How to Identify a compulsive gambler

Opening explanation

Many people are able to enjoy gambling without it becoming a problem. These are recreational gamblers.

But what initially was entertaining and an enjoyable habit, over time can turn into an addiction. For me the difference is quite clear: both are “things we do repeatedly”, they are both habits, however, one you are controlling while the other one is controlling you, therefore it has become an addiction.

Gambling is a progressive illness so even if you have gambled before and you’ve been ok, a problem could develop later on.

The urge to gamble can be overwhelming, leading someone to lie, steal, blow their savings and mess up the rest of their lives. There are several signs to indicate when normal enjoyment of gambling turns into compulsive gambling.

The earlier you can identify the problem, the better the chances for a successful recovery. There’s always a good chance you can overcome the problem.

Understanding a gambling compulsion

A gambling compulsion can start the first time someone places a bet, plays roulette or a fruit machine. But it can progress slowly into an addiction over time. The worst situation you can be involved in is when you win!

Some gamblers show compulsion a few weeks after they start but for some they can hide it well and only show signs a few years later. Gambling is often known as the hidden addiction.

How to diagnose a compulsive gambler

On my therapy courses I explain and address the reasons why people gamble. There are a few main reasons why people gamble and can’t stop. Gambling may well continue unless there’s an intervention from an expert. A big obstacle for a gambler is the negative aspects, the feelings of shame, remorse and guilt, these sometimes stop them taking the initiative and accepting they have a problem or even that they need help.

Denial and the magical thinking that gambling can still solve their problems is the big barrier to engaging in therapy or even the acceptance of help. Diagnosing a gambling problem involves looking for signs someone is out of control. As a gambler here are some of the signs you can look for:

  • Spending more money on gambling than you can afford.
  • Difficulties in your relationships caused by your gambling.
  • Gambling getting in the way of your work.
  • An inability to cut back or stop gambling.
  • Spending more and more time gambling.
  • Attempting to hide gambling from your family, friends or medical professionals.
  • Stealing or committing fraud to fund your gambling.
  • Asking for loans or taking out credit cards to cover your ever-increasing gambling debts.

How to recognize an addictive gambler

Although compulsive gamblers often share similarities, like low self-esteem, recognizing a compulsive gambler can be very difficult due to their ability to develop skills in lying and their proficiency to mask their compulsion very well.

As a family member, partner, or generally speaking an affected other’s perspective: here are some of the signs you can look for:

  • Not having money for some basic needs.
  • Stress
  • Always putting out fires
  • Mood swings.
  • Out of control.
  • Total irresponsibility.
  • Hiding phone.
  • Not allowing access to mail, bank accounts etc.
  • Postponing responsibilities, either financial or social.
  • Aggressive: this can be verbal or even physical.

Where to get treatment for gambling

If you suspect you have a problem or know of a problem gambler there’s several things you can do:

If you live in the UK there’s a charity called Gamcare that you can access for free on 0808 8020 133.They provide help and support for problem gamblers and their affected others.

Worldwide there are a huge number of Gamblers Anonymous groups that are free to access.

Psychotherapy is available through charities, privately and online, free and paid support.

Recently medication became available for problem gamblers and some addicts responded positively to it. However, in my opinion without counseling to support the gambler, I believe this treatment as a standalone will lead to failure. The earlier a person receives treatment, the less financial and emotional relationships damage will occur and the easier it is to stop the progression of this illness.


If you suspect someone has a gambling problem, it’s important to understand that even if a person’s gambling has affected you to the point where you’re ready for them to change, they might not be ready, and if they are not ready there’s very little you can do until they are prepared to accept that they have a problem.

Although it can be difficult to confront a problem gambler, the best thing you can do is to ask them if they have a problem.  Remember if you want someone to be honest with you must be honest yourself. Let them know you suspect them of having a gambling problem and that you are worried for them. Be supportive, show concern, above all be non-judgmental. With this attitude you are more likely to get a positive response. They might not give you a straightforward answer and their reaction might   not be very forthcoming but by approaching someone in a non-confrontational way you might get some useful information.

Always express how you feel without criticizing otherwise it might trigger an argument and you end up losing the opportunity. Some problem gamblers will feel a huge sense of relief and be grateful that they have someone who cares, and that they can talk about their problem.

Others will feel ashamed, guilty and at the mention of it will become very defensive. Be patient tell them how much you care about them and how worried you are.

Always keep the lines of communication open

Gambling is one of the most insidious of human vices, as it presents the illusion of easy money, yet it can quickly lead to financial ruin. We mentioned before that gambling is an illness; the reality is that WHO (World Health Organisation) included it into the category as drugs and alcohol. To make it clearer, gambling affects the way you think and behave, thereby affecting the way your brain functions.

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