Mark Erickson always craved a piece of the action -- so the accountant from Phoenix started betting on sports over the Internet.
But soon, it spiraled out of control.
"I've heard other people compare it to a cocaine addiction, the high you get from that, and that's the euphoria I felt," he said. "It becomes an all-consuming activity. The lining up the money, the handicapping of the game, the betting of the game, the watching of the game. Win or lose, it didn't matter to me, it just set me up to bet again."
Three and a half years ago, Erickson accrued $400,000 in gambling debts. Desperate, he began stealing from his clients. And when they caught on, he left his family and fled.
"I became this person I didn't know," he said. "But I thought this must be what I have to do. I got myself into this. I got to get myself out of it.
The situation became so dire, that Erickson contemplated killing himself. He considered going to Mexico and if he couldn't kill himself there, he'd pay someone else to do it, he said.
'A Devastating Illness'
Erickson is a compulsive gambler, a condition just as dangerous and debilitating as drug or alcohol addiction. There are an estimated 6 million people who deal with the problem in the United States. As gambling on the Internet becomes more popular and more sites crop up, those numbers are expected to increase.
"I think it's a devastating illness, it's an illness that if it's not treated, it will end up that the person's whole lifestyle will be affected," said Ed Looney, executive director of Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.
The problem is affecting younger people as well. Drawn in by the popularity of poker, half of all men in college are gambling on an monthly basis -- even though betting on sports is illegal everywhere in the U.S. except Nevada.
Nevertheless, the industry rakes in mind-boggling amounts of cash. By some estimates, $7 billion is wagered on the Super Bowl alone in casinos, online and with bookies.
It is now high season for sports betting. The college bowl games this weekend lead to the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl. Then, it's March Madness, where many participate in an office betting pool.
"Sports betting is the rock of Gibraltar," Looney said. "It's American, like apple pie. That will always be there. People love to bet on it. People love to bet on their football games."
After 23 days on the run, Erickson turned himself in. He served a year in prison and now works for a compulsive gambling helpline. He credits a 12-step program to helping him overcome his problem, and he has not gambled in almost four years.
"Life is great," Erickson said. "The miracles I've experienced. The sharing of experiences with friends, family, like I've never seen before. These are things that I avoided my whole life, not choosing to be a part of, but today I cherish them."
If you or your loved ones has a gambling problem, help can be found at the National Council on Problem Gambling.