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Poker News | PokerWorks Op-Ed

Poker Plus - The Dark Side

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Gambling and the people who gamble have long held an interest for me. Maybe it is because I have at least two problem gamblers in my family. There may well be more, since I have dozens of cousins I have never met, but I can only say for sure there are two. Unfortunately one of them is very close to me.  Not in miles but in heart and relationship. I say unfortunately because it is my brother, and try as I might to help him, everything I say falls on deaf ears.  A sad fact of life is – you can’t help someone who won’t let you.

Years ago when I spent my time pitching tickets (dealing) I saw many manic, compulsive, and addicted gamblers. Back in the day before Indian casinos, if you wanted to gamble in California, card rooms were all that was available – unless you wanted to head over the hill to Reno. Most gamblers chose to stay close to home, having a sudden urge to gamble after a few cocktails. I would like to say they had the good judgment to not drive while drinking, but the fact is they just wanted some fast action and didn’t want to drive three hours to get to it.

One player in particular fueled my interest in problem gambling and how it relates to depression.  It was watching and listening to “Woody” over the years that made me realize he really had a problem, and one he couldn’t control. And if Woody had this problem, how many others did as well?

Woody was a great guy and a pleasure to be around. He was retired and still owned property that provided him and his wife a good income. His kids were grown and successful, his wife took care of their beautiful home and they appeared to have the world by the tail. Woody was a softie too, he never said no to anyone who needed a hand, which meant he loaned thousands of dollars out, never seeing a penny returned.

The dark side to Woody’s life was gambling and he always had to play big, which meant he thrived on our no-limit games because they fed his compulsion. Woody’s wife told me once that he had been getting help for his depression in the form of medication and therapy. She also told me that Woody’s Doctor said his gambling was fueled by his depression. Woody told me more than once “If I win - I can’t sleep, if I lose – I sleep like a baby” needless to say that amazed me, since I was just the opposite.

Skip ahead and as the years go by, Woody’s wife died, he gambled even more and lost everything. In his later years he was sleeping in his car, homeless in the casino parking lot. I had moved away and was not there to see this sad ending.  I know one thing; if I had still lived there Woody would have had a place to lay his head and food to eat, every night if he chose to. Not because I owed him anything other than kindness to a human being who had always been kind to everyone he met. All those people he helped for so many years and not one stepped up to the plate to help him when he was down. Maybe that is the core of gamblers, that most have no heart, certainly all Woody’s “friends” didn’t. Woody is gone now, but his plight sticks in my mind as I try to find a way for his story not to be repeated, not with my brother or anyone else.

Several studies have been done over the years linking depression to compulsive gambling. The evidence is there, the sad part is the people who have the problem don’t or won’t get help. As with all addictions, the first step is honesty.  You must be honest with yourself; if you won’t admit you have a problem and need help, then there is no way you will ever get any and be cured.

There is a big difference between recreational gambling and problem gambling as we all know.  Poker is not as big of a draw for the problem gambler, maybe because it doesn’t tend to offer the fast, big win they crave. Slots, pit games and sports betting seem to entice them much more than poker seems to, they can bet bigger and the action is faster.

 My belief is the more we know and understand, the better armed we are to help someone who has this problem. So, feeling the need for more ammunition, I found the following in my research.

In Scotland, research concerning gambling and depression has been conducted on clinical populations. The study examined the relationship between gambling and depression across a large cross section of people. Thirty-seven colleges and universities across Scotland participated in the research, with 2,259 people aged sixteen years of age or over being used in the study. It was found that pathological (compulsive) gamblers had significantly higher depression rate than problem gamblers, non-problem gamblers, and non-gamblers. An interesting fact from this study showed that female problem and pathological gamblers had a particularly high rate of depressive symptoms.  This may suggest that depression may be a prominent feature of problematic female gambling.  As a result of this study, university experts have called on state governments and the gaming industry in Scotland to recognize the seriousness of conditions such as depression and social isolation, as contributing factors among people potentially at risk of developing gambling problems.

And closer to home, more studies have been done and new information released. Did you know there was a “Responsible Gambling Awareness Week” here in the US? I sure didn’t.

Speaking in 2007 to mark Responsible Gambling Awareness Week, Professor Alun Jackson, Co-Director of the Problem Gambling Research and Treatment Centre, announced a new study, authored jointly with the Centre’s co-director Professor Shane Thomas, of over 2,000 adults, which showed that problem gamblers were:

•    18.8 times more likely than non- problem gamblers to display severe psychological distress
•    4.3 times more likely to show hazardous alcohol use than non- problem gamblers
•    2.4 times more likely to be depressed than non- problem gamblers.

Professor Jackson said that recent evidence in the US revealed that three quarters of problem gamblers who reported other conditions such as depression, alcohol abuse or substance abuse, experienced this condition prior to the onset of their problem gambling.

Professor Jackson also said that compared with non-problem gamblers, problem gamblers were:

•    3.1 times more likely to have a family member with gambling problems
•    2.1 times more likely to have a friend with gambling problems
•    2.4 times more likely to have a workmate with a gambling problem
•    5.6 times more likely to be divorced than non- problem gamblers
•    11 times less likely to be able to call on friends, family or neighbors when they need help, than non- problem gamblers
•    Much less likely to feel valued by society, to undertake voluntary work or be a member of a community or sports group than non- problem gamblers, and are nine times more likely to dislike living in their community.

The study also showed that problem gamblers exhibited a pattern of disconnectedness and perceived lack of support within their communities.  Professor Jackson concluded that the Centre’s ‘Problem Gambling and Depression Study’ data clearly indicate that family and immediate social environmental risk factors are also important as well as the individual risk factors such as depression.

In a study of young people and gambling, these concerns were addressed:

•    Both suicide and problem gambling among youth are two growing areas of public health concern
•    Youths have a higher prevalence rate of problem gambling than adults

And out of Australia, comes a report from Australia's University of Queensland.  According to their study, brain atrophy in late adulthood can lead to unintended racial prejudice, social inappropriateness, depression and gambling problems. As humans age, the brain begins to shrink in weight and volume, causing significant atrophy in the front lobes, which can inhibit thought and behavior.  Psychologist Bill von Hippel reports in a study appearing in the October 2007 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, that this condition in late adulthood may lead to unintended prejudice, social inappropriateness, depression and gambling problems. The study found:

•    Older, white adults showed greater stereotyping toward African Americans than younger white adults did, despite being more motivated to control their prejudices.
•    Older adults were more likely than younger adults to inquire about private issues including weight gain and family problems in public settings.
•    A penchant for gambling can be toxic for older adults, as those with poor executive functioning are particularly likely to have gambling problems. These problems are exacerbated in the afternoon, when older adults are less mentally alert.
•    The inability to control their behaviors also led to depression in many elderly adults.

Older adults were more likely to get into an unnecessary argument and were also more likely to gamble all their money away later rather than earlier in the day, the study found.
Researchers suggested scheduling the social activities or gambling excursions of the elderly earlier in the day when they are more mentally alert. Does this sound like a solution? How are these elderly people being helped by changing the time they are allowed to gamble? If the problem is related to a medical condition such as brain atrophy, I doubt timing their activities will cure the problem.
And if this is true about brain atrophy and the behaviors we may exhibit as we get older, this alone is enough to throw me into depression.  I never envisioned myself in my “golden years” as being prejudiced, telling my friends how fat they are and losing all my money gambling.

So maybe some researchers have their heads screwed on backwards, but the evidence is there that problem gambling can stem from psychological, mental, and physical conditions like depression.

Knowing there is a problem and the possible causes doesn’t make it go away, or give us the ability to fix it. But, it can give us some insight for understanding and have more patience to keep trying to help those we care about who are afflicted.

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