Feb. 12, 2001 -- It seemed innocent enough: A bunch of adolescents pitching quarters on a basketball court in a North Jersey suburb.
Ray was 9 years old when he started retrieving the quarters for the bigger kids. "One day, a guy won a lot of money. He won $50 pitching quarters, and I thought that was like winning a million," he recalls today. "I thought if you made money, hit it big, people would like you."
Soon, he started pitching and had his first losing streak -- he owed his brother $10 and had no way to pay him back. "I stole it from my sister's piggy bank," says Ray, who asked that his full name not be used. "Here I was embezzling. A 9-year-old embezzler."
By the time Ray was a freshman in high school, he was organizing betting pools on football and cheating so that he or a friend would win. As he grew older, he got hooked on cards, sports pools, the lottery, even stock and options trading. And he was visiting casinos and the racetrack.
Now 33, Ray is in Gamblers Anonymous, split from the woman he loved, and trying to put his life back together.
When one pictures a compulsive gambler, the images that come to mind may be the grandmother hooked on slots, or an older man in a windbreaker at the track. But the real face of the problem bettor may more often be a younger one -- more like Ray's. In fact, teens may experience gambling problems at a rate higher than adults.
Jeff Derevensky, MD, a professor of child psychology and a psychiatrist at McGill University in Montreal, and a leading researcher, estimates that as many as 4% to 8% of young people have a gambling problem, compared to 1% to 2% of adults. He says 80% of kids gamble at least once a year.
And with the rapid growth of gaming sites on the Internet, doctors who study and treat compulsive gamblers are worried that it is becoming even easier for young people to get hooked.
"Most parents are shocked when they hear me speak or read my articles, because they never view kids as getting involved in this," Derevensky tells WebMD.
Derevensky and other researchers say teens are prone to problems because they are by nature risk-takers, and because young people suffering from low self-esteem or depression are at greater risk for trouble.
However, compulsive teen gamblers often are hard to spot, at least early on. Unlike alcoholics or drug abusers, young gamblers often are athletic, outgoing, and good students -- "the kind of traits you want your kids to have," says Ed Loomey, director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. As their problems worsen, studies show, their schoolwork deteriorates, their relationships weaken, and they may begin to lie or steal. All of this starts earlier, and seemingly more innocently, than one might think.
For example, the National Council on Problem Gambling cites a study of British adolescents that found the mean age that young problem gamblers started gambling was 8.3 years for boys and 8.9 years for girls. Another survey, the group says, found that nearly half of such gamblers started before they were 10 years old.
Loomey says kids learn about gambling every time there's a scratch-off card at McDonald's, or a prize under bottle cap liners for Pepsi. "The whole society we live in is gambling oriented," he says.
What's more, options for gambling have increased exponentially, as more and more states open casinos, create lotteries, or allow legal betting on sports.
"This is the first generation of kids to grow up where gambling is not only legal, but state supported and endorsed," says Derevensky. "It used to be just Las Vegas and illegal bookmaking, but now with lotteries in most states and casinos in [many] states, parents view gambling as a glamorous activity." Sometimes, he notes, parents even give their children lottery tickets as Christmas stocking stuffers.
The bigger problems typically start in high school, when kids not only buy lottery tickets illegally -- the legal age in most states is 18 -- but get involved in sports betting. Some go to racetracks or even casinos. Recently, Loomey says, Caesars Atlantic City casino was fined $85,000 for allowing minors at the blackjack tables.
"Kids have penetrated every form of social, legalized, and illegal gambling that's available where they live or where they travel," says Durand F. Jacobs, PhD, a clinical professor of psychology at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Southern California and an early researcher into teen gambling. "There's no exception -- they gamble with bookies, with sports betting, casinos, racetracks and jai-alai games, and dog tracks and card parlors."
But no event is more popular with young gamblers than the NCAA basketball tournament, or "March Madness," that begins next month. Loomey says that two years ago in New Jersey, officials busted up a Final Four betting ring involving 17 youths, including 11 with chronic betting problems. "They were the brightest kids in the school," he says.
Ray recalls that after his high school betting pool, he started playing cards on Friday nights or cutting a deck for lunch money, then hanging out at the track. When he enrolled in college at Arizona State University, he was a bookmaker when he wasn't traveling to Las Vegas for high stakes poker.
Sometimes, he did very well. "My mother used to send me $70 for lunch money, and I'd make $500, just on Sundays," he recalls. "I'd come home and peel off $500 -- 'Here, Mom, for you.' It was all ego. She didn't know where it came from."
But more often, like most compulsive gamblers, Ray had problems. He flunked out of Arizona State and started using marijuana and cocaine. For a time he owned a deli in Woodbridge, N.J., but he had to sell it because of his gambling debts. He lost touch with family members, stopped playing sports, and gained 50 pounds. He joined Gamblers Anonymous after his girlfriend walked out on him.
Yet Ray was luckier than some young chronic gamblers. In one well-publicized case on Long Island, N.Y., three years ago, a 19-year-old with $6,000 in World Series gambling debts was killed by police after pulling a fake gun on them. He had left a note on the windshield of his car that said, "I just wanted to die." In law enforcement parlance, it's known as "suicide by police."
Some possible warning signs that a teen may have a gambling problem include these:
- Withdrawing from families and friends
- Suddenly doing poorly in school, or skipping it altogether.
"It's not really about money," says Derevensky. "Money is used as a tool to keep playing. When they're gambling, all their problems disappear. They don't deal with work problems, money problems. Nothing matters. That becomes the real reason they gamble -- they want to escape. The key is escape."
What can be done? Loomey and others are pushing for more education in public schools, so that gambling awareness will be taught in health classes alongside other addictions. He is hopeful that the New Jersey legislature will approve a K-12 curriculum this winter.
"Now," he says, "there are no red flags at all on the downside of gambling."
Kathy Bunch is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.