It's a socially acceptable vice-most of us have indulged in it from time to time. Some companies even sponsor employee outings to casinos. It is this widespread acceptance that makes problem gamblers so difficult to detect. Yet, having one on your payroll can be every bit as insidious as harboring a drunk or drug addict.

Substance abuse shows up in urine and abusers usually reveal themselves in fairly short order through shortcomings in job performance. Problem gamblers, on the other hand, can function on the job indefinitely. Nor do they ever overdose. You are not likely to find out about the problem until the gambler starts to rob you.

For instance, in 2000 a trusted bookkeeper for Marlin Mechanical, in Phoenix, was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling $1.9 million over an eight-year period. Only about $68,000 was recovered. Most of the rest was gambled away.

Compulsive gamblers lie, steal and cheat as a way to survive. They'll do it to your company and they'll do it to your customers. They have to. No matter how much you pay them, the casinos, the bookies, the racetracks, the loan sharks, the "action" will inevitably extract more from them than they earn. In fact, this is a good definition of problem gambling. If you don't gamble more than you can afford to lose, you don't have a problem. Then it's just recreation.

However, problem gamblers have trouble admitting they are in deeper than they can afford. They are likely to see any loss as a momentary cash flow crunch that will be resolved once they get hot.

Compulsive gamblers tend to be ambitious, sociable and superficially self-confident-although psychologists all say that problem gambling disguises low self-esteem. They often gravitate toward commissioned sales jobs. In fact, it's often been remarked that contracting itself is a type of gambling.

Let's not carry the analogy too far, however. The risk-taking associated with business bears little resemblance to the world of gambling. The big difference is that in business, you have a great deal of control over your own destiny. Even if the odds are stacked against succeeding, talent and hard work can overcome the odds.

Not so in games of chance. Immutable laws of probability always favor the house or the bookie. Players can hit hot streaks that last days or even weeks, but the more they play, the more the tiny house advantage is likely to assert itself. The gaming industry and mobsters get rich off of suckers who think they have a system that works.

Another good definition of a problem gambler is someone who would take issue with the previous paragraph. Problem gamblers like to believe they have a system for beating the odds. They like to brag about the times they came away as big winners, although you'll never hear them talk about the losing streaks.

Actually, winning or losing is almost irrelevant to problem gamblers. Their real motivation is in the "action" itself. Problem gamblers like the excitement of betting, the dream of winning big, the escape it offers from everyday problems or stresses.

Signs of compulsion

What are some of the signs of a person who is a compulsive gambler? According to Gamblers Anonymous, three overriding traits are:

• Inability and unwillingness to accept reality. Hence the escape into the dream world of gambling.

• Emotional insecurity. A compulsive gambler finds he is emotionally comfortable only when "in action." It is not uncommon to hear a Gamblers Anonymous member say: "The only place I really felt like I belonged was at the gaming table. There I felt secure and comfortable. No great demands were made upon me. I knew I was destroying myself, yet at the same time, I had a certain sense of security."

• Immaturity. A desire to have all the good things in life without any great effort on their part seems to be the common character pattern of problem gamblers.

Also, a compulsive gambler seems to have a strong inner urge to be a "big shot" and all-powerful. The compulsive gambler is willing to do anything, often of an antisocial nature, to maintain the image he wants others to see.

A lot of time is spent creating images of great and wonderful things they are going to do as soon as they make the big win. They often see themselves as quite generous. They may dream of providing families and friends with new cars and other luxuries. Compulsive gamblers picture themselves as leading a gracious life made possible by the huge sums of money they will accrue from their "system." Servants, penthouses, yachts and world travel may be part of their fantasy world.

Pathetically, however, there never seems to be a big enough winning to make even the smallest dream come true. When compulsive gamblers do win, they gamble more to pursue still greater dreams. When failing, they gamble in reckless desperation as their dream world comes crashing down.

Warning Signs

Here are some warning signs to help identify people in your company who may have a gambling problem.

• Excessive use of the phone, especially to check sports or racing results.

• Excessive visits to Internet

sports pages.

• Racing forms in view.

• Long lunches.

• Leaving work early, or are not at remote locations where expected.

• Excessive time off.

• Borrowing from other employees.

• Behavior changes, especially anger or withdrawal.

• Argumentative.

• Needs to be right, always having the final word.

• Initiates or zealously involved in office sports betting pools.

• Plays cards at lunch time.

• Purchases lottery tickets frequently, especially more than one at a time.

• Requests for advances in wages.

• Chronic fatigue or sleepiness.

• Funds or balance sheets short.

• Seems preoccupied on the job.

• Deteriorating home life.

Like a drug addict, the problem gambler is apt to become restless and irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling-or when he is unable to do so due to lack of funds.

Lying becomes a way of life with the problem gambler. He will lie to family members, employers, co-workers, therapists and others to conceal the extent of his gambling. He will borrow from family and friends, and lie about the true cause of the financial crisis.

The problem gambler will support the habit by refinancing mortgages or loans, cashing in life insurance policies, and prematurely withdrawing CDs or 401(k) funds. When those funds dry up, the person will either seek help or start committing illegal acts such as forgery, fraud, theft or embezzlement to finance gambling losses. This is especially prevalent if in debt to mob loan sharks.

The problem gambler has an unrealistic sense of entitlement, a mentality that the world owes him something. The problem gambler is a real messed-up human being and becomes your problem if he lands on your payroll or in a close relationship.

Now for the good news: Compulsive gambling can be treated successfully, although not necessarily easily. The Gamblers Anonymous home page will refer you to meeting sites in every state at

Sidebar: Do You Have a Gambling Problem?

If you are wondering about your own gambling behavior or that of a loved one, answer the following questions:

• Do you ever lose time from work due

to gambling?

• Has gambling made your home

life unhappy?

• Has gambling affected your reputation?

• Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?

• Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial problems?

• Has gambling caused a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?

• After losing, do you ever feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses?

• After a win, do you have a strong urge to return and win some more?

• Do you often gamble until your last dollar is gone?

• Do you ever borrow to finance

your gambling?

• Have you ever sold anything to finance your gambling?

• Are you reluctant to use "gambling money" for normal expenditures?

• Has gambling made you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family?

• Have you ever gambled longer than you had planned?

• Have you ever gambled to escape worry

or trouble?

• Have you ever committed, or

considered committing, an illegal act

to finance gambling?

• Does gambling cause you to have

difficulty sleeping?

• Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble?

• Do you ever have an urge to celebrate good fortune by a few hours of gambling?

• Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling?

According to Gamblers Anonymous, most compulsive gamblers will answer "yes" to at least seven of these questions.