Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.
For most Blazers, the Blair weight room serves as a place to work out and build up strength. Kevin uses it to work up a mental sweat. After finishing a set of weights, he joins his friends, takes two dice from his pocket and rolls them with a flick of the wrist. The red dice spin around the floor as if in slow motion, teeter precariously and land with a four and three showing. He beams as he takes $10 from his friend's outstretched hand and picks up the weights for another set.
Between sets in the weight room, Kevin, a senior, can be found rolling dice. Rolling dice is a form of gambling that has become an increasingly popular activity at Blair this year, Kevin says. According to research compiled by the National Council on Problem Gambling, two to three percent of the U.S. population, or six million to nine million Americans, struggle with a gambling problem in any given year. Adolescents in particular are three times more likely to develop a gambling problem than adults, according to Steve McDaniel, associate professor at the University of Maryland's Kinesiology Department, who is currently conducting a study on gambling psychology and behavior in college students. McDaniel adds that the earlier you start, the more likely the chance of developing a serious problem later in life. He defines a problem gambler as someone who has not yet reached the point of compulsion, but may outspend their means on a regular basis. Carl Lejuez, director of the Center for Addictions, Personality and Emotions Research at the University of Maryland, says that adolescents often pursue the rewards of gambling because the part of the brain associated with rewards and excitement develops much more rapidly than the part of the brain associated with inhibition. "It's like a car with a very strong engine but very bad brakes," Lejuez says. In a world where every minute is expected to be accounted for and planned, many Blazers gamble to feel the rush and exhilaration, assert their financial independence and, if they are lucky, get rich quick.
Luck of the draw
Kevin began playing dice, also known as "craps," at the beginning of the school year when he had $1 in his pocket and decided to play a friend to try to increase his funds. He won, leaving with $2 in his pocket. "I think that opened up a gateway," Kevin says, adding that he instantly noticed all the dice players around him, who were invisible to him before. Lejuez says that although money may be a gateway, the exhilaration that comes with the risks involved is often what initially causes novice gamblers to continue gambling. Nick, a senior, is a prime example - he says that although he often wanted to stop rolling dice, he was drawn in by the euphoric feeling he experienced when he won. "I felt like I was on top of the world, like nothing was going to bring me down. I felt more cocky," Nick says. This feeling of invincibility kept him from giving it up - even when he was broke and depressed. After a while, however, Lejuez says people build up a tolerance to the thrill and are compelled to gamble more to get excited.
For Kevin, however, gambling is still a novelty. He says that the combination of adrenaline while playing and the financial incentive motivates him to continue rolling. He explains that because the game is rooted in luck, it heightens suspense - the objective of craps is to roll a sum of seven or eleven between the two dice, he says. If you roll either of these numbers, your opponent must match it by getting a seven or eleven. If they match it, Kevin says, you keep playing, but if they don't match it, the person who rolled a seven or eleven wins.
The risk of putting your money on the line, such as in a game of dice, McDaniel says, is the root of why adolescents enjoy gambling. "If you are risking your money, there's an element of excitation related to that. It's sort of like going on a roller coaster except the ups and downs are whether you are going to win or lose," McDaniel says. But the "ups" are sometimes so high that stopping seems out of the question. Kevin boasts that he has only lost four games in his four-month dice career. His best game, he says, was when he won a few Xbox games as well as $40 in cash. His most useful win was when he rolled for beef patties, and won nine - his opponent gave him one a day for nine straight days.
Kevin says that he's indiscriminate when it comes to where he'll play dice: in the weight room, around the hallways or even in class. "Anywhere and everywhere," he says with a laugh, as he fingers the dice that almost always line his pockets. He tries to act casual, however, so that he doesn't attract attention from building service workers or security guards walking the hallways. He says that during lunch, he will just walk up to someone casually and roll on the floor, rather than crouching and drawing attention to himself. But although gambling is prohibited in school and the punishment can be up to three to five days of ISS, Kevin says that only one building service worker will threaten to report them to the administration if he sees them playing. He has never heard of anyone who has gotten seriously in trouble. If you do get caught, Kevin says, it is easy to lie and say there was no money involved.
Dice has spread especially quickly at Blair this year, he says, although play has dropped off since the beginning of the school year. He explains that this is not out of the ordinary - each year has its own faddish "gambling scene" he says, pointing out that the class of 2008 played a lot of spades.
But not all Blair gambling aficionados play at school. Tom, a senior, plays poker and bets on sports teams with his friends on the weekends. He says he first became enthralled by poker at age 5, when he would watch his grandfather play. His grandfather taught Tom to play Texas Hold 'Em, a form of poker, which he has mastered since then.
Tom says he often uses money from his father to gamble, and very rarely does he take money out of his paycheck to play poker. But for Nick, gambling is a way to establish his independence - he has found his own source of money without having to depend on his parents. "It gives me the freedom to buy what I want without having my parents questioning me or bugging me about 'wasting' their money," Nick says.
Although Tom's introduction to poker came through his grandfather, McDaniel says that poker has recently exploded among adolescents since it was televised on ESPN. With this new exposure, many adolescents have begun to see professional poker players as role models, he says. "Some people watch ESPN and see football players and aspire to be an athlete. [Now], a lot of people see these people in the World Series poker competitions and say, 'I want to be a poker player,'" McDaniel says, adding that poker is now the third-most widely televised "sport" on ESPN.
Tom says that he typically plays poker twice a week with his friends, and the group varies from small cliques of four people to bigger groups of 10 participants. Despite the tension of the games, Tom says that being with his friends makes the atmosphere relaxed and good-natured. "When I'm with my friends, we're just laughing and playing with money," Tom says.
After a tough loss, Tom says his friends are especially supportive, cheering him up in whatever way they can. Once, after losing $50 on a basketball game, his friends treated him to dinner and a movie, he recalls.
Kevin also values the trust among his friends, even during a competitive game. There is an unspoken agreement of trust that you will watch your friends' backs even when competing against them, he says. "If you are in debt, they'll help you get your money back, and if they are in debt, you'll help them," Kevin says. It is generally considered impolite to "roll, win and walk away," he says. Rather, if someone loses, Kevin says many people play "double or nothing," meaning both people roll again for the same amount of money gambled. This way, the loser has a chance to come back and break even. The loser, however, risks losing twice as much money. These unspoken gambling guidelines emphasize the fact that after someone loses, it is only fair to give them the chance to win it back, although Kevin says not all people abide by this rule.
This code of conduct fostered a culture of self-confidence among dice players at Blair. Kevin explains that people adopt a "swagger" and drop phrases such as "Good sir, trying to roll some dice?" or "Play me for a buck?" to show an interest in playing dice with someone. This concept of swagger provides an environment where Kevin can feel more confident than he does in any other place in school - he refers to money as "skrilla," roughhouses and speaks with an air of self-assurance, things he feels uncomfortable doing outside his gambling friends.
Cashing in one's chips
Although it is easy to run on the adrenaline of a winning streak, when Nick was rolling dice five to 10 times a day, losing his money often left him discouraged and depressed. He would walk into class angry, disheartened that the fat wad of cash in his pocket was now slim.
This anger quickly translated into an intense desire to win it back through another game of dice. McDaniel says that this vicious cycle is what often keeps adolescents from stopping. "Oftentimes, people get caught in a spiral of losing money and then trying to win it back," he says. Nick would once again join the group of people sitting back-to-back rolling dice throughout lunch, so absorbed in the game that they rarely took a bite of food. And sometimes, he would get lucky enough to win it back, reinforcing the idea that if he kept playing he would win at some point. Lejuez says this is called "gambler's fallacy" - the idea that if you are on a losing streak, probability will turn in your favor during the next game.
Nick recalls one particular game at the beginning of lunch when he lost $34. He was frustrated that he would be walking away without a chunk of the money he had earned from working. But his friend gave him a measly dollar, which Nick thought he might as well gamble away to try to win back his lost money. And Lady Luck was on his side that time - he "banked" his opponent, meaning he won back all the money he had lost and more. Nick walked from 5B lunch to his next class with a confident stride and $60 in cash stuffed in his pocket.
But this cycle of losing money and trying to win it back soon came to a screeching halt - after security began to crack down on gamblers at Blair, and his losses began to outweigh his wins, Nick stopped. After his father nearly found out he was rolling dice, Nick also began to wonder about what his parents would think if they knew he was gambling on a daily basis, sometimes with money they had given him. Nick began the process of giving up a few months into school by telling people he trusted to hold on to his money or simply bringing less cash to school. Eventually, he no longer felt the attraction. He explains that part of his decision was influenced by the fact that he anticipated the temptation in college and wanted to stop before then. "I just wanted to stop now. If I go on to college, I know it's going to get out of hand," Nick says.
Lejuez says that although for some people, like Nick, giving up gambling is relatively easy, it is an extremely difficult process for others. "It's tough for many people to understand that for some it really is easy to stop, and for others it's about the hardest thing they've ever had to do," Lejuez says.
In the cards
Though it certainly made a dent in his wallet, Nick does not regret his gambling craze. "It was fun while it lasted," he says. He also explains that it taught him the importance of handling his finances. "It made me realize that you shouldn't put things on the line, especially money. You should save it for things that are more worthy."
Tom says that the risks he has taken while playing poker have allowed him to break out of his shell and given him courage to meet new people and do things he would have been afraid to do beforehand. He has made plans to go skydiving in the near future. "[Gambling] gave me courage. In gambling you need to know to bet on something so you can't be afraid to go for it," Tom says. "Thanks to that, I'll do anything."
Although money and excitement fluctuates in the life of a gambler, the risk and thrill of the spin of a die or the cards in a deck compels many Blazers to let the chips fall where they may.
If you think someone you know has a gambling problem, call 1-800-522-4700, the 24-hour confidential national hotline for the National Council for Problem Gambling.
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