Gambling With Gambling: A No-win Bet


Writer’s comment: I have always believed that one should learn from their mistakes. I have made many mistakes in my life, and gambling is perhaps the biggest one of all. Indeed, I have learned from my experiences. Looking back, I wish I had never gotten involved with gambling. Now, I only hope that my experiences can deter others from gambling. For over a year, Congress has debated the issue of online gambling: whether to ban it completely, regulate it, or leave it unregulated as it is now. I hope that somehow my paper will find its way into the hands of Congress. Perhaps they will realize that the well-being of their constituents far exceeds the importance of campaign contributions and choose to prevent others from the agony that I and millions of others have gone through.
- Student Writer

Instructor’s comment: The student wrote his essay as a sophomore in English 19: Writing Research Papers. It is a personal research essay—well researched, strongly analytical, and seriously personal. But the essay did not begin as a personal essay—far from it—and I think that other writers may be encouraged to realize that strong personal writing does not always begin with subjective writing. In the weeks prior to his rough draft, hehad maintained an impersonal and strongly argumentative stand on gambling as he wrote other, short papers on the topic. Then, as he worked on his long draft, other students in class responded to his ideas and were very interested in his tentative personal anecdotes. They encouraged him to make his connection to the topic explicit. From major rewriting emerged this fascinating and very effective essay, in which social and personal analysis intertwine.
- Susan Palo, English Department

Hi, my name is ______ and this is my first GamAnon meeting. I am nineteen years old, and I started gambling in junior high, $5 bets with friends. In high school, craps and deuces were the craze. The teachers had no idea. Then I started playing the lottery, hoping to hit the jackpot. Age never really mattered since the vendor never asked to see ID. In my first year of college, I started wagering on sporting events through an online sports book. It was completely legal, even though I was only 18 years old. I have always loved sports and having money on a game made it even more fun, more exciting. At first, it was only $25 or $50 a game, but then things got out of control: I was laying hundreds of dollars on single games. It wasn’t fun anymore. My bank account dwindled from four figures to two. My GPA was half my high school 4.0+. I knew I had a problem, but I just couldn’t stop, no matter how hard I tried. That’s why I’m here today. I need help.
     I never thought that a friendly wager could lead to such self-destructive behavior. Luckily, I recognized that I had a gambling problem and sought help, unlike the millions of other pathological gamblers who allow their problems to worsen, some eventually becoming involved with drugs, alcohol, and crime (Lesieur 43). Annually, Americans legally wager over five hundred billion dollars—more than they spend on groceries—and illegally bet hundreds of billions more (Reno 43).
     Pathological gambling as a national problem did not emerge until the early 1970s. Since then, the number of pathological gamblers steadily increased—until around 1988 when they began to multiply. What led millions like me to start gambling? Psychologists and psychiatrists provide the traditional and widely accepted explanation: individuals are driven to gamble by certain personal psychological factors. This explanation, however, was applied to pathological gambling well before the recent surge of the 1970s; therefore, while this explanation may explain why any given individual may become a pathological gambler, it cannot explain why so many people became pathological gamblers during this time period. Other non-psychological changes must have facilitated increased gambling: technological advancements, new modes of communications, increased media coverage, and other societal factors.

The Pathological Gambler

     The severity of the gambling problem varies; pathological gamblers must be distinguished from recreational gamblers —such as those who occasionally purchase a lottery ticket. The American Psychiatric Association defines pathological gambling as “chronic and progressive failure to resist impulses to gamble, and gambling behavior that compromises, disrupts, or damages personal, family, or vocational pursuits” (APA 324). Pathological gamblers characteristically become preoccupied with gambling—gambling with increasing amounts of money, trying to win back past losses—ultimately leading to personal and financial ruin. These characteristics, along with other notable traits of pathological gamblers, are identified in the American Psychiatric Association publication Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III-Revised (DSM-III-R).
     Before encountering the DSM-III-R,I did not think I had a gambling problem; I told myself that I was only a recreational gambler. As I read through the list of traits, I identified with more and more characteristics. I had become consumed by gambling, planning my next wagers, re-living past victories in my mind while agonizing over costly losses. As time progressed, so did my gambling problem. I began to wager not only more money, but also on more games. I wanted to quit—but only after I recovered the money already lost—further plummeting myself into debt. Between school and gambling, there was no contest. My GPA plummeted to a wee 2.10. Only after a quarter-long hiatus from gambling—simply because I had run out of money with which to gamble—and a 4.0 for the quarter, could I raise my cumulative GPA to a more respectable 3.0. The hiatus, however, was not permanent. Still, I did not realize I was a pathological gambler until I sifted through the DSM-III-R.

History and Current State of Gambling

     Gambling has existed since the beginning of time, with the Bible making references to its existence (Simon 8). The Greeks told myths about the seductiveness of gambling, while the Romans placed wagers on the fifty chariot races that were run each day. Gambling surfaced early in United States history; during the colonial period, lotteries were held in Jamestown—the first colonial settlement (McGowan 3). Now, centuries later, gambling has become an epidemic afflicting many Americans, regardless of gender, age, class, and race.
     Since 1974, numerous studies and surveys have assessed the magnitude of pathological gambling. Results and statistics indicate that gambling today is remarkably more prevalent than at previous times, as well as more widespread. Between 1974 and 1989, the total amount wagered annually by Americans grew an astounding 1400 percent, from $17.4 billion to $247 billion (Lesieur 43). A more recent study estimated that the dollar amount of legal wagers made by Americans in 1993 was approximately $395 billion, with another $120 billion in illegal wagers (“Betting Odds” S8). Just three years later, this figure soared to $550 billion, nearly a forty percent increase. Revenues generated by gambling now exceed the revenues from movies, spectator sports, recorded music, theme parks, and cruise ships combined(Koughan 32).
     Not only have there been increases in the total amounts being wagered, but also in the number of pathological gamblers. As of 1995, only two studies and one poll had tried to quantify the number of pathological gamblers on a national level. The results of one study, performed in 1974, showed that 61 percent of the United States population had gambled. A Gallup poll, conducted by one of the nation’s renowned accounting firms in 1989, concluded that the proportion of the population who had gambled had increased to 81 percent. In addition, the Gallup poll found that about 30 percent of adults gambled on a weekly basis (Layden 71). More recently, a 1994 study suggested that approximately 10.5 million Americans suffer some form of gambling problem—an estimate based upon a regional sample population (Simon 9).

Traditional Theories

     Traditional theories attribute pathological gambling behavior to the gambler’s personal psychological factors. Psychologists and psychiatrists alike suggest that the majority of pathological gamblers begin gambling during their adolescent years or after a major life stress, such as the death of a parent (Griffiths 42). Traumatic events may lead an emotionally unstable person to escape and seek refuge from reality through gambling. People are most susceptible to excessive gambling during their adolescent years, when they are most likely to encounter family problems — such as their parents’ divorce — a lack of discipline or schooling, and exposure to gambling, perhaps by other family members or friends. Other predisposing factors of pathological gamblers include an above average IQ, a low threshold for boredom, a tendency to take risks, and a workaholic mentality (Griffiths 8).
     Many psychologists and psychiatrists also postulate that gambling is a learned activity, an idea first developed by Sigmund Freud. It is believed that playing games during early childhood actually serves as training for future gambling behavior. In his article “Gambling Swindles and Victims,” Snyder observes that in childhood games that result in winners and losers, the common prize is status, rather than some material gain (54). In games that involve gambling, such as marbles or card flipping, children are exposed to the concept of risk: by taking risks, children build their reputations as winners and receive social rewards (Griffiths 43). Some carry these childhood experiences through adolescence, causing them to seek out gambling as a way of attaining social standing.
     These traditional theories, however, were formulated, developed, and applied to pathological gambling several decades before the gambling rates soared. The psychological factors described also existed prior to 1974 and yet gambling had not been as substantial or widespread. What, then, caused millions of Americans to become pathological gamblers after 1974?

Societal Factors

     The growth of pathological gambling after 1974 is directly related to social changes. Various studies have shown that increases in gambling opportunities often result in increases in the gambling rate; where gambling is permitted and legal, a greater proportion of the population exhibit gambling behavior (Griffiths 3; Devlin and Peppard 904; Lesieur 43).
     The post-1974 period is marked by the widespread acceptance and approval of gambling at all levels of the government, state and federal. The most common form of gambling allowed is the state-run lottery. After 1893, all sales of lottery tickets were prohibited by federal statute, but as states developed dire needs for revenue, lotteries crept back into existence (Reno 43). Only 2 states operated lotteries in 1970; by 1994, 38 states conducted lotteries (Sandel 27). In that year, $34 billion was spent on lottery tickets — as compared to $9 billion in 1985 — garnering over $12 billion in total revenues for various government treasuries (McGowan xi). In the United States today, all but two of the fifty states — Hawaii and Utah — allow some form of gambling.
     By offering lotteries, states contribute to increasing the population of gamblers. Studies reveal that a majority of those who participate in lotteries become involved in other forms of gambling (Devlin and Peppard 905; Frank 909). States, however, choose to disregard these findings; state-run lotteries require that participants need only be 18 years old, even though the minimum legal gambling age is 21 years. Not only do states offer lotteries, but they also heavily promote their lotteries. Each year, the states combined spend over $350 million on lottery advertisements (Reno 43), enhancing the general social acceptance of gambling. Recent trends also favor legalization of Indian gaming and casino gambling, as well as riverboat gambling.
     In addition to the government, sports media have also catered to the needs of gamblers. Betting information can be found in nearly all newspapers, from the widely read newspapers to the small local newspapers. Every day, the sports section offers varied up-to-date information used by gamblers to select their wagers. Aside from listing betting lines and odds for virtually all the day’s sporting events, the typical sports section also provides injury reports, trades and transactions, roster changes, and statistics—more information than the average sports fan wants, or needs, to know (“Betting Odds” S6).
     Sports broadcasting also shares responsibility in the growth of gambling. Like the question “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” a similar question can be asked of sports gambling and sports programming on cable and satellite television (McGraw 50). Gamblers can now wager on and watch any sporting event they desire; even a college basketball game between Quinnipiac College and Austin Peay State University is accessible through satellite coverage.


     Initially, I doubted that my gambling was provoked by psychological factors, but after thinking about my childhood, I found it plausible. At the time I began to gamble, my parents often engaged in loud shouting matches as I lay in bed, crying and wishing they would stop. Making matters worse, my grandfather—who raised me, as a child, in Thailand—came to visit and passed away unexpectedly here in the United States. I was devastated, sad, and alone. But, to escape reality, why would I turn to gambling, instead of alcohol or drugs or suicide?
     These psychological factors were merely “push” factors, factors that push an individual towards an outlet from reality. Which outlet one chooses, then, depends on the “pull” factors. In my case, I was “pulled” — or drawn — towards gambling, finding hope in playing the lottery, aroused by the excitement of watching a game I wagered on. A combination of “push” (psychological) factors and “pull” (societal) factors, which did not exist prior to 1974, then sufficiently explains the rise of pathological gambling in recent decades.
     Members of GamAnon enter a 12-step recovery program. The first step is to recognize and admit that a gambling problem exists. In the process of writing this research paper, I was not only able to realize and accept that I had a gambling problem, but I was also able to determine why I developed the gambling habits. Perhaps the next paper you read by me will describe the 12-step recovery process and my continued abstinence from gambling.


Works Cited
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (3rd Ed. revised). Washington D.C.: 1987.

“Betting Odds: News or Not? Sports Betting and the Media.” American Journalism Review 17 (1995): S4-S8.

Devlin, Ann Sloan and Donald M. Peppard. “Casino Use by College Students.” Psychological Reports 78 (1996): 899-906.

Frank, Michael L. “Underage Gambling in Atlantic City Casinos.” Psychological Reports 67 (1990): 907-912.

Griffiths, Mark. Adolescent Gambling. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Koughan, Martin. “Easy Money.” Mother Jones. July 1997: 32-37.

Layden, Tim. “Bettor Education.” Sports Illustrated. April 3, 1995: 68-83.

Lesieur, Henry R. “Compulsive Gambling.” Society. May 1992: 43-50.

McGowan, Richard. State Lotteries and Legalized Gambling. Westport: Quorum, 1994.

McGraw, Dan. “The National Bet: Laying an Illegal Wager Has Never Been Easier.” U.S. News and World Report. April 7, 1997: 50-56.

Reno, Paul. “The Diceman Cometh.” Policy Review 76 (1996): 40-46.

Sandel, Michael J. “Bad Bet.” New Republic 216 (1997): 27.

Simon, Paul. “The Destructive Side of Gambling Mania.” St. Louis Journalism Review 26 (1995): 8-11.

Snyder, R.J. “Gambling Swindles and Victims.” Journal of Gambling Behavior 2 (1986): 50-57.