side to Janet Jones: an extremely rare female high roller, reportedly wagering hundreds of thousands on sports in one six-week period.

Her secret life exploded into public view when authorities announced three weeks ago that they had broken a multimultimillion-dollar sports-betting ring allegedly run by a New Jersey state trooper and former Philadelphia Flyers star Rick Tocchet, now assistant coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

Jones allegedly wagered big with the ring, which state police say catered to high rollers, including celebrities and current and former NHL players.

Her husband, hockey great Wayne Gretzky, has denied involvement in the ring. Attorneys for Jones and Gretzky say neither will be charged.

Jones may have to testify against Tocchet and the other men charged in the case, her lawyer said. Her story might provide a glimpse into a life of a woman who defies what gambling experts know about high rollers.

Jones – confident, wealthy, with easy access to the high-flying world of professional sports – bet more like a typical male high roller, said Arnie Wexler, a New Jersey-based national expert on gambling addictions.

“I don’t want to say it’s 100 percent rare, but it’s very, very rare,” he said. “Women just don’t bet on sports much. It used to be rare for the bookmaker to even take bets from females.”

It’s not that women don’t gamble. In fact, the numbers are surging.

“The percentage of women who gamble has dramatically increased. Twenty years ago, it would have been 80 percent men, 20 percent women, and now it’s 50-50,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the nonprofit National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington.

The proliferation of Internet gambling and new casinos has fueled the shift.

“Gambling has become much more normative in our culture, in our society, and in the media,” Whyte said. “If there were taboos about women only playing bingo, they’ve been erased.”

Experts say most female gamblers are “escape” gamblers. They play slots, video poker, bingo, the lottery – anything one on one – to avoid reality, problems, depression or helplessness.

“Women have described those slot machines as being their friends,” said Coleen Moore, an executive at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery.

Male gamblers tend to be “action” gamblers looking for a thrill and prone to bet on poker, craps, horse racing or sports.

At Atlantic City’s Trump Marina Hotel Casino, more than half the gamblers have always been women, spokesman Todd Moyer said. On Sunday, the casino will hold Ladies’ Appreciation Day, featuring male models and free chocolate. But there’s a new twist: a blackjack tournament.

“We definitely have noticed more interest in table games,” Moyer said.

But in the high-roller ranks – those playing $10,000 a hand – “we have very few” women, he said.

Jones, 45, a former Playboy cover girl and B-movie actress, met Gretzky when she performed on the show “Dance Fever” while he was a judge. She had a history of romances with star athletes.

She and Gretzky married in 1988 and have five children together. The two often spend time together in Las Vegas casinos.

Since the scandal broke, Jones’ public words have been terse.

“I have never placed a bet for my husband,” she said.

Gretzky staunchly defended his wife against suggestions she had done anything wrong.

“First of all, my wife is my best friend. My love for her is deeper than anything,” he said in a news conference the day New Jersey authorities announced Operation Slapshot.

Jones and Gretzky live apart during hockey season – he in Phoenix, she in Los Angeles.

“Is it possible that the husband doesn’t know what’s going on? The answer is yes,” said Wexler, a recovering compulsive gambler. “It’s possible that Gretzky had no concept or very little concept.”

Wexler’s wife knew he gambled but had no idea how deeply he was moved by the racetrack, he said.

“It’s not like alcoholism or drugs,” he said. “There’s no smell, no dilated pupils, nothing to give it away.”

Marilyn Lancelot knows the bottom-falling feeling in the pit of a woman’s stomach.

She lived in Yuma, Ariz., before casinos arrived there and made weekend pilgrimages – driving more than four hours each way – to gamble in Laughlin, Nev.

She owned land with two houses and a trailer. She had children and grandchildren who never suspected a thing.

Lancelot’s wake-up call came too late.

“When seven police cars drive into your driveway and take you away in handcuffs, then you know you have a problem,” she said.

She had embezzled more than $300,000 from her employer to feed her addiction – a crime that cost her 10 months in state prison.

Fifteen years later, she cofounded Women Helping Women, an online support network for female gamblers, and finds herself riding a boom of online gaming, casino development, and a culture that makes celebrities out of professional poker players like Annie Duke.

“We have some sports bettors. We have women who bet on the stock market. We have women who play on the computer. It’s just getting worse and worse,” she said.

Where to find help

  • Gamblers Anonymous: gamblersanonymous.org.
  • National Council on Problem Gambling: A 24-hour, confidential hotline is 1-800-522-4700. The Web site is ncpgambling.org.
  • Women Helping Women: The Web site, femalegamblers.info, offers an online newsletter and a resource network for women.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.