Everybody likes a good redemption story, and in the addiction recovery community, such yarns often come in the form of memoirs. A recovering addict — once hooked on gambling, drugs, alcohol, or another vice — gets to a place where they share their sordid stories so that readers might avoid or learn from their mistakes.
But Joel Soper did things a little differently. Growing up in Livonia, a suburb of Detroit, he started working for a local bookie at the age of 14 and hit his first winner at the now-defunct Detroit Racecourse not long thereafter. He recalled that his horse, Bring on the Rain, “won by like four lengths and I won like $150, and that was it — I was hooked.”
What ensued for Soper, now 51, was an epically unsuccessful 35-year run as a sports bettor that saw him lose between $7.5 and $8 million, by his own estimates. The flip side is that Soper was, and still is, a very successful landscaping entrepreneur in Southern California.
In a near-replica of a scene from the 2003 film Owning Mahowny, Soper reminisced about how, despite making fantastic money, he would show up to work in a beat-up car, compelling his employees to wonder, “What the f**k is wrong with this guy?”
Soper published a book about his struggles, Never Enough Zeroes, this past May, with the help of the author Philip Wyeth. Only it’s more of a self-help tome than a true recovery memoir. And Soper, who’s now gone six months without gambling, was still betting heavily — mostly in-game wagers — when he wrote it.
“I was trying to use the book to motivate me to quit gambling,” he said. “The more I kept writing, the more I was like, ‘Man, I have f**ked my life up.’ By the time I got done with it, I was like, ‘F**k this s**t.’”
While the book offers some gory details of Soper’s addiction, he intentionally left a lot out, in part to spare his loved ones, but also because he wanted to save some “new material” for later conversations.
Unders, suckers, and leaving Las Vegas
The bookie Soper worked for as a boy told him early on, “Bet unders and bet underdogs, because suckers bet overs and favorites.”
It was not the best advice.
By the time he got to college at Western Michigan University, Soper was betting two games a day at $500 per contest. To finance his habit, he started selling cocaine — and was eventually busted by an undercover cop.
Facing five years in prison, Soper hired an attorney who managed to negotiate a plea for lifetime probation instead of hard time. But Soper hardly stayed on the straight and narrow. After college, he became a top sales rep for a Michigan lawn care company and kept right on gambling his considerable earnings on sports.
“I’m betting like $2,000 to $3,000 a day,” he said. “Finally, the marketing manager was like, ‘You’re showing up late, not wearing a suit.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t care. I’m generating more money than the other 15 sales reps.’ Long story short, he threatens to write me up. I quit, and I move out to San Diego.”
Making such a move while on probation required Soper to sweet-talk his probation officer into letting him relocate. But sweet-talking was Soper’s specialty, and soon he was running his own landscaping company in San Diego and making up to $10,000 a day. Such largesse did not prevent him from getting into debt with “bad bookies,” however.
After getting roughed up by a bookie’s strongmen, Soper sold his business and paid off his gambling debts. Still relatively flush with over $1 million in post-sale savings, Soper moved into a villa at the Wynn in Las Vegas, where he reinvented himself as a handicapping expert (he was anything but) and began selling picks.
Having developed a taste for craps to augment his sports betting, Soper burned through his money rather swiftly and headed back to San Diego on a Greyhound bus. He started a new landscaping business and began gambling away customers’ money before he did any work for them. It wasn’t long before he got popped for this gambit and faced three to five years in prison.
‘You bet $430,000 in a Jewish halfway house’
Soper spent a few days in jail before he was released on bail. At that point, he walked to the edge of the Coronado Bridge, intent on ending his life. After stopping traffic for hours, he was talked out of leaping by some police officers, who told him they’d take him to Starbucks to talk things out.
“They didn’t take me to Starbucks,” said Soper. “They took me to an insane asylum.”
Soper’s cousin was a public defender who arranged for a plea that would require Soper to live at a halfway house (Beit T’Shuvah) in Los Angeles for a year.
“They gave you your phone back after six months, and I started gambling,” he recalled. “They catch me and the main rabbi there, he gets my phone, asks me for my account number. He said, ‘You’re a sick motherf**ker. We can’t help you. You bet $430,000 in a Jewish halfway house. You bet $5,000 on an international women’s basketball game?’ I’ve got like 100 plays a day at this point, from international soccer in the morning to Chinese baseball in the evenings.”
Upon his release from Beit T’Shuvah, Soper’s parents got him an apartment. He then posted an ad for a roommate and proceeded to steal about 15 prospects’ deposits, which he gambled away. Penniless and homeless, he wound up sleeping on a cot at Chabad House, where he “started praying, doing the right thing,” and laying the groundwork for another landscaping venture.
“I’m not telling people not to gamble,” said Soper. “I’m just giving a hard look into what it can become if you’re this extreme. There are people like me, and I’ve met a couple of them, and it always ends up the exact same way — death, prison, or insanity.”
Although he hasn’t gambled in months, Soper cautioned, “Football’s coming and it’s gonna be f**kin’ tough.”
“I would love to start a family of my own and I would love to coach sports,” he added. “I’m really at the place right now in my life where I want to do new things, not the same hamster-wheel life. But it’s hard. I still have a lot of the same habits. Just because I quit gambling doesn’t mean I’ve quit doing the things you do if you gamble. I still overspend. I still eat out every day. I still make a lot of money.
“I am a good person, but this addiction did these awful things to me.”
Photo of Joel Soper (right) courtesy of the National Council on Problem Gambling