ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — As a high school senior, Nick was blessed with a deadly accurate jump shot from the three-point range – something he was quick to monetize.
He and his gym classmates not far from the Jersey Shore would compete to see who could make the most baskets, at $5 or $10 a pop.
“It gave a different dynamic to the day, a certain level of excitement,” Nick said. “Little did I know how far it would continue to go.”
Before long, he was gambling staggering sums of money on sports, costing him over $700,000 in the past decade. He hit rock bottom last year when he stole $35,000 from his workplace and gambled it away on international tennis and soccer matches – sports he admittedly knew nothing about.
Wagering is now easier than ever for adults – and children – and there’s a growing movement in the U.S. to offer problem gambling education courses in public schools to teach teenagers how easily and quickly things can go wrong with betting.
It’s a trend that Nick wishes had existed when his gambling habit took root in high school and led him on a path to financial ruin. He asked not to be identified by his full name because he has pending criminal charges stemming from his gambling addiction. The 27-year-old plans to look for work after his charges are resolved, and he fears the job hunt will be even harder if he’s identified publicly as a compulsive gambler.
The rapid expansion of legalized sports betting in 33 states, with three more states coming soon, has brought steps designed to keep children from gambling, including age confirmation and identity checks. But teens can bypass betting restrictions and place wagers on their phones by using a parent or other relative’s account, or via unregulated offshore betting sites that can be less vigilant about age checks. And some teens have weekend poker games where hundreds of dollars are won or lost, often fueled by money from parents.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, 60% to 80% of high school students report having gambled for money during the past year; 4% to 6% of these students are considered at risk of developing a gambling problem.
Now, a few states are moving toward gambling education in public schools. The effort is in its infancy, and the details of what would be taught are still to be determined.
Virginia enacted a law last year requiring schools to have classes on gambling and its addictive potential. The state Board of Education is still formulating the curriculum and must report back to state government before lessons can begin.
Other states are trying as well, including New Jersey and Michigan. Similar legislation failed in Maryland and West Virginia in recent years, but they’re expected to try again.
The legal gambling age in many states is 21, but is as low as 18 in others.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the problem gambling council, recently spoke to a group of 40 high school juniors in Virginia.
“Every single one of them said either they bet, or said their friends bet,” he said. “Almost every single one of them had sports betting apps on their phones; some were legal; more were not.”
Whyte said widespread gambling risk education could be “comparable to the dramatic reduction in drunk driving deaths from when drinking and driving education became widespread.”
Teresa Svincek is a teacher at a suburban Maryland school outside Washington, where many of her students are “heavily into sports betting” and weekly poker games.
“They laugh at losing hundreds of dollars over a weekend,” she said. “When I was their age, I was busy working to earn money, and losing what they lose over a weekend was what I made in a month. I think these kids are the future tip of the iceberg.”
Teen gambling can take other forms, too. So-called “loot boxes” in online games offer prizes to players, but they have to spend real money to get the rewards. Buying tokens or other game equipment has been a fixture of online games for years, Whyte said, and it can get children to normalize the idea of spending money to “win” something.
Dan Trolaro, vice president of prevention at EPIC Risk Management and a recovered compulsive gambler, said gambling is the logical next issue to address in the classroom.
“We educate very well on alcohol, on substances, on stranger danger, on cannabis,” he said. “But we don’t do anything around gambling.”
Maryland state Sen. Bryan Simonaire has tried twice in recent years to pass a gambling education bill, unsuccessfully.
“We have been expanding gambling in Maryland, and the schools got extra money for education,” said Simonaire. “I went to them and said, ‘Yes, you got the money from gambling, but you also have the responsibility to help those who will become addicted to gambling.’”
Simonaire’s father died penniless after gambling binges near his home in Arizona.
The American Gaming Association, the national trade group for the commercial casino industry, recently adopted an advertising code of conduct. It aims to make sure gambling ads don’t appear in places that will likely be primarily seen or read by children. But restrictions only go so far, as kids may simply use their parents’ accounts to bet.
The money Nick made shooting three-pointers in his New Jersey gym class soon turned into a $300 to $500 a week gambling habit. His first big bet was on the 2013 NBA finals, when he lost $200 backing the San Antonio Spurs in a bet with a friend.
“Even at that early point, there was this chase involved: If only I could win that $200 back, or how great would it be if I could win $300 on the next bet?” he said. “You want back what you lost.”
Fresh out of high school, Nick was betting large sums with bookies.
Last July, while working at a business selling high-value sports trading cards, Nick took a $35,000 payment from a customer and lost it in a weekend of gambling, mostly on overseas tennis and soccer matches, “things I knew nothing about.” He confessed to his boss, who called police, and Nick was charged with theft. He hopes to have the charge expunged from his criminal record through a pre-trial intervention program for nonviolent offenders.
Nick thinks having some sort of gambling education in high school would have made a “huge” difference in his life.
“I couldn’t see that I was in a cycle that started at an early age,” he said. “I might have been more conscious of how much money I was going through on a daily basis and what I was doing to myself.”
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