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 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.