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UConn slow to respond to growing gambling culture

By Jeremy Katz
On April 28, 2010

An 18-year-old UConn student drives to Mohegan Sun, one of the two large casinos within an hour of the campus.  He carries a Sun "Club Card" and fake ID, which he knows will get him onto the gaming floor.  


A 19-year-old UConn sophomore frequently enters online poker tournaments and wins big.  He has made almost $175,000 gambling online in recent years, but has also had a single "downswing" of about $40,000.  


Several UConn students gather for a weekly poker game in the study lounge of a residence hall.  The game is just one of many scattered about the campus, with buy-ins ranging from $5 to $200.  


These students, all of whom are male, offer a glimpse into what Barry Schreier, UConn's director of Counseling and Mental Health Services called "widespread" gambling at UConn that includes online poker and sports betting, and is magnified by the school's proximity to Connecticut's two casinos.


Despite this growing gambling culture, UConn has been slow to respond with policies or student outreach.


Along with increased gambling, university counselors are seeing more cases of gambling addiction in people being treated for other problems, said Schreier.


While the vast majority of gamblers are considered responsible, close to 5 percent are considered "problem gamblers," numerous studies have found. College students are considered twice as likely to engage in problem gambling as the general population.


Sometimes the figures are higher. A 2008 survey of 2,000 students at seven Florida colleges found nearly one in five could be categorized as "problem gamblers" or exhibiting problems stemming from gambling. The most recent study on college gambling in Connecticut in 2004 surveyed all four Connecticut State University campuses, and found 11.4 percent of students were either pathological or problem gamblers.


While other colleges in Connecticut and around the country conduct outreach programs and survey students to learn about attitudes and gambling practices, UConn officials don't have any research demonstrating gambling behaviors on the Storrs campus.  


Additionally, UConn has no outreach programs or a policy in its student conduct code specific to gambling, and instead relies on the school's counseling center to offer services.


Referring to the student code, UConn spokesman Michael Kirk said the university cannot spell out every rule that students should adhere to. Students are expected to use "common sense" and obey all state and federal laws regarding gambling, he said. The only policy in place at the university prohibits UConn employees from gambling while on the clock.


Lt. Hans Rhynhart of the UConn Police said he cannot remember any investigations into gambling during his 10 years at UConn. If illegal gambling occurs, police would be notified about it through tips from faculty or students and initiate an investigation, Rhynhart said.

Addiction is hard to detect


Schreier said that while gambling on campus is prevalent, gambling addiction is harder to detect than other addictions, such as eating disorders or alcohol abuse.
"Of the addictions we know are on campus, this is one that doesn't come in the door very often," said Schreier. More often, gambling addiction emerges during the course of general treatment.


Experts say that a major problem is identifying addictive gambling behavior, which easily can go undetected by friends, faculty and the students themselves. This results in few students with potential problems coming forward to seek help.


Colleges around the country have begun to reach beyond the traditional counseling centers to educate students about the risks of problem gambling and are increasingly trying to connect potential problem gamblers to the proper help.


The Institute of Gambling Education Research at the University of Memphis, for example, combines research with rehabilitation in one facility, including the Gambling Lab, a research center designed to look and feel like a casino to recreate the stimuli that people experience.
In Connecticut, Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic uses a $1,500 grant from the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling (CCPG) for a variety of outreach programs on campus and has established a gambling awareness month. Sacred Heart University in Fairfield has used a CCPG grant to survey students' attitudes on gambling.


UConn is the only public state college not to seek a grant from the CCPG to do outreach focused on problem gambling, said Mary Drexler, CCPG assistant director.

The draw of casinos


UConn's lack of attention to gambling is amplified by the presence of the country's two largest casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino, which counselors say have a unique effect on the campus.


Casino gambling is the most frequent form of gambling addiction seen by the UConn counseling center, Schreier said.


 "I hear this from my colleagues at Eastern as well, that having the two largest casinos in the country in our backyard certainly impacts our campuses differently than folks where there are not a lot of casinos," he said.


Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are about 30 miles from the campus, and both can be reached in less than an hour.


The casinos are not only a draw for older students. Some underage students gamble at the casinos with little interference.


Justin Radano, a 21-year-old political science major, said he was able to procure a Club Card at Mohegan Sun at age 18 using a fake Wisconsin driver's license. It served as a free pass while he gambled underage for three years, never again asked for identification other than his Club Card.


Metsfan512, as he is known on the Internet, a 19-year-old UConn sophomore, is still underage but said he has gambled at casinos with relative ease.


"As long as you don't order drinks, they don't card you," he said. "It's really not that hard at all."


The second form of gambling addiction most frequently seen at the UConn counseling center is online gambling, mainly from poker sites, Schreier said. Several students described large amounts of money changing hands online.


While Metsfan512 enjoys the casinos, his bread-and-butter is online poker, where he won $47,000 in a tournament last year. He has also lost $40,000 in what he described as a "downswing."


Online gambling is harder to detect because it is done in the privacy of a home or dorm room, Schreier said, adding that the two primary negative effects of problem gambling are monetary loss and social withdrawal into the addiction.


Experts from the CCPG agreed.


"We are seeing youth utilizing unregulated poker sites, losing financial aid and scholarship money," said Drexler.


Peter Gangi, a sophomore chemistry major, plays online poker between 10 and 15 hours a week, and at any given time he's engaged in about 30 tournaments at once. He estimated he plays in thousands of tournaments a year.


Gangi uses the money he earns from poker to pay his college tuition.
"I don't want to use specific numbers but I could easily support a family on what I make," he said.

Eastern confronts gambling


Despite its proximity to the casinos, the main gambling problems that Eastern encounters stem from online poker and sports betting, said school officials.


The recent focus was on March Madness and sports betting, said Liza Makuch, coordinator of wellness promotion. A panel of recovering addicts recently spoke on campus. Other recent activities included a cookout where bags of information regarding problem gambling were handed out.


"We try to identify problems, disseminate information and connect people to the proper resources," said Makuch, whose program is funded through the CCPG grant.


UConn's unwillingness to work with the CCPG is "surprising" in light of its close proximity to the casinos, said Drexler, whose organization is 80 percent funded by the two casinos.


Connecticut public colleges receiving CCPG grants include Central, Eastern, Southern and Western State Universities, along with private Sacred Heart University and Gateway Community College.


The CCPG originally contacted UConn through the Statewide Healthy Campus Initiative in 2007 but was told that the school handled gambling addictions internally, said Drexler. Last year, a letter was sent to the counseling center encouraging UConn to apply for a grant.


"UConn is a large university with a lot of students, and perhaps it looks like a burden, but we see it as an opportunity," Drexler said. "We will not give up."


Schreier said he was unaware of any outreach or policies aimed at gambling administered by UConn.


 But UConn is not alone in lacking basic gambling policy.


"No universities are doing a very good job," said Larry Ashley, director of the Problem Gambling Treatment Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Gambling is legal, and a fact of life. Even though there are age limits, policy [at colleges] hasn't been a priority in my experience."

Dorm poker for money


University policy is not a topic that comes up often at one of UConn's many underground poker games.


Mitch Stachura, who plays poker online between four and five hours per week, organizes a weekly poker game in a residence hall. While such poker games are frequent occurrences on campus, bystanders rarely see any money change hands.


"[It's] definitely behind the scenes," said David Thibodeau, a 20-year-old UConn student whose dorm is across the hall from Stachura's weekly game. "We know they play for money, we can hear them talk about it."


Thibodeau grew up in Rhode Island where the gambling age is 18 and said that when he turned legal age he made it a habit to visit a video gaming parlor called Twin Rivers, which has dog races and video terminals. Though he was well-paid at his summer job in the legislative grant office of the Rhode Island State Senate where he worked three or four days a week, Thibodeau hadn't saved any money by the end of the summer.


"I wasn't gambling away hundreds of thousands of dollars, but a little here and there, and it eventually built up," Thibodeau said. He hasn't gambled since coming to UConn, except for a recent $20 March Madness pool.


Throughout high school and at UConn, Thibodeau rarely, if ever, heard gambling mentioned by officials.


 "At school there was nothing, we never talked about it," Thibodeau said. "Being so close to the casinos, I would say there should be some kind of gambling education program at UConn."


 "The thrust is around drugs and alcohol," Schreier said. "Alcohol is significantly more destructive than gambling. People don't typically die from gambling, but students regularly die from alcohol use."


The counseling center treats gambling with standard addiction treatments and often recommends students to support networks like Gamblers' Anonymous.

Problems surfacing


The center asks a standard battery of questions to students who come in for help, including whether they have been drinking or using drugs recently. In the past, gambling has not been included in this standard line of questioning, though this may be changing.


"We are asking it more and more, simply because it is surfacing," Schreier said. "What typically happens is we'll start to see something and think whether or not it is a phenomenon, and decide whether or not to [add it to standard questions]."


"Gambling is certainly an addiction," Schreier said, pointing out that some people are highly successful at it.


Some UConn students are increasingly looking to gambling as a way to make a living.

Some realize, however, that it is not always as easy as it seems.


Ethan Coleman, a 2007 UConn graduate, was a successful online poker player who tried his hand professionally in Las Vegas for five months before giving it up. He said that playing poker in college is a lot easier.


"I had less expenses. I lived in a dorm so I didn't have utilities and bills," Coleman said. "There's a lot more pressure […] winning is way more important, so I had to take it more seriously in Vegas, which probably didn't help with the game," he said.


Louis, a 39-year-old recovering gambling addict who asked that his real name not to be used so his children won't find out, began gambling in college 20 years ago. He believes there needs to be more emphasis about the pitfalls of gambling to the younger generation from colleges.


Lost time is a recurring theme with many recovering gambling addicts.


While doing his taxes recently, Louis said that even though he'd been working most of his adult life, he hadn't saved any money.


"It was all gone," Louis said. "Twenty years' history. It's gone."


 


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