Illustration by: Lindsay Boeckl

Raising the stakes

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University students are a high risk group for problem gambling. But some students are using gambling to pad their incomes. Nicole Siena reports

Jamie started playing poker with his friends when he was in Grade 8. By the time he was 16, he had created an account on an online poker website, allowing him to play any time and bet as much as he wanted. He started by putting $50 in his account, and slowly started winning after a few missteps.

Over the course of the next few months, Jamie had reloaded his account two more times with $50 — but after the third time, he never had to again. Soon he was playing up to 16 hours a day, turning a profit at a game he enjoyed. “It would go in spurts,” he says.

“Maybe I wouldn’t play for a few days, but then there would be three weeks where I didn’t even leave my apartment. It was pretty intense. It was definitely an addiction.”

According to a study done by the Responsible Gaming Council (RGC) in 2005, one in 14 individuals in the 18 to 24-year-old demographic have a moderate to severe gambling problem. Men are twice as likely as women to be problem gamblers.

“We know that one in 14 young adults are at the highest risk,” says Barry Koen-Butt, the director of awareness programs and communications for the RGC. “We recognize that demographic is of the higher risk than the general population.”

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) says gambling is a problem when it gets in the way of work, school, or other activities, harms mental health or physical health, hurts financially, damages reputation, or causes problems with family or friends. Jamie did eventually drop out of school to focus on poker. But unlike most addictions, Jamie’s was making him money.

“I was making enough money to pay for school, and had enough money to live pretty decently in Toronto,” he says. He dropped out of Ryerson’s geographic analysis program when he was in his second year, leaving his academic life behind to play online poker full-time, even gaining a sponsorship from one site.

“They would pay me, basically, to play on the site,” he says. “The more I played, the more they would give me. I was close to a major sponsorship, where they would pay me to go to events.”

However, in April 2011 the FBI seized the three largest poker sites in the United States, charging eleven defendants with fraud and money laundering. At that point, Jamie’s online career was essentially over. He moved back to Windsor, where he now plays at a casino for 50 hours per week. Mathematically, the typical gambler doesn’t have Jamie’s success rate.

Even if they do, a long run of bad luck can leave them with nothing if they haven’t planned accordingly. The advice Jamie gives to students is not to do it unless you have a big enough wallet.

“If you don’t have enough money to back yourself, then you can back yourself into a hole,” he says. “Some people don’t know how to manage it. You have to have a big enough bankroll to withstand the variance.”

Variance is a mathematical concept in poker to describe the ups and downs of a chance-based game. Playing poker in a style with a high variance means that your swings will be larger; you could lose everything in a run of bad luck. Inevitably, most gamblers lose. But the thrill of winning money that keeps Jamie at the tables can still hold a losing player there, causing problems both socially and financially. To help raise awareness of gambling addiction, the RGC has created a program called Know the Score (KTS).

“We go into colleges and universities, talk to students about key messages and what the risks are [with g a m b l i n g ] , ” Koen-Butt says. The program started in 2001, after a study showed that university students are of the highest risk. KTS creator Lisa Couperus, manager of special projects and programs at RGC, worked with students and professional staff on campuses to create the program. Originally appearing in eight schools across Ontario, it is now at over 26 different campuses.

“Each table and display are done and run by hired students at that school,” says Couperus. “It’s a peer-to-peer approach People talking to their friends as opposed to people coming in telling students what to do.”

The RGC’s most recent campaign features poker chips wrapped in condom wrappers to promote safe gambling, and can be found across campus and in places like the Ryerson’s Recreation and Athletic Centre (RAC). Ian Jenkins*, a fourth-year criminal justice student who Jamie introduced to poker, says that someone with a serious gambling problem probably isn’t working out or having much of a social life, so the ads might not be effective.

“It’s probably better to target addicted gamblers online or on the poker sites themselves,” he says. “Kids might look at it as a joke — meanwhile, someone may be getting worse and worse. That should be the time you save them from falling into a pit of addiction.”

Robert Williams, a professor in the faculty of health science at Lethbridge University and research coordinator with the Albertan Gambling Research Institute, says that these forms of gambling education are largely ineffective. “To be fair, it might help a few people sometimes, but in a group basis, there’s no evidence these things work,” he says. “It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be done, it just means they should be done a lot better.” Williams argues more substantive education and prevention is needed.

“There are a lot of them out there, but most of them are one hour, one shot deals, which temporarily improve knowledge, but don’t impact behaviour,” he says.

Only 2 to 3 per cent of Ontario residents gamble online now, but it’s double that in the demographic of college-aged adults. And over 70 per cent of the population gambles in other ways, according to Williams. In colleges and universities, management and kinesiology students are the most likely to develop gambling problems. Williams says the management students’ gambling problems probably have to do with an interest in money, but the kinesiology students have a more complex story.

“Athletes have a much higher gambling involvement and [rate of] problem gambling than other people. A good portion of people in kinesiology are also athletes or aspiring phys-ed teachers,” says Williams. “There’s something about athleticism that is associated with risk taking. I don’t quite understand it myself.”

The business students might also be interested in poker because, according to Jamie, it is a business. “It’s the same thing. People in business want to invest in certain places,” he says. “When you play poker, you look to invest in certain spots that you see are profitable.”

Jamie has read over 30 books on poker to educate himself on the game.

“It’s like a textbook. It’s teaching you what to do in order to make money,” he says. “If you don’t keep your strategy up, luck will eventually run out and you’ll fall behind. There will always be days where you’ll lose.”

Jenkins started playing after Jamie gave him some books to read. Once he started playing online, he began making his own profits. “I think sometimes people would just be ignorant, that there is a mathematical way to play poker or blackjack,” says Jenkins.

“If you go into a casino and are willing to pour all your money into slots, that’s gambling altogether because there’s no skill to that.”

He says that when playing games with any level of skill, you need to take time to develop them. Poker is no different, but also has the added risk of a bad run leaving you penniless.

“Even in poker, as good as you are, sometimes you just lose, lose, lose,” says Jamie. When he started to play online poker for hours on end, he says he was living with roommates but they never approached him about his addiction.

“They knew I was making money. It would have been different if they knew I was losing a lot of money,” he says.

However, he also says that problem gamblers may not let their friends know about their gambling.

“A lot of people lie about how they’ve done. Even if they lose a lot, they just lie.”

Jenkins says that he drops online gambling during the school year because he takes his grades pretty seriously. During the summers when he does play, he invests up to 12 hours per week to the game depending on how well he does.

“I use the money to pay down my student debt and loans,” he says. “Last summer I made $1,500 over the four months.”

But he acknowledges that not all gamblers share his skill.

“You can become addicted to anything, but I feel like gambling is something you use economically, that’s what makes it a problem.”

According to Williams, the two elements to look out for are impaired control and compulsive involvement. He says young gamblers lack preparedness. Unlike driving, where teenagers go through a series of graduated licensing, gambling comes with no manual.

“You can’t take your kids to casinos, and parents are discouraged from playing a game of poker with their kids,” he says. “There’s no period of training, and so young adults have no experienced knowledge. They’re naïve.”

Young adults in university or college are also more prone to gambling problems than their peers who didn’t go to post-secondary institutions, according to Williams. He says his best guess boils down to students hanging out with other students who have high-risk lifestyles in places like student residences.

“Their behaviour seems normative to their peers,” he says. “It also points to the fact that intellectual smarts in its self does not inoculate you from addiction.”

Couperus says she wants the RGC to get information out there so that students can become interested in the topic and start thinking about it.

“There are risks associated with gambling, trying to get some information out there in terms of what the signs are and where they choose to gamble.”

For students who have been identified as problem gamblers, Williams says they need ongoing support.

“You need a social context that you can exist in that doesn’t involve gambling,” he says. “It’s an episodic and chronic condition. You need a life long effort to minimize [the effects].”


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