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March Madness: These Successful People Nearly Lost It All to Gambling

March Madness is in full swing. Offices across the country are hosting betting pools, whether management realizes it or not, and even those at the highest executive levels are hip deep in “bracketology.” Even President Obama has been known to dabble, as his publicly-posted 2012 bracket attests.

The American Gaming Association predicted earlier this month that $9.2 billion in March Madness bets would be made this year, a $200 million increase from 2015.

Gambling sometimes can be good for business. According to the Center for Gaming Research, annual commercial casino gaming revenues have risen steadily since 2009, with $38 billion in revenue reported for 2014 alone. Figures such as these have not escaped the notice of lawmakers looking to fill their states’ coffers. Minnesota’s Tim Sanders said on Tuesday that the state should declare that fantasy sports games do not qualify as gambling, thereby making them legal. His position contrasts with that of lawmakers from New York, Illinois and Texas, where fantasy sports games are illegal.

The perception of legal gambling as an economic boon is due in large part to the current popularity of online gambling. According to the research group Technavio, worldwide online gambling is expected to grow at a rate of approximately 11 percent every year between now and 2019.

Technology has made gambling available wherever the gambler happens to be, and turns the gambler’s phone into a private virtual casino. The downside to this increased accessibility is that gambling now poses more of a threat to those prone to addiction than ever before.

“There’s this mistaken conception out there that gambling addiction isn’t as serious as other addictions,”said Anna David, Editor-in-Chief of AfterParty Magazine and, and herself a recovering cocaine addict. “It’s like, ‘Just stay away from Vegas and you’ll be cool, right?’ The [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] only changed gambling addiction from a ‘compulsive disorder’ to an ‘addictive disorder’ three years ago.”

One estimate holds that three to five percent of those who gamble become addicts. Fortune presents a list of those who have come forward to admit that they have a problem. Some have shied away from calling it a full-fledged addiction, but whatever they want to call it, in some cases, the urge to gamble cost them millions.

Charles Barkley

Charles Barkley is a retired NBA player who was active from 1984 until 2000 and played for such teams as the Philadelphia 76ers, the Phoenix Suns and the Houston Rockets. During his career he was a formidable player and a popular personality, thanks to his brash personality and outspoken views.

Barkley has had repeated problems with gambling. In a 2006 interview with ESPN, he estimated that he’d lost approximately $10 million in all his years of gambling, including $2.5 million “in a six-hour period.”

“It’s a stupid, bad habit. I have a problem,” he said.

Almost a full decade later, the problem had shown no signs of slowing down. In a 2015 interview with Seth Davis of the sports news resource Campus Insiders, Barkley revealed that he had lost approximately $30 million.

“I went to Vegas a bunch of times and won a million dollars,” he said “Probably 10 times. But I’ve also went to Vegas and lost a million probably three times as much.”

Gladys Knight

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 12: Singer Gladys Knight speaks onstage during the VH1 Big Music in 2015: You Oughta Know Concert at The Armory Foundation on November 12, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for VH1)

Gladys Knight has been called the “Empress of Soul,” and anyone who’s heard her sing her Grammy-winning classic “Midnight Train to Georgia” knows why. However, in 2011, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that she had once been powerless to stop her gambling addiction.

“Winning is how they get you,” she said. “Because you think you’ll win everything, and you won’t… I had gotten $2,000. And within 25, 30 minutes, I had won 60 grand. And I sat right at that table and gave every dime of it back. And I just got sick at the table.”

Knight said that she was able to stop gambling with the help of Gamblers Anonymous, whom she had called right after leaving the card table.

“The lady on the phone said, ‘Where are you? We’ll come get you.’ That was about 15, 20 years ago. And I went to one meeting. That was all I had to go to.”


David Milch

Producer David Milch attends Vulture Festival presented by New York Magazine at Milk Studios on May 10, 2014 in New York City.

David Milch is not a household name, but his television shows are. The four-time Emmy winner has had a hand in several shows that were essential viewing for millions of people, including “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law,” “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood.”

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Milch lost his entire fortune at the racetrack. A lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in 2015 by attorneys for Milch’s wife says that between 2000 and 2011, he lost $25 million and is now $17 million in debt. The lawsuit seeks damages from their business managers, for failing to disclose to her the full gravity of her husband’s losses.

The Hollywood Reporter ran the numbers, and said that the money he made from “NYPD Blue,” “Hill Street Blues” and other television shows had at one time given him a fortune of $100 million. Today however, he lives on an allowance of $40 a week, doled out to him by his wife.


Pete Rose

Former Major League Baseball player and manager Pete Rose speaks during a news conference at Pete Rose Bar

Pete Rose is a legendary former baseball player who played for the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he also acted as manager from 1984 to 1989. But in 1989, he was banned for life from baseball for betting on his own team.

According to Major League Baseball special investigator John Dowd, Rose bet on 10 games a night, at a rate of $2,000 per game. Rose at first acknowledged that he was a betting man, but denied that he had ever bet on his own team. According to the Chicago Tribune, he saw a counselor, who concluded that the disgraced player had a gambling problem, and in a 1991 interview with Jane Pauley, he admitted as much.

“It took me some time to find out that I had a gambling disorder,” he said. In 2007 he admitted that he had bet on his own team’s baseball games on “The Dan Patrick Show” on ESPN Radio.

He sought reinstatement to Major League Baseball multiple times, last applying in 2015. Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said that Rose had told him that he was still betting on sports, which was the key factor in Manfred’s decision to uphold the ban.

“Mr. Rose’s public and private comments, including his initial admission in 2004, provide me with little confidence that he has a mature understanding of his own conduct, that he has accepted full responsibility for it, or that he understands the damage he has caused,” Manfred said.

Art Schlichter

Former Ohio State and NFL quarterback Art Schlichter, left, enters the Franklin County Common Pleas Court Thursday, Sept 15, 2011, in Columbus, Ohio.

Art Schlichter was a quarterback who played for the NFL and the Arena Football League from 1982 to 1992. His gambling addiction first came to light in 1983 when he went to the FBI as a way to evade bookies that he owed money to. The admission that he had bet on games got him suspended by then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, but he was reinstated in 1984.

After allegedly stealing $800,000 to feed his gambling habit, Schlichter served two years in prison on charges of fraud, forgery and theft. He would eventually serve time in 44 different prisons and jails, for various crimes that funded his gambling. He was last given a prison sentence in 2012, when he was condemned to almost 11 years for selling fake sporting event tickets to dozens of people. He had bilked them out of $2.5 million, all of which he gambled away.

It should be noted that since his last sentencing, Schlichter performed one act that may help others in the future. In 2012, he consented to donating his brain and spinal cord to Boston University for traumatic injury research. According to ESPN, Schlichter suffered more than a dozen concussions while playing football in high school and college, and research indicated that injuries such as these could account for Schlichter’s impulsiveness and repeated criminal activity.

Rick Brinkley

Former State Sen. Rick Brinkley speaks to the media as he leaves the Page Belcher Federal Courthouse after being sentenced for fraud in Tulsa, Okla., on Friday, March 11, 2016.

Rick Brinkley was a Republican state senator from Oklahoma who had served as head of Eastern Oklahoma’s Better Business Bureau from 1999 to 2011. In August 2015 he resigned his senate seat amid an investigation by the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation for embezzlement from the Better Business Bureau of Tulsa.

The Bureau alleged in court filings that he had used the money to “support a hidden gambling habit,” to the tune of more than $1 million. At first, friends and colleagues couldn’t believe that such a charge was being leveled against a man like him.

“Rick Brinkley is the last person against whom I would expect such allegations,” said fellow Senator Brian Crain. “I found him to always be insightful and represented his district well.”

Sadly, it was true, and Brinkley pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion and wire fraud. He was sentenced to 37 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $2 million in restitution.

“If you think you may have a gambling addiction, please know you are not alone,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “It’s estimated over 150,000 Oklahomans suffer from this addiction. Gambling addiction has the highest rate of successful suicide among all addictions including drugs and alcohol… You don’t have to continue living in misery.”

Terrance Watanabe

Terrance “Terry” Watanabe, right, his attorneys, David Chesnoff, background center, and Richard Schonfeld appear in court at the Clark County Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas.

From 1977 to 2000, Terrance Watanabe served as president and CEO of the Oriental Trading Company, a company that makes party supplies, toys and novelties. Seven years after leaving the company, he took his personal fortune and went to Las Vegas, where he went on a year-long gambling bender that cost him $127 million. According to The Wall Street Journal, Harrah’s Entertainment, which owned the two casinos where Watanabe lost his money in 2007, earned 5.6% of its Las Vegas gambling revenue from him that year.

Rather than join a 12-step group, Watanabe responded to his situation by filing a civil suit against Harrah’s. In the suit he said that casino employees kept him hopped up on liquor and pain medication in an effort to keep him gambling. Harrah’s, meanwhile, countersued for $14.7 million, the remaining sum of money that Watanabe had yet to pay back out of the original $127 million that he had lost.

Both sides reached an agreement in 2010. Charges against Watanabe were dropped, and he dropped his civil lawsuit against Harrah’s.

Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.