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Raising the stakes: the lives of student gamblers

By in Features

NICOLE SIENA
The Eyeopener (Ryerson University)

Student gamling is a big problem, as illustrated by these giant playing cards.

TORONTO (CUP) — Jamie Weidl began playing poker with his friends in grade eight. It didn’t take long before what had started as an after-school hobby turned into something much more serious.

By the time he was 16, Weidl had created an online poker account on a website that allowed him to play any time and bet as much as he wanted. He started by putting $50 into his account. He lost the money and reloaded the account with $50 two more times. After the third deposit, though, he started to make money and never had to reload his account funds again.

It didn’t take long before he was playing up to 16 hours a day, turning a profit at a game he enjoyed.

“Maybe I wouldn’t play for a few days, but then there would be three weeks where I didn’t even leave my apartment,” Weidl said. “It was definitely an addiction.”

According to a study done by Ontario’s Responsible Gaming Council in 2005, one in 14 individuals in the 18 to 24-year-old demographic have a moderate to severe gambling problem and men are twice as likely as women to have the issue.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says gambling is a problem when it gets in the way of work, school or other activities, harms mental or physical health, causes financial harm, damages reputation, or causes problems with family or friends.

Weidl eventually dropped out of school to focus on poker. He was in his second year of the geographic analysis program at Ryerson University in Toronto when he decided to leave his academic life behind to play online poker full time. He even got a sponsorship from one gambling website.

“They would pay me, basically, to play on the site,” Weidl explained. “The more I played, the more they would give me. I was close to a major sponsorship, where they would pay me to go to events.”

However, in April 2011 the FBI seized the three largest poker sites in the United States, charging 11 defendants with fraud and money laundering. Weidl’s online career was essentially over and he moved back to Windsor, where he now plays at a casino for 50 hours a week.

Mathematically, typical gamblers don’t have Weidl’s success rate. Even if they do, Weidl says a long run of bad luck can leave them with nothing unless they have a big wallet.

“If you don’t have enough money to back yourself, then you can put yourself into a hole,” he said.

Most gamblers inevitably lose. But the thrill of winning money, the same one that keeps Weidl at the poker tables, can easily hold a losing player too, creating social and financial problems.

To raise gambling addictions awareness Ontario’s RGC created a program called Know the Score.

“We go into colleges and universities, talk to students about key messages and what the risks are” with gambling, said Barry Koen-Butt, the director of awareness programs and communications for the RGC.

The program, which started in 2001, is now on more than 26 campuses across Canada.

Robert Williams, a professor in the faculty of health science at Lethbridge University and a research coordinator with the Albertan Gambling Research Institute, said management and kinesiology students are the most likely to develop gambling problems in university.

Williams said that the management students’ gambling problems probably have to do with an interest in money, but that kinesiology students have a more complex story.

“Athletes have a much higher gambling involvement and [a higher rate of] problem gambling than other people,” Williams said. “There’s something about athleticism that is associated with risk taking.”

Weidl has read over 30 books on poker to educate himself on the game.

“It’s like a textbook. It’s teaching you what to do in order to make money,” he said. “If you don’t keep your strategy up, luck will eventually run out and you’ll fall behind. There will always be days where you’ll lose.”

According to professor Williams, young gamblers lack preparedness. Unlike driving, where teenagers go through a series of graduated licensing, gambling comes with no manual.

“You can’t take your kids to casinos and parents are discouraged from playing a game of poker with their kids,” he said. “There’s no period of training and so young adults have no experienced knowledge. They’re naive.”

Young adults in university or college are also more prone to gambling problems than their peers who didn’t go to post-secondary institutions, Williams said. He believes students hanging out with other students who have high-risk lifestyles by living in places like student residences contribute to this phenomenon.

“Their behaviour seems normative to their peers,” he said. “It also points to the fact that intellectual smarts in itself does not inoculate you from addiction.”

Ongoing support is important for students who have been identified as problem gamblers, Williams said.

“You need a social context that you can exist in that doesn’t involve gambling,” he said. “It’s an episodic and chronic condition. You need a lifelong effort to minimize” the effects of gambling.


Illustration: Samantha Braun/The Sheaf

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