NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Some people play the horses or go to Vegas. "Sam" got his rush playing the Chicago Board Options Exchange.
A 45-year-old broker, Sam didn't think he had a problem back in the mid 1990s. After all, the U.S. stock market was barreling ahead. Everybody had a piece of the action.
But the adrenaline high was so seductive that pretty soon Sam was ignoring his clients to focus on his own trades. He made the riskiest plays with no money down. Finally, he lost $100,000 in a trade that he couldn't cover.
"I was on the verge of losing my house and my family," said Sam, who asked to remain anonymous. "There's a phrase called 'crossing the line.' I realized I was a compulsive gambler."
By some estimates, anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of all compulsive gamblers were once Wall Street players. They often drift towards the riskiest investments, such as options trading, futures contracts and penny stocks. They trade using borrowed money from margin accounts that they can't pay back.
Many people lose everything before they get help. The bull market, which has pushed the Dow Jones industrial average to record highs, just makes the temptation stronger.
"We don't know the true extent of the problem because hardly anyone identifies it as a gambling problem -- they see it as a 'financial problem' or an 'investing problem,' " said Marvin Steinberg, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Compulsive Gambling.
Of course, most investors aren't compulsive gamblers. They follow the conservative tenet of the Street to put a long-term horizon on their portfolios. They know the riskier the investment, the bigger the potential to crash and burn.
When does investing cross the line into gambling? According to one study Steinberg co-published, it's "repeated speculative risk-taking, resulting in significant financial losses in relation to the person's level of assets."
"Bob," a 58-year-old retired veterinarian who lives outside Chicago, said the thrill of buying and selling became irresistible.
Eventually, Bob stopped going to work and stayed in his living room to track stock prices all day long. His last trade, on April 15, 1993, was when he bought and sold 400 shares of Motorola Inc. (MOT).
"My wife threatened to leave me unless I got some help," Bob said. He started going to Gamblers Anonymous, a program patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous that relies on a 12-step healing process.
"Now, we're financially secure for the rest of our lives," Bob said.
Compulsive gambling isn't really about making money, said Chris Anderson, a recovering gambler and executive director of the Illinois Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling. It's about "action" -- and the lure of the big win. It's so close you can almost taste it.
"You develop a pathological relationship with money, where money has no value," Anderson said.
The paradox of the bull market is so many people have made a fortune that perceptions about risk have become distorted, Anderson said. "It leads us to believe it will always go up."
But the warning signs become painfully obvious when investing zeal turns into a compulsion, Anderson said. You gamble with money you can't afford to lose. You obsess about the markets all day long. You buy and sell all the time -- and you constantly change your investment strategy.
As time goes on, a pattern develops. In Anderson's case, he first got the rush when he bought two call options on Southwest Airlines (LUV). The stock price went up, and he made money. So simple, he thought.
"You tell yourself, 'That's easy. If I did it once, I can do it again, ' " Anderson said.
Trading using a margin account is particularly lethal for a compulsive gambler, Anderson said. Unlike Las Vegas, you don't have to reach into your pocket to make your bet.
"Because of margins, you can lose infinitely greater amounts of money than what you have," Anderson said. "You're trading into thin air."
Anderson wasn't as lucky as Sam or Bob -- he lost everything before he got help. His wife left him. The bank foreclosed on his house. He went bankrupt. For 12 years, he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals trying to cope with the overwhelming loss.
"It was losing everything, but the financial loss was least significant," Anderson said. "I was walking in circles in a psychiatric hospital in a depression."
But in another way, Anderson was lucky. He had been a marriage and family therapist before he became a broker. So after he got into treatment, he decided to return to the counseling profession so he could use his experience to help other gamblers.
"At some point, I made the decision to live and go on," Anderson said. "I'm grateful for where I am today, but the price I paid was too great."
-- by staff writer Martine Costello