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The cost of wagering: students and gambling


Walking up the creaky, wooden stairs and into a room with only a sunken futon and a television resting on an upside down garbage can, this house seems to resemble that of any other male college student. However, venturing into the house just a few steps further, one enters a whole new world.

It's the world of online gambling. Rob, an incoming sophomore at UMD, sits in a small room, a palace of technology. Four flat-screen computers accompanied only by other technology equipment rest on a sturdy, oversized desk. In the kitchen are a sink of last week's dirty dishes and a stack of mail lying next to empty pizza boxes. But in this room, there are no distractions, except maybe intertwining cords turning this way and that.

Rob stares intently at his computer screen as he reaches the final two in an online poker tournament of over a thousand people all over the world. First place is $3,000.

"My heart was racing waiting for the river to fall," says Rob, a phrase in poker meaning the last card on the board.

Rob, an avid Texas Hold 'Em No Limit player, is one of few college students who choose to spend their time gambling online. His opponent could only catch two of the remaining aces in the deck, which gives him only a five percent chance to win.

"Luckily, he didn't win," says Rob letting out a long overdue sigh of relief after the final card was turned.

Sometimes, but not always an addiction

In a 2006 study of 9,931 students from 14 different Minnesota Colleges by Boynton Health Services, fewer than one in ten students admitted gambling once a month or more. Half of the students reported participating in some form of gambling at least once. While this frequency may not be dangerously high, the possibility of becoming a compulsive gambler is still there.

Kathy Morris, Director of Health Services at UMD, explains this through the concept of intermittent reinforcement. This means that the gambler can't predict when he or she is going to win. For example, with drinking, the consequences are much more predictable.

"Students know if this party gets too loud, the cops will come. Or, ‘If I have any more drinks, I'll get sick,’ " says Morris. "With gambling, it's not a consistent thing you can count on. People think 'Oh, I'm due any time to win,' but this isn't the case."

Morris says there are a few students who come in voluntarily to get help with their addiction, but not many. It is difficult to measure the prevalence of gambling among college students because it doesn't make as much of a ripple in the community as drinking. Students know that come Monday morning, the stories about who got drinking tickets, which parties got busted, and what dorms got written up will make their way around campus.

"These kinds of measurable consequences are not present with gambling," says Morris. "The amount of people that come in for help with an alcohol addiction is no higher than those that come in for help with a gambling addiction."

For most college students, however, gambling does not cause problems. It is a social or recreational activity.

Keith Whyte, Executive Director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, says fortunately, the majority of those who gamble don’t develop an addiction.

"However, any recreational usage has a chance of being problematic," Whyte says. "All of a sudden twice a year turns into twice a day."

Poker as income

Rob says he does not have a problem, and can't picture himself developing one.

"I have never gone in debt from gambling, never regretted my decisions the next day, and it hasn't negatively affected any of my relationships," says Rob.

Rob started gambling online at the age of 16 after seeing his two older cousins making money. He got his first job working at a grocery store when he was 15, but has taken up poker as means of paying rent on his condo in Duluth and paying off his school loans from Mankato State University where he attended his freshman year of college.

"I look at poker as a job," he says. "Some days it sucks, other days it doesn't. I don't play for the rush that many problem gamblers chase. I mainly play it for economic reasons."

Luck, a word many people believe is essential for any card player to have, is not central to the game Rob says. For a skillful player, it takes no luck to win over a long period of time.

"The difference is that luck is pretty much a one time thing," says Rob. "In the long run, the lucky player will go broke because the math behind the game will never fail."

He explains it like this. If two players meet and Player One is supposed to win, Player Two (the underdog) can get lucky and win any given day, but if they played 100 games, Player One (the favorite) will surely win more often.

"I don't just put money in and hope I win," says Rob, "It's skill-based, like any other job."

Now 20 years old, Rob says gambling will remain a lifelong hobby, but he plans on getting a job in the future with his business major. For now, on a good night, Rob can make multiple thousands. He averaged $70 an hour this past month and depending on his schedule, plays anywhere from two to three hours a night. Some players make up to $1,000 an hour.

"It's best at night because that's when the drunks come out," says Rob, "and usually their judgment is impaired."

The internet versus casinos

According to Whyte, online gambling poses more dangerous consequences than gambling in casinos.

"It has additional risk factors for addiction such as a high speed of play, 24 hour access, social isolation, and use of non cash payment," says Whyte.

However, gambling online seems to be less popular among college students.

Zach Olson, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin Superior, says he and his friends have never gambled online but do like to go to the casino every now and then.

"It's somewhere to go, something to do when there's nothing else going on," he says. "Of course it's nice if we leave with more cash than we came with, but it's not a necessity for us."

Olson has kept a running total of his wins and losses out at Black Bear Casino this year and says he's up $85.

"It's not much, but it pays for my groceries," he says. "My friends and I get pretty competitive though. We usually make bets about who will come out with the most money."

Back in Duluth, Rob takes a seat at his computer desk, preparing for a different kind of competition than that at a blackjack table in the casino. He readies himself for another night at work, enrolling in an online poker tournament with hundreds of hopeful winners.

"I always like a challenge," Rob says as he wipes off the already spotless desk with a sweep of his arm. "Of course there is the money factor, but it's something I never get tired of because you can’t ever master it."

In the kitchen will remain that half eaten pizza crust, but right now it's time to concentrate, to calculate odds, to pay off that student loan, to spend another night at the office.