By Melanie G. Snyder

BETTING THEIR LIVES-Kids as young as 8 are getting caught up in the new spin on an old problem

  |  Health Advice & Tips  

Monte Carlo night at your child’s school. Lotto or Mega Millions. The office March Madness pool. Chances are you’ve participated in one of these forms of gambling recently. Gambling?! Wait a minute — isn’t gambling something much worse? Despite widespread social acceptance of these activities, "If it involves risking money on an uncertain outcome, it is gambling," says Heiko Ganzer, clinical and program director at LastWager Problem Gambling Treatment Program. "Gambling is the fastest growing addiction today," says Ganzer. Researchers attribute this trend to two factors: increasing social acceptance of gambling as harmless recreation, and increasing availability of gambling opportunities.

Gambling: NOT just fun and games "The gambling industry has suddenly recognized that the word ‘gambling’ still has negative connotations," says Steve Block, president, New York Council on Problem Gambling. "So they’ve started a massive re-marketing campaign to change the name of what they do to ‘gaming’ — promoting it as innocent entertainment." For most people, an excursion to a casino or the track will be just that. But for the estimated five to eight percent of American adults with serious gambling problems and an additional 15 million Americans potentially at risk of becoming problem gamblers, growing social acceptance of gambling exacerbates the problem. Just ask Nancy*, Manhattan mother of two. She and her (now ex-) husband started going to the racetrack regularly. “It was our entertainment,” she says. “I knew he was betting — I tried not to think about how much. He had a high stress job, so I figured he deserved some fun.” Nancy told herself that her husband’s obviously increasing interest in betting on horses was no big deal. Family and friends told her not to worry about it. But when she discovered a huge stash of racing tickets her husband had hidden from her, she says, “I was blown away. I couldn’t breathe. And I finally had to admit that our ‘entertainment’ had turned into a very serious problem.”

New gambling opportunities = new problems State governments contribute to the problem. While state lotteries have been around for years, states facing serious budget deficits are now moving to legalize other forms of gambling, arguing that it produces revenue for state coffers and jobs for residents. Yet the American Psychiatric Association (APA) warns that research has shown a strong correlation between the availability of legal gambling in a state and the proportion of the state’s population reporting gambling problems. In turn, those growing numbers of problem gamblers now cost American society approximately $5 billion annually and $40 billion in lifetime costs in increased crime, lost business productivity, and increased healthcare and social services costs, according to the National Opinion Research Council (NORC). Most of these costs come at taxpayers’ expense. For New Yorkers, the state’s legalized casinos, lotteries, slot machines, and racetrack and off-track betting impose a financial burden on taxpayers to cover the costs of theft, unemployment, bankruptcies, domestic abuse, child abuse, health problems and suicides that commonly accompany problem gambling. "State governments have tied their hopes of overcoming fiscal deficits to increasing gambling opportunities without fully exploring the social impact or the costs to the individuals and the communities involved," says Block.

Illegal gambling grows In addition to the legalized gambling offered in 48 states, illegal gambling is growing rapidly. Sports betting is illegal in New York, yet sports pools and bookies are everywhere, even in schools, says Terry Elman, education coordinator at, of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of NJ. "Sports betting is the number one gambling problem among kids," he says. Letitia’s* son started gambling heavily on sports in high school on Long Island. "He and his friends were always in sports pools. We didn’t think anything of it," she says regretfully. "All of our family recreation revolved around sports — attending games, TV sports." When she discovered a significant amount of money missing from the house, she confronted her son and he finally admitted that he had lost it all betting on March Madness.

House of cards Interest in card gambling is growing among the young. Televised celebrity and world series-style poker tournaments draw millions of viewers, many of them kids. "Kids are seeing gambling glamorized," says Elman. "Only the final rounds are televised, where one of six people wins big. Kids never seethe hundreds of people who lose tens of thousands of dollars in the early rounds." Copycat poker tournaments are springing up in towns and cities, on college campuses, and even on the Internet.

Internet gambling: click and lose Internet gambling is illegal. It’s also the fastest growing area of gambling addiction. "Internet gambling is a $3 billion per year industry and growing exponentially," says Block. "Experts estimate that in two to three years it will be a $10 billion industry." The Internet makes gambling instantly available to anyone with a computer and Internet access — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Researchers have uncovered over 1,400 Internet gambling sites, and new sites are launched daily. Several attempts to pass national Internet gambling legislation have failed, and Internet gambling, most operated by offshore casinos, is virtually unenforceable. "Computer literate kids find Internet gambling very attractive," says Block. Operators have capitalized on this, creating online games modeled after popular video games to attract kids. They offer various enticements to get kids started playing these online games, and then provide direct links to their gambling sites. Due to the anonymity of the Internet, anyone of any age can access Internet gambling sites. Even when sites request date of birth or age information, no one verifies player age. If kids can get Mom or Dad’s credit card, they’re all set. Elman counseled a man whose 12-year-old daughter lost $20,000 playing online "games" using her father’s Platinum American Express card. An 8-year-old downloaded what he thought was a video game after typing in his parents’ credit card number. Within minutes, he had lost $500 playing the game — an online version of Blackjack.

The children are watching "Kids are getting the message from parents, school and church that gambling is okay," says Elman, "from the Monte Carlo night fundraiser at school or church, to Mom’s lottery ticket, to Dad’s Fantasy Football pool." Children whose parents gamble have a much greater risk of becoming problem gamblers. For Nancy*, it has been hard to help her children understand that their father’s gambling is wrong. "When my son bragged that his father was in a football pool with a $500,000 pot, I explained that what his father was doing was gambling and it was wrong," she says. "I have to make sure my son understands the dangers of gambling and his own risk of becoming addicted." Experts say the earlier a person starts to gamble, the more likely he or she is to become addicted. Problem gambling is increasing among young people. "Ten to15 percent of young people surveyed in the U.S. and Canada report having experienced one or more significant problems related to gambling," says the APA. The National Research Council has found that in any given year, as many as 1.1 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 are pathological gamblers. Besides sports and Internet gambling, kids are gambling on a popular dice game called SeeLow, where three die are thrown against a wall. "It’s spreading rapidly through the schools," says Elman. "Kids play at lunchtime or recess. If adults are around, kids say ‘as if’, meaning ‘as if we were betting’, to avoid getting in trouble. They’re actually silently keeping tabs and the money exchanges hands outside of school." He adds that because kids don’t actually show their money when playing the game, they often bet more than they have. "One young boy owed $300, but didn’t have it. When I asked him how he intended to pay, he said, ‘I’ll just sell some drugs.’"

Who gambles? The common stereotype of gamblers is white, middle-aged, middle-class men. But Elman and Block are both seeing more adolescents, senior citizens and women with gambling problems. "Men tend to gamble for action and thrills, the ‘high’," says Elman. "Women and senior citizens gamble to escape bad life situations. Teens tend to be binge gamblers. Treatment for each has to be different." As a result, Gamblers Anonymous groups and treatment programs like LastWager and Gamblers' Treatment Center of St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Centers of New York, in New York City, are making specific efforts to reach and help new types of gamblers.

Getting help When Letitia’s son finally admitted his gambling addiction to his parents and agreed to get help, he didn’t want his older brother to know. "This was a big mistake," Letitia says. "The more people who know, the better off you are." Block agrees:"Everyone close to the gambler needs to know — especially anyone to whom he or she might go for money." For many families, however, denial of the problem is the primary barrier. "The gambler must admit that he or she has a gambling problem and be willing to work on it," says Ganzer. "It requires total honesty." Unfortunately, he says, some gamblers have to hit rock bottom before they’re ready to acknowledge their problem. Even if the gambler denies any problem, family members need to get help for themselves. "Families must learn how to stop enabling the gambler," says Ganzer. Enabling behaviors include everything from rationalizing the gambler’s actions, to bailing them out. "The first time I walked into a Gam-Anon meeting, I felt like I was on Mars," Nancy says. "I didn’t understand anything about gambling or about how I was contributing to the problem with my own behavior. For months, I focused on my husband and his problem. But then I began to understand that the only person I could change was myself." One of the most difficult things for families to deal with is their shattered image of their loved one. It’s difficult to get over the lies, the stealing, the hiding, say family members from Ganzer’s LastWager support group. Such support groups, along with family and individual counseling, can help families deal with their feelings about the gambler and get their own lives back together. When gamblers are ready to admit their problem and seek help, the hardest thing they face is completely distancing themselves from anything related to gambling, says Ganzer. "But if they want to recover, they must stop all forms of gambling. No sports pools, no poker games, not even a lottery ticket." Letitia’s whole family has had to change their lives to help their son with his addiction. "He took away this thing we had all enjoyed together as a family with his gambling," she says. "Now, we don’t attend sporting events or watch sports on TV. Basically, we don’t do anything sports-related anymore." Her son doesn’t go out with friends because he knows they’ll be talking sports, watching sports, and betting. After 10 months of intensive family and individual counseling, participation in Gamblers Anonymous and GamAnon, and a 30-day stay for her son in a residential treatment center, Letitia is hopeful that they’re all on the road to recovery. "There are no quick solutions," says Ganzer. "The problems of gambling addiction are complex." Education is key for both family members and the gamblers themselves. Nancy has had to focus on her children and on getting her own life back. "My ex-husband continues to hide things," she says regretfully. "I’ve done my best to work on myself. I had to open my eyes and it was painful. I was lucky to meet people along the way who threw me a lifeline when I was drowning. I feel like I’ve come out the other side of this and I’m going to be OK." Others in the LastWager support group agree that getting help for themselves, even if loved ones are still gambling, was the best thing they could have done. Despite the pain of talking about what they’ve been through, they express hope that their stories will help others whose loved ones may have a gambling problem. "If you aren’t sure, listen to your heart," Nancy advises from painful experience. "Be strong, open your eyes, get professional help … and know that you’re not alone."

* Name changed to protect confidentiality


WHERE TO GET HELP • Gamblers' Treatment Center of St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Centers of New York, New York City: (718) 876-1285 • LastWager (Queens, Long Island, Suffolk, Nassau): (631) 738-0300 (24 hours daily; voicemail after hours) • 1-800-Gambler/Council on Compulsive Gambling of NJ, Inc.: (24 hour hotline): 1-800-GAMBLER (1-800-426-2537); • New York Council on Problem Gambling Phone (24 hour hotline): 1-800-437-1611; • List of New York gambling treatment, education, outreach and referral programs: • National Council on Problem Gambling searchable directory of National Certified Gambling Counselors: • Gamblers Anonymous: Online directory of locations of Gamblers Anonymous meetings (by state): • Gam-Anon ("Help for Family and Friends"): (718) 352-1671;


WARNING SIGNS OF GAMBLING PROBLEMS Compulsive gamblers are unable or unwilling to accept reality, are emotionally insecure, and want all the good things in life without working for them. They need to be a "big shot" and are willing to do anything to maintain that image.

Warning signs that your loved one may have a gambling problem include: • Obsession with sports scores, racing outcomes or stock prices • Being secretive about money — how much they have, where money comes from or where it goes • Complaints about being broke one minute, then showering people with expensive gifts the next • Borrowing money from family, friends, co-workers • Excessive absences from work • Spending large amounts of time on the Internet, "playing games", checking sports scores or stock prices • Missing household items (may have been sold or pawned for cash) • Overdue household bills, maxed out credit cards, or money pulled from checking, savings or investment accounts without explanation

See more on warning signs at: • Gam-Anon: • Gamblers’ Anonymous:


FINANCIAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR FAMILIES OF GAMBLERS Nancy*, the Manhattan mother of two, has an ex-husband who has gambled away millions of dollars on both legal and illegal gambling. "He had stacks of credit cards, he set up all our savings and investments in his own name and drained those, and he borrowed money from underworld figures who then threatened me and my children," she says. Mario*, 37, from Brooklyn, has frequently accumulated gambling debts with bookies and loan sharks. He has begged his sister and mother to bail him out on numerous occasions, hoping to hide his gambling from his wife and children. Mario’s mother has personally gone into debt to pay off Mario’s gambling debts. Shelagh’s* son, a stockbroker from Queens who knew how to work the system, gained access to her bank and brokerage accounts and nearly emptied them to pay off his gambling debts.

Credit problems and bankruptcy are common issues for gamblers and their families. Gamblers may resort to embezzlement, theft and deception to obtain money to continue gambling. Credit card companies offering easy credit, instant approval and high account limits play right into a gambler’s hands. Payday lenders springing up on every street corner give gamblers another way to get money to play. Though gamblers may say, "If only I could get my financial life straightened out, I’d never gamble again!", the National Council on Problem Gambling says financial problems are the symptom, not the cause of gambling addiction. They advise families of gamblers to protect themselves with these tips: —Close joint financial accounts shared with the gambler and open individual accounts —Guard access to credit cards, cash and financial account information —Alert creditors to the gambler’s problem and ask them not to extend any more credit —Warn family members and friends not to loan money to the gambler —Refuse to co-sign loans with the gambler

See Personal Financial Strategies for the Loved Ones of Problem Gamblers (National Council on Problem Gambling-NCPG) for more information. To order, phone NCPG at (202) 547-9204 or visit

* Name changed to protect confidentiality


POKER: THE NEWEST HOUSE OF CARDS "Poker is the new hot flavor of the month in the gambling arena," says Steve Block, president, New York Council on Problem Gambling. "High school and college age young people are gambling on poker online and in tournaments at their schools." Block attributes the heightened interest in poker among kids to the highly popular televised poker tournaments aired on ESPN, Bravo, Travel and other cable channels. In a recent two-week period, viewers had a choice of 38 televised poker tournaments to watch. In these televised tournaments, celebrities and non-celebrities pay $10,000 to $15,000 or more to play. "Typically, 300 to 400 people enter these tournaments at the beginning, and all of them but one lose all of their money," says Terry Elman, education coordinator at What concerns Elman is that kids don’t see all of those people losing their money because the networks typically air only the final table of six players playing for a huge cash prize. "It all looks very exciting and glamorous," says Elman. "And it gives kids completely the wrong idea." Tamika*, a mother of two from Westchester, saw her teenaged son get interested in poker after watching one such tournament. He started playing poker regularly at friends’ houses and over the Internet. "This started to be the social get-together for the boys," says Tamika. "At first I thought it was okay because before poker, my son always complained that they were bored and there was nothing to do. Initially, the boys in the community gathered in the evenings to play. Then, they started playing on weekday afternoons when they didn’t have classes at school. "Poker became rampant in our community," she says, with some boys dropping nearly $100 at a time on the games. When her son started playing in the afternoon, she says, "I realized that could be trouble and I insisted he get a job." While Tamika’s son has curbed his own gambling habit because he didn’t like losing money, some of his friends have continued gambling on poker and some have started going upstate to gamble at casinos, using fake IDs to gain admittance. Block has counseled parents of kids as young as 16 who have gotten involved in gambling on poker, both in live tournaments and over the Internet through online casino sites that offer poker. "The online poker sites hook the players in by letting them play for ‘free’ under the guise that players can ‘practice’ to develop their skills," Block says. "When the player feels some degree of confidence, the ‘free’ game becomes playing for real money." Players simply enter a credit card number and start playing. Because the online casino sites are virtually unregulated, there is no oversight or responsibility on the part of the casinos to prevent underage gambling, Block adds. He advises parents to be tuned in to what their kids are doing, to talk with them about the dangers of gambling and to watch for signs of potential trouble. These may include unexplained fluctuations in how much money your child has, borrowing money from friends or siblings, the unaccountable appearance of new possessions (CDs, electronics, clothes, etc.), a drop in grades at school, and truancy. Though it may look like only a game, Block warns, "This is not a harmless, benign activity."

* Name changed to protect confidentiality