ATLANTIC CITY, NJ (AP) As a senior in high school, Nick was blessed with a deadly and accurate jump shot from long three-point range, something he was quick to cash in on.
He and his gym buddies 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. “I didn’t know how far she would keep going.”
Before long, he was betting staggering amounts of money on the sport, costing him over $700,000 over the past decade. He hit rock bottom last year when he stole $35,000 from his workplace and gambled it on international matches in tennis and soccer, sports he knew nothing about.
Betting is now easier than ever for adults and children, and there is a growing movement in the United States to offer educational classes on problem gambling in public schools to teach teenagers how easily and quickly things can go wrong with betting.
It’s a trend Nick wished existed when his gambling habit took root in high school and set him on the road 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 allegations are resolved and he fears his job search will be even more difficult if he is publicly identified as a compulsive gambler.
The rapid expansion of legalized sports betting in 33 states, with three more states on the way, has led to measures aimed at preventing children from gambling, including age confirmation and identity checks. But teenagers can bypass betting restrictions and place wagers on their phones using a parent or other relative’s account, or through unregulated offshore betting sites that may be less vigilant about age controls. And some teenagers have weekend poker games where hundreds of dollars are won or lost, often fueled by parental money.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, 60% to 80% of high school students report gambling for money in the past year; 4% to 6% of these students are considered to be at risk of developing a gambling problem.
Now, some states are moving towards gambling education in public schools. The effort is in its infancy and the details of what would be taught have yet to be determined.
Virginia passed a law last year requiring schools to teach classes about gambling and its addictive potential. The state Board of Education is still formulating the curriculum and must report to the state government before classes can begin.
Other states are also trying, including New Jersey and Michigan, which have bills pending in their legislatures to create such classes. Similar legislation has failed in Maryland and West Virginia in recent years, but they are expected to try again.
The legal gambling age in many states is 21, but in others it is as high as 18.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the problem gambling council, recently spoke to a group of 40 high school kids in Virginia.
“Each of them said they bet, or they said their friends bet,” he said. “Almost every one of them had sports betting apps on their phones; some were legal; some weren’t.”
Whyte said widespread education about gambling risk could be “comparable to the dramatic reduction in drink-driving deaths since alcohol and driving education became widespread.”
Teresa Svincek is a teacher at a suburban Maryland school outside Washington, where many of her students are “very interested in sports betting” and the weekly poker games.
“They laugh that they lost hundreds of dollars in one weekend,” he said. “When I was their age, I was busy working to earn money, and losing what I lose in a weekend is what I’ve made in a month. I think these guys are the future tip of the iceberg.”
Teenage gambling can take other forms as well. So-called “loot boxes” in online games offer prizes to players, but they have to spend real money to get the prizes. Buying tokens or other gaming equipment has been a staple of online gaming for years, Whyte said, and it can lead kids 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 next logical problem to address in the classroom.
“We educate very well about alcohol, about substances, about stranger danger, about cannabis,” he said. “But we don’t do anything about gambling.”
Maryland State Senator Bryan Simonaire has tried twice in recent years to pass a gambling education bill, with no success.
“We’ve expanded gambling in Maryland and the schools have received extra money for education,” said Simonaire. “I went to them and said, ‘Yes, you got the money from gambling, but you also have a responsibility to help those who are going to get addicted to gambling.'”
Simonaire’s father died penniless after gambling 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 is intended to make sure that gambling ads are not displayed in places that could primarily be seen or read by children. But the restrictions only go so far, as children can 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 playing habit. His first big bet was in the 2013 NBA Finals, when he lost $200 backing the San Antonio Spurs in a bet with a friend.
“Even in that initial moment, there was this chase: If only you could win that $200, or how cool would it be if you could win $300 on the next bet?” he said. “You want back what you lost.”
Fresh out of high school, Nick was betting big with bookies.
Last July, while working at a company that sells high-value sports trading cards, Nick took a $35,000 payment from a customer and lost it on a weekend of gambling, mostly on football games. and tennis abroad, “things I knew nothing about”. He confessed to his boss, who called the police, and Nick was charged with theft. He hopes the charge will be cleared of his criminal record through an early 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 a very young age,” she said. “I could have been more aware of how much money I was spending on a daily basis and what I was doing to myself.”
Follow Wayne Parry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/WayneParryAC
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