Online Gambling Addiction

How to recognize and help someone with a problem

Peter is an intelligent and pleasant 14-year-old boy. Until recently an A student and a keen participant in school team sports, he has begun a serious decline. He is barely passing and has dropped out of the school sports teams. His thoughts and actions revolve around online poker. Playing mainly on the free option, he has had a few good wins.

The falling marks and lack of sleep provided a signal that something was wrong. Peter now attends meetings at Gamblers Anonymous and has attended a number of counseling sessions with an addiction counselor. His life is becoming refocused.

Adrian owns a small business. This was thriving until his focus shifted to online gambling. Sitting behind his computer all day, he began avoiding calls from creditors and customers. As the business declined and the debt increased, Adrian lied to those who were close to him. At last, he recognized that he had a problem and sought help through Gamblers Anonymous. He has not missed a meeting in 4 years. His business is once again thriving, and he has healthy relationships.

Online gambling is one of the fastest-growing and most profitable industries in the world today. An online casino can pull in the punters at a fraction of the cost of a land-based casino. No need for dealers, tables, chairs, cards, machines, refreshments, air conditioning and so on. All it takes is a powerful server, good-quality software and support staff to handle the financial transactions (though these are mostly automated). The product is simply the chance to wager a bet against the house and perhaps win. The odds are always in favor of the house. The casino will always win in the long run - a statistical certainty.

Pathological or compulsive gambling has been recognized as a disease since the 1980s. Official statistics indicate that while most people are able to gamble in a controlled manner, about 3 percent of the population become pathological or compulsive gamblers. Some believe this figure to be much higher.

The disease model of gambling follows three stages: winning, losing and desperation.

At first, the gambler is able to play and leave while ahead. Gambling becomes an adventure, and the gambler believes that he or she has the skill to beat the odds. As the frequency of gambling increases, so do the losses. The gambler's self-esteem ebbs. More time and money is spent chasing losses. Stakes become higher and losses more frequent. No win is ever enough, and the gambler continues gambling until all the money is gone. Bills remain unpaid. As resources dry up and debts mount, the gambler may begin to borrow money from family, friends, loan sharks and employers - loans that are sometimes obtained without the knowledge or consent of the lender.

Now, the gambler is desperate. Sleeping problems are common. Frequent mood swings occur. The family may become estranged, and marriage breakups are common. The gambler has become an expert liar. Gambling is his or her first and only preoccupation. Having lost the life savings, home and other possessions, the gambler hits rock bottom and resorts to self-destruction to put an end to the nightmare. Although others can see it, the gambler denies that he or she has a problem. Eventually, he or she seeks help - often precipitated by the partner or family.

Online gambling is virtually identical to any other form of gambling, be it at a casino, a race track or a sporting event. The main difference lies in the invisibility and accessibility of online gambling. Compulsive gamblers can and do spend three days at a casino. Someone will notice. An online gambler can spend his day at work apparently very busy but actually gambling. Back at home, the gambler is busy until the early hours of the morning on the computer, doing an "urgent report for work." Work standards fall. Relationships deteriorate. Debts mount. Accounts are unpaid. Calls are unanswered. Household items are pawned or sold. Loan sharks come knocking at the door. So the cycle continues.

If you suspect that someone has a gambling problem, look out for these signs:

  • Frequent mood swings.
  • He or she may look stressed and drawn or show a lack of sleep.
  • Long hours spent at the computer.
  • Depression.
  • Financial problems.
  • Falling performance at work, business or school.

You can also check the Internet sites visited and the time spent online for signs of something out of the ordinary. Most companies can do this quite easily.

Helping the problem online gambler can be difficult. Usually he or she will deny that there is a problem. If he or she admits to the problem, then action becomes much simpler. Options include:

  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Counseling
  • Self-help support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous

Gamblers Anonymous is based closely on the AA model using a 12-step program. The partners and family of compulsive gamblers are usually deeply affected by the gambling and may themselves need counseling and support.

Steps to be followed by those closest to the gambler:

  1. Take control of all finances. Do not allow the gambler access to credit cards or bank accounts.
  2. Provide an ultimatum, and stick to it if necessary.
  3. If possible, restrict the gambler's access to the Internet.
  4. Ask or force the gambler to go to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. This could help the gambler to admit to a problem.
  5. Provide support and encourage the gambler to attend meetings or therapy sessions.
  6. Adopt a one-day-at-a-time approach.
  7. Use tough love.

If you cannot help the gambler, then at least help yourself. Join a group for partners of gamblers or seek counseling. Take control of your own life.

Pathological or compulsive online gambling is a growing problem. The best chance of long-term recovery is through a fellowship, but even then, success rates are low. If you suspect that someone close to you may be a compulsive gambler, then seek help.

By Barry Marcus