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Gambling's high stakes: 1st-time bonanza fueled gambler’s descent to despair

The first time Wanda Mitchell played on a convenience store gaming machine, she hit the jackpot.

She walked away with $1,200.

She’d noticed the games before, but she thought people were silly to feed dollar bills into the machines she saw at stores across Macon. She figured folks were playing to win crystal dishes, knives and other whatnots she’d seen on display.

But on that day 10 years ago, she saw someone she knew playing and walked over to ask what the woman was playing for.

“You get money,” she responded, and she showed Mitchell how to play. After building a relationship with the clerk, the friend explained, she could get cash.

That struck a chord with Mitchell, a Macon woman in her 60s who has since retired from her work in education. (The Telegraph has changed her name to protect her identity.)

A gambler all her life, she could trace her first bet to when she was 4 years old.

Back then, people played “the bug,” an illegal gambling game similar to today’s Cash 3 game. People bet pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters and picked three numbers that would appear in the newspaper’s stock market report.

One day her grandmother asked her for a number to play.

“I said 4-0-4 and that number fell,” Mitchell recalled.

As she got older, her uncle taught her to play poker. Then she taught her younger cousins to play cards and played in backroom card games in college. She rolled dice with guys in an apartment next door.

“I would almost gamble on anything,” Mitchell said.

She got casino experience while attending conferences and training sessions for work. When the Georgia Lottery was created in the 1990s, she started playing those games too.

After discovering gaming machines in Macon stores, Mitchell often used them to fill the void between midday and nighttime lottery drawings.

By the time Mitchell stopped gambling nearly seven years ago, she estimates she was gambling between $4,000 and $5,000 a month on Cash 3, Cash 4 and the gaming machines.

She was indebted to two loan sharks and lying to friends who loaned her money.

Most every weekday Mitchell stopped at a store and played on her way to work.

Sitting with her employer-provided cellphone and a two-way radio, she played until she was either out of money or there was a situation at work she couldn’t handle by phone.

If her phone rang, she walked outside so no one could hear the sound of the games.

The times she had to leave, Mitchell often got angry because she was either on a “hot streak” or figuring out how to win back money she’d lost.

She skimped on everyday necessities, not wanting to buy more than a bar of soap or a roll of toilet paper at a time.

She put off buying gas, driving until her car was as close to empty as she could risk, just to have money in her pocket to gamble.

On payday, she went to the machines to try to win back the money she’d paid the loan sharks. More often than not, she didn’t.

One time she won Cash 3 and Cash 4 drawings in the same day playing with her tax refund money. She stayed in the store to play the machines -- and lost everything.

“I cried all the way home,” Mitchell said. “It didn’t stop me.”

‘I HAVE A GAMBLING PROBLEM’

In July 2008, Mitchell hit rock bottom as she looked at her reflection in the mirror of a Las Vegas motel room.

“I could see this person that I didn’t want to be.”

Days earlier, she’d lied to a friend, saying she was out of town for work and had no money due to a bank error. He wired her money that she soon lost playing different games in a casino.

Mitchell also borrowed money from co-workers who were with her on the trip.

After winning a couple thousand dollars, she paid back her co-workers, only to lose the remainder.

In her room, she called her friend -- the one who’d wired her money -- and told him: “I have a gambling problem.”

It was the first time she had spoken those words.

“Gambling had taken control of me,” she said.

The next week, Mitchell attended her first Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

She says she hasn’t gambled in nearly seven years.

It took her about two years to dig out of debt, something Mitchell said was easier than to stop gambling.

She still owed about $6,000 and paid her loans in installments.

For a long time she avoided going inside convenience stores. She paid for gas at the pump.

When Mitchell did return to the stores, they weren’t ones where she’d gambled.

On the yearly anniversaries of her last bet, Mitchell celebrates. Sometimes she buys herself a piece of jewelry. Other times, she goes out for a nice dinner or a movie.

She said she feels blessed that her family didn’t disown her. She recognizes how close she came to being homeless.

Mitchell said she doesn’t have the same urge she once had.

“I still wish I could gamble,” she said one day last month. “It’s the consequences that I never want to ever experience again.”

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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