How Hearthstone helped one player beat his gambling addiction

Recently, a Reddit user named Lanztar took to the Hearthstone subreddit to write about how Blizzard’s insanely popular card game helped kick his degenerate gambling addiction. 

“I went to seek help via gamblers anonymous and therapy websites. But encouraging words from random people just weren't enough. I fell apart during my withdrawals and went back to the casino,” he wrote. “The turning point happened a couple years ago around June 2014, one of my friends brought this game, Hearthstone, to my attention; but challenged me to not spend real cash on anything. I was thinking this was just another stupid freemium game that I'll toss aside in a couple days. Oh boy was I surprised.”

Lanztar is 27 and lives with his parents in Louisiana. Currently he works as a HR technician, and has already paid off $26,000 of gambling debt, with a handful of change left to go. It’s funny that a game known for being deceptively pay-to-win has helped someone with a significant, compulsive disease. We reached out to Lantzar and asked him why Hearthstone has been a suitable placebo for the action on the floor.

When did you first realize you had a gambling problem? Was there a specific moment?

When I first started gambling at a casino at age 21, I was pretty stingy. I would bring $40 in cash and leave if I had lost it all. I played mostly penny slots and 25 cent video poker. I had my college buddies with me and none of us were wealthy by any means, so we were satisfied just going up and down a few dollars and getting free drinks for being an "active player.”

Over the next few months, I would eventually increase my bankroll to $100 to $200 and play low limit table games ($5 minimum bet). My favorite games were blackjack, craps, and roulette (ranked in that order). It was during that time period in which I had gotten THE best winning streak in craps in my whole life.

"I was living and breathing ecstasy for every pair of dice I tossed."

Basically, I rolled the dice for nearly two hours straight. Two hours straight. Without Seven'ing out. It was $5 craps and I was betting just pass line minimum. I would lay some odds down after the come-out roll like a smart bettor would of course. But long story short, I had won about $2500 in those two hours. The whole table was cheering me on every single roll, and I would get massive applause every time I hit the pass-line number. The dealers and pit boss told me after I finally seven'd out that they had never seen anything like what I had just done. I walked out of the casino that night with more money in my bank account than I have ever had in my entire life added together (a bit of an exaggeration probably).

It was the absolute greatest feeling ever. I was living and breathing ecstasy for every pair of dice I tossed. Having a giant crowd around the table cheering me on only boosted that ecstasy. Unfortunately, that moment marked the beginning of an era that I could never recover from. I felt I was invincible. And that, my friend, is the worst attitude to go gambling with. I started bringing bankrolls of $500 to the casino thereafter. It went up and down but ultimately after a few weeks, everything that I had won that night at the craps table, got paid in bits and pieces back to the devil of the den.

I really do want to attribute that one fortunate (or unfortunate depending on how you look at it) night at the craps table as the turning point that transformed me into an action-hungry addict. I would constantly go back to the casino to try and repeat that insane night; to experience that incredible high I felt from being the victor of the evening. But something like that is akin to miracles, they rarely (if ever) happen twice.

When did you hit rock bottom?

There were many nights I felt just terrible about my life situation (especially after a losing trip from a casino), but the night I got "evicted" from my apartment was probably the most emotionally hurtful time I've ever experienced. The following weeks after this eviction spurred on what I consider my "financial rock bottom."

I was "evicted" from my apartment in April/May 2014 (I was a tenant living under verbal agreement, so I didn't actually draw up a lease contract or anything). This was because I was living with a guy (who I had known since high school) whose grandmother was the landlady. "Eviction" here really just means being forcefully told to leave and go live somewhere else.The landlady was a kind and sweet old lady that "forgave" a couple months of rent for me (basically tell me she will "cover it this time and have me pay back when I can," but discreetly implied that I didn't actually have to pay it back). It literally broke my heart to have to tell her the end of the month that I didn't have enough money to pay the rent, and this happened multiple times. I had started borrowing money from my roommate and other close friends to try to keep up with rent. There was one particular month that I gathered the money I borrowed several friends and was about to make the rent payment, but had a thought "if I can get lucky tonight and double this money at the casino, I would be able to pay the rent and the borrowed amount back to my friends!" Fast forward to the part where I'm smashing my forehead into my steering wheel on the drive home from the casino after losing everything. It was that night I went to the landlady, in tears, and explained the whole story. I felt like shit. Scum. Worthless bacteria that ought to be eliminated from the natural selection. She had even welcomed me into her living room and gave me hot tea. I'm sitting there sobbing, with no idea what to do, how I will explain my predicament to anybody, especially to my friends or family.

The worst part of it was I was sitting there thinking the landlady will just "forgive" the rent like she normally does. I was even counting on it (I'm almost disgusted to this day how sick of a person I was back then), so I was quite shocked when she finally told me that I needed to find somewhere else to stay, because she cannot keep covering my rent each month. But this feeling lasted only a short moment when I remembered how much I've been leaning on her and everybody else for the past several months; I deserved to be kicked out, 1000% deserved.

She had given me up to 3 weeks to move out. In this time period I literally decided to "put all my chips onto the table." My mind was just thinking I just had to win everything back; this was life or death! I began playing with casino credit (spread out across 4 casinos) as a last-ditch effort to "hit it big" and recover everything I had lost. It wasn't just gambling for the entertainment or high or winning anymore, I was gambling for redemption. Recovering this money would mean recovering my life. I was a bit surprised that my sinking credit score managed to even land the credits that I had gotten, I wasn't actively tracking my credit score at the time but apparently it was good enough. But long story short, I had lost all my credits within a week. I was actually up quite a bit in one casino, but when you're trying to essentially triple your starting bankroll and not stop until you do... well chances are you will just lose everything, because the casino advantage destroys all long-term prospects. Deep down I knew this philosophy, but I was just hoping I would be lucky and not have it strike me until I had won everything back. It was a stupid and immature thought.

Casino credit is an interesting beast. It's quite a ways different from credit from banks or other financial institutions. The allure here was that no interest accumulates on any debt owed, but they only give you a short time to pay back any debt (for me it was around ~30 days, depending on the casino). If you don't pay it back in time... well then quite literally loan sharks will come after you and zap your assets into nothingness. Or hire an attorney to prosecute and throw you in jail or something. When I first applied, I was counting on the fact that I could win with this money, so I didn't really prepare myself for the consequences for the event in which I did not win. I was quite stupid indeed.

Fortunately my casino debts were repaid on time, thank the graces that my parents stepped in the last minute to help me out. I'm almost scared to imagine what would've happened otherwise. Perhaps I would have been beaten to a pulp by the mafia or something. Or thrown in jail. Likely worse, if it could get worse. I still had to pay back my parents for this rescue though, and trust me; they are not as forgiving as my previous landlady in the slightest. They kept accurate books on my repayments up until everything was paid off.

And here we are. Rock bottom. Did things get better from this point? Yes, but certainly not easily. Everyday I fought urges to go back to the casino and retry the "redemption run" with what cash I had left in my wallet. The urge was extremely tantalizing. I just wasn't satisfied with slowly paying off my debts with the slow-paced bi-weekly paychecks. It felt like having the debt attached to me was like wearing a humiliating sign around my neck saying "I'm an idiot who lost all my money to the casino!" and I was trying to get rid of it as fast as I could. It was mentally stressful beyond words having to fight this feeling for weeks and weeks... until I found Hearthstone.

What was it like realizing that you were content to stay home and play Hearthstone instead of going to the casino? I imagine that was super freeing.

It certainly was freeing. I felt like I was seizing ownership of my soul again being able to picture all the fun and games of the casino and be like "meh, let's play some Hearthstone."

It's funny how so many people complain about RNG, but it's something that has actually helped you in a really crucial way. It makes me realize how this game truly does appeal to different people in different ways. Do you have any thoughts on that?

RNG in Hearthstone is like the magic entity that gives me what I desire without me having to go to a casino to obtain it. As I mentioned in my Reddit post, it satisfies my cravings for action in a way that is difficult to describe. But then you wonder why Hearthstone and not fake online poker or any other freemium games. I often thought about this and I've simply concluded that I found Hearthstone before any of those and it has captured me in its tight clutch. I wasn't really a huge gamer until Hearthstone.

Anyways, you probably heard (or experienced yourself) that opening card packs is one of the most satisfying aspects of the game. You're literally hovering your cursor over the cards in anticipation of a yellow or purple glow, like when a blackjack dealer hands you a double-down card face-down, and you're curiously staring at it wondering if it's the jackpot 21 maker or some worthless deuce. Opening card packs triggered something in my head that I usually don't feel outside of a casino. My hunger for opening card packs itself kept me playing Hearthstone for a while. I always looked forward to the next pack opening. Now you may be wondering why I haven't gone completely bonkers and immediately shoved hundreds of Washingtons up Blizzard's ass. That inner mental struggle is something I still fight today. Just now it's a bit less uphill than it was I suppose.

Perhaps it was because of my credit card statements reminding me I was more broke than a camel's back? No, financial reasons did not stop me before when I was spending my paychecks at the casino knowing I'm practically maxed on all my credit cards. I've pondered this for quite some time and just realized that I was tired of letting people down, especially the ones I love and care about. I wanted to change. I vowed to a certain friend that I wouldn't spend money on anything in the game. I won't let him down. I vowed to my parents that I would focus 110 percent on paying off my debts. I certainly won't let them down.

"RNG in Hearthstone is like the magic entity that gives me what I desire without me having to go to a casino to obtain it."

But back to the topic at hand. RNG. It's everywhere in Hearthstone. From opening card packs, arena drafts, mulligans, down to why Yogg-Saron Pyroblasted me in the face 3 times. Some people (like myself) absolutely love just having the roulette spin without regard as to what the outcome is. Others only like RNG when it favors them. You see these types of players whenever you get a friend request at the end of a match you just won. And then there's the people who absolutely despise RNG no matter what the outcome (the chess players I like to call them). These guys unfortunately are playing the wrong game.

However, I believe every player should enjoy Hearthstone the way they want to enjoy it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing a straight-up face Hunter farming golden portrait wins as efficiently as possible if that's what you want to do. There is nothing wrong with playing decks that don't have win-conditions, but sole purpose is to do crazy stuff (guilty here). Heck, there's nothing wrong with a deck that's sole purpose is to video record the "Prep-Coin-Concede" into a meme and post onto Reddit for karma either. The point I'm trying to get at is that there are so many ways to play this game, and that's why it succeeds on attracting such a large fanbase.

On the next page: how playing Hearthstone compares to Blackjack, and why it's not a gambling cure-all.

Luke Winkie
Contributing Writer

Luke Winkie is a freelance journalist and contributor to many publications, including PC Gamer, The New York Times, Gawker, Slate, and Mel Magazine. In between bouts of writing about Hearthstone, World of Warcraft and Twitch culture here on PC Gamer, Luke also publishes the newsletter On Posting. As a self-described "chronic poster," Luke has "spent hours deep-scrolling through surreptitious Likes tabs to uncover the root of intra-publication beef and broken down quote-tweet animosity like it’s Super Bowl tape." When he graduated from journalism school, he had no idea how bad it was going to get.