Ryan is a 23-year-old recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. At an anonymous Midtown coffee shop in Manhattan, away from anyone who might recognize him, Ryan told of his gambling experiences.
"I started playing cards with my brother and his older friends," says Ryan. "That's how I learned the games, playing with quarter antes and the pots would get up pretty high, but I enjoyed it. It was somewhere where I could feel safe, just worrying about the cards in my hands. I didn't have to worry about other social things; girls, homework, I just had to worry about my ante and my cards. That progressed to high school when I started playing with my own friends. We'd play twice a month when there was a card game in town. I was there, and more likely than not, it was at my house."
Ryan is typical of a new breed of young compulsive gamblers; middle class, bright, computer literate, from a loving and supportive family. He was no bored, aimless kid without much of a future.
For him, and thousands like him, gambling on cards was just something he and his friends did when they hung out together.
When Ryan moved from high school to college, his love of poker followed him.
"I didn't do much gambling for my freshman and sophomore years of college," Ryan explains, "but then I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania for my junior year and that's when I got into casino gambling online. I remember scouring the Internet for all the potential offers and I used up every single solitary one that I could find. I'd gamble the 'free money' away. Eventually I started using my work-study check from college and betting with that."
Ryan was not betting nickels and dimes now. This was serious money.
"I'd be betting I could turn $50 into $300," says Ryan, "but my next thought is, 'Let me turn this $300 into $1000,' and I lost that bet. I was like, 'Okay, we'll get even. We'll bet another $500,' and then I was down $1000. I'm like, 'Okay, still no big deal. We'll bet the max you can bet on a single game (and that was $1000) and we'll be even.' Instead of being even, I was down $2000 and I started scratching my head. 'What are we going to do now?' Before I knew it, I couldn't get up from the computer and there's a zero in the right-hand corner of my screen."
In his mind, Ryan was always just one big win away from clawing his way out of ever-deepening debt. According to the experts, that's a typical symptom of a gambling addict. And for Ryan, losing took its toll.
"My room was an absolute pigsty," recalls Ryan. "How I looked; I wasn't taking care of myself because I didn't feel like I was worth much. I felt like a loser. Losing each and every day. Eventually I opened up more credit card accounts so that I could continue gambling and get myself out of my hole."
Ryan spent so much time gambling that he fell behind in school. His credit cards bills made bleak reading. He had no means of paying them off.
"It got to such a point where I did something that I thought I would never do which would be to come clean to my parents," Ryan admitted. "I called my father up and I let him know how much I was in debt, $18,000 at the time. It hit him like a ton of bricks because he didn't see it coming. He told me to come back home, bring all my credit cards back and he would give me money in my ATM account to get a train ticket home from Philly to Long Island. He said, 'Give me your word you're not going to gamble,' and I gave him my word and I meant it. I was a beaten soul."
But Ryan found the temptation to gamble too strong to simply walk away from.
"I came back to Long Island thinking, 'I'm going to get my act together; I'm going to do the right thing.' I have my ATM card where I can get money to withdraw to buy food and I take that money and I go to a supermarket and I get online for the Western Union and I fill out the slip and I send $50 to Costa Rica to the online casino's headquarters and I pay the extra $17 to wire it there and I call them up and I say, 'Do you have my money? Put it on my account,' and I go on my computer and I continue to gamble. And in my sick head it was, 'How am I going to explain this money after I win it because I gave my father my word I wouldn't gamble."
Ryan kept going to Western Unions at local supermarkets and wiring money to the offshore Internet companies so he could keep gambling. But the more he gambled the more he lost.
"I felt bad about the money," says Ryan, "but it was the emotional toll that was really killing me and I remember going back to Philly and the thought of driving off the side of the road crossed my head just to escape the world I was living in and that's something I don't forget because it's someplace I don't want to go back to. It was a wake-up call to know that gambling had brought me to a point where I'd consider taking my own life."
Ryan knew he had to stop his gambling, before it was too late. He decided to admit to his parents that he'd lied about quitting gambling.
"My mom was sitting on the bed and she started to cry. My father asked me the question, 'After a certain point, don't you have the common sense to stop?' I didn't have a response to that because I certainly didn't have the common sense to stop. I had been holding so much in for so long. I remember I cried that first night, but it felt so good to just get it out."
Ryan is, in many ways, one of the lucky ones. He realized he'd reached the point of no return with his gambling and sought help by calling Gamblers Anonymous. And his family stood by and supported him. Today he's almost two years clean of gambling.
Nevertheless, the success that many of his classmates from Penn University now enjoy, success that would have surely been his too, seems like a distant dream. Many of his friends from Penn have gone on to more lucrative professions. But Ryan is still thousands of dollars in debt. Debt which will take years to pay off. In the meantime, he has to wait tables for a living so he can meet his monthly payments.
"I'm very grateful that I'm sitting here today and I'm alive and breathing," says Ryan, "but if I go out there and place another bet, that's one step closer to getting into that car and driving it into that tree."