Sporting KC

His biggest save: Sporting's Jimmy Nielsen overcomes gambling addiction

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in The Star in 2010.

Jimmy Nielsen cussed. He first cussed silently in his thoughts, then just a whisper to himself. Soon the words came loud and louder and finally screamed in a string of obscenities because, well, what else is there to do when you find out the world is about to know your darkest secret?

"Yes, " he told his wife, "I have a gambling problem."

Tears followed. Nielsen needed to explain, but where to start? How do you tell the mother of your children that every dollar is gone because you couldn’t contain yourself around a sports book?

Nielsen is one of Denmark’s best goalkeepers, a skill that eventually brought him to the Wizards and MLS. Gambling problems with high-profile athletes make for sexy story lines and nightmares for sports leagues, so six years ago the papers were filled with details about how Nielsen put a sports book out of business in Denmark.

She could have left him right then, and Nielsen would’ve understood. He would’ve had to. In an honest moment, he admits he’s not sure what he’d have done with the roles reversed.

Especially since the man they call Casino Jimmy still makes the occasional bet.

Nielsen first bet with his grandmother. Sounds innocent, right? He was just a boy, and the card games were very low stakes, but Nielsen liked the way it made him feel. He liked how having a few pennies on the line made everything more interesting. Win a hand and he felt a rush. Lose a hand and he wanted to try again.

Denmark has legalized sports gambling, and Nielsen started with that at 14 or so. A few years later he signed a big contract with a soccer team in England, where gambling is very popular, and this is when means met opportunity.

Practice was often over by noon, and with nothing else to do, Nielsen made a habit of killing entire days at the casino. He’d play cards, maybe some roulette, but mainly he bet games. Any games. NFL, ice hockey, handball, even soccer -- though Nielsen swears he never bet on his own games.

"I was useless, " he says. "Just useless. Didn’t matter the sport. Sometimes you win big, but you know what they say. Easy come and easy go. You win a thousand, you want two thousand. You win two thousand, you want five."

He checked into rehab at 25, but only for a short time, and only for show. He didn’t think he had a problem, which is why he hit the casino on his way to rehab.

The rest of his story is sadly similar to the 5.5 million Americans who are estimated to be problem or pathological gamblers. He borrowed money from the bank, from his friends and from his mother, each dip into debt accompanied by the thought of, all I need is one big score.

He lost the equivalent of $20,000 on a few games, burning through the entire value of his soccer contract and more. Eventually, he owed more than $60,000 and couldn’t pay it back.

"Sorry brother, " Nielsen remembers telling his bookie. "I can’t pay you until next week."

Nielsen had to sell stock to get even part of the money, and the transaction would take time that the bookie didn’t have. He went out of business the next day and told the newspapers exactly who was responsible.

This is the part where he had to tell his wife she was now flat broke because addiction took over his life. They would have to sell everything, including their house, and move in with his father to cut back on expenses. The Denmark national team banned him and two teammates from practices.

"It sounds maybe stupid, but I needed that to be official, " Nielsen says. "That put me under pressure. It was all over the biggest newspapers in Denmark. Everybody knew. I didn’t deny. I needed that to be ready to quit."

The obvious question: Why not bet on your own games? That’s something you can control. The desperate move would be to throw a game, but if that seems too much a risk, surely you would have better luck betting on the games you know most about.

So why not?

"That question, I’ve been asking that question a million times, " he says. "Why not? You’re in charge of that. But no, I couldn’t do it. Even if they give me $20 million. Never."

He says practice and games were the only times he didn’t obsess over a bet, so maybe a part of him wanted to keep one last bit of his life pure. The Wizards trust him and put nothing unusual in his contract about gambling.

In a mostly disappointing season, Nielsen has been perhaps the best reason to watch. He made the All-Star team and four times won the MLS save-of-the-week award. Soccer is fun again, he says, after becoming something closer to punishment his last few years in Denmark.

He enjoys his new life, too, different as it is. The hardest part of kicking addiction is filling the void. Nielsen says he found his days "so boring" without the rush of gambling. At first, he slept a lot. Now, he picks up his youngest daughter and feeds ducks at a park.

The debts are all settled now. The thoughts still come back sometimes, the ones he describes as, "(Expletive), you just need one win." So sometimes he just can’t help but ask.

"I tell my wife, ‘I’m watching a good game tonight with my friends, is that OK?’ " he says. "I’ll put $30 or $50 on a game. Nine times out of 10 times, she says no.

"Sometimes she says yes."