December 10, 2007 12:00 PM

Problem gambling was once largely an issue for men. No longer. “Women are gambling at almost the same rate, which was unheard of 20 years ago,” says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “And as more women gamble, more are seeking help.” Here are some harrowing tales of misfortune—and survival.

The first thing that caught Becky Piekarski’s attention were the pop-up ads on her computer touting an online casino. Other than a trip to Atlantic City years before, Piekarski, 42, a church bookkeeper from Cudahy, Wis., had never gambled. But now she took the bait and played for free for an hour. A few days later she started getting e-mail come-ons offering her a free $25 if she put up $25 of her own to play. Within a month she found herself staying up all night, hooked to the slots on her home computer. But she didn’t see any problem. “It felt okay,” she says. “I told myself, ‘Well, I’m home, aren’t I?’ I was patting myself on the back.”

For the next year she confined herself to relatively modest online wagering. Then one day on her lunch hour she went into a brick-and-mortar tribal casino in Milwaukee—and promptly won $10,000. Says Piekarski: “That was the end of me.” Over the next seven years of almost nonstop wagering in casinos and online, she ran up $100,000 in credit card debt and $400,000 in unpaid taxes largely from her winnings. Worst of all, she had been caught embezzling more than $500,000 from her church, which she now has to repay. Fired from her job in 2003 and facing prosecution, she nevertheless kept right on gambling. “She promised she was going to quit, but she never did,” says her husband, Roger, who began bringing the computer keyboard to work with him every day as the only way to cut her off. Pleading guilty to fraud and other crimes, she is serving four years in a state prison. Due to be released next June, Piekarski estimates that she lost close to $1 million over the years, with nothing to show for it but her criminal record, a pool table she bought once and a teddy bear she won with a jackpot. “We’ll never be okay again,” she says.

Zena Marshall had started gambling casually when she was 18. By the time she was in her 30s it had become an obsession, whether at the slot machines, the race track or playing the lottery. “I would be at the convenience store for two and three hours doing the scratch-off cards,” says Marshall, 42. Once she went through $1,800 worth of cards in two hours. To support her habit she used family food money and took on part-time work to supplement her full-time job as the manager of a Burger King in Tampa.

The gambling was taking more than a financial toll. She tried to hide it from her family, but her mother sensed something was wrong, though she thought drugs were the problem. “I just tuned her out,” says Zena. “I got to the point where I didn’t care what she thought.” She left the house at all hours of the night. Her husband, Winston, confronted her but never got a straight answer. Then the bill collectors came calling, and he learned of her problem, which she had been able to conceal because she kept the family books. Says Winston, who left her four years ago: “I was working two jobs and I was broke.”

Ultimately Zena began stealing money from the Burger King. Last year she was caught after skimming more than $10,000. Turning herself in to police, she felt an unexpected sense of relief. She got help from Gamblers Anonymous and is now on probation, working to pay back Burger King and family members who lent her money. What’s more, Winston has taken her back. “I’m always happy now,” she marvels. “My whole character has changed.”

It had taken Ann Klinestiver 45 years to build up her comfortable life in Milton, W.Va.: a marriage to the town doctor, a nice home, a grown son and two grandchildren. It took gambling less than three years to knock it down like a stack of chips. It started in 2003 when a small video poker parlor opened next to Klinestiver’s health club. She began frequenting the place in hopes of escaping, as she puts it, “the boredom of my life.” Soon she was spending nearly every waking hour there, arriving when it opened at 7 a.m. and often staying until closing at 3:30 a.m. “I just played because it was something to do,” she says. “It made me forget the rest of the world was going by.”

She’d duck out of family dinners to feed her gambling habit. But within months, her husband, Donald, was stunned to learn of her habit through the town grapevine and demanded that she quit. “This was a woman who was frugal her entire life,” he says. She tried but soon found herself experiencing headaches and nausea, so she went right back. Her husband got her checked into a residential treatment facility for a month, but the day she got out she was back gambling.

In 2005 Donald divorced her to prevent her from squandering all the family’s assets. Meanwhile she had gone through almost all her money, including a $200,000 annuity, with her losses totalling more than $300,000. (Still, she and Donald have remained close.) Now, at the age of 68, she can no longer gamble; her brother Ralph Bassett Jr., who took her to court to gain control of her finances, must approve of virtually every penny she spends. “Before, I could go anywhere I wanted,” she says sadly. “Now I live on my teacher’s retirement and Social Security.”

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