The house always wins

Sam Cox delves into the world of student gambling, talking to researchers and players alike

At dusk, the phone’s simulated slot machines lit up the kitchen. The smells of rashers and onions saturated the shared space, as friends had volunteered to help research an article on student gambling. Needless to say,  it wasn’t the traditional casino milieu. Forks in hand, we contemplated the €70 balance available, until a friend commented: “This doesn’t feel like it should be real… that’s most of my money for this week.” And she was right – the sense of disconnect jarred. A common offer among gambling apps available online, we were lured in with the deal of extra funds for an initial investment. Of course, that money couldn’t be withdrawn – but anything earned from it could. A week later, Oisín Barrett, a 22-year-old former business student, James Bond fan and avid poker player, would laugh and warn me away from the like. “The house always wins. It’s always rigged against you.” That’s why he got into cards: “I preferred to play against other people I knew I could be better than.”

Berries scrolled down the screen at the tap of the button, alternating between churning out rewards and gobbling up our funds. Our balance was gone before the meal was over. Online betting has become the focus of many resources surrounding the discussion of modern-age gambling. Patricia Murphy, the current Acting Director of Trinity Counselling service, pointed in the direction of ReachOut.ie’s document on student gambling. After clarifying that not all gambling is problematic (“gambling can be an innocent flutter, a bet on who’s going to win the World Cup”), their second paragraph points to the increasing availability of online gambling, and hints at its dangers. Stephen Cashman, a post-graduate researcher at Technological University Dublin (DIT), echoed the sentiment: “There is that physical exchange when you go into a Bookies of handing that money over. With online, you’re looking at a screen and its numbers in the top corner. They’re just going up or down, and it’s a very different thing.” Alongside his position on the Board of Directors at Problem Gambling Ireland, Cashman is currently investigating links between student gambling habits and risk taking.

“There’s no doubt people are using [gambling apps] more – students much more than most people.”

Taking risks

Speaking to Cashman over the phone, he explained the changing landscape of gambling, and how students in particular were affected. “There’s no doubt people are using [gambling apps] more – students much more than most people. I work with young people in my day job and the mobile phone is an extension of their hand.” With 24/7 access in their pockets, new scenarios were playing out.

Cashman has conducted research on over 400 Irish students which has yet to be published. Discussing his preliminary findings, he highlighted the most pressing aspects. Assessing participants using a quantitative survey designed specifically for students, individuals are assessed as no-risk, low-risk, medium-risk or problem gambler category on the basis of a series of questions. Questions such as “have you felt guilty about the way you gamble or what happens when you gamble?” and  “have you borrowed anything or sold anything to get money to gamble?” are added up, generating a score. These scores allows comparisons to be made: “Gender is huge in my findings…Of the problem gamblers 93% were male, and 85% of moderate risk were male. 5.7% of students assessed were problem gamblers.” He points out this is five times the rates found in the rest of the population, but these rates were similar to other assessments conducted internationally. He further found that 55% of students were non-problem, while others assessed fell into varying degrees of risk.

Given his assessment was at a point of time rather than longitudinal, it is difficult to know how many of those assessed as problem gamblers will maintain this behaviour. Equally, those assessed as low or medium risk may shift category as time goes on. “A common theme among people seen in treatment is that [college] is when things escalated. At nine or ten, you go to the dogs and it’s a family outing. They might place a bet with their uncle at the track. By the time they go to college with more free time and disposable income, they have a bit of boredom to overcome. Particularly for young men, gambling escalates during these problem years”.

Recounting my own observations of different forms of gambling, Cashman seemed particularly aware of online sports gambling: “If you watch any sport, you’d be struck by the amount of advertising around gambling as a product. Young people are susceptible to this.” Telling stories of aunts fantasising over holiday homes while watching the National Lottery, I queried about similarities between these forms of gambling and more stereotypical means. Cashman answered: “Lotto in the grand scheme is probably less harmful. It’s very hard to gamble away all your money. If you were to talk to any counsellor, very few of them would talk of people having gambled their money away through the Lotto.” Scratch cards, he mentions offhandedly, are a different story. He further distinguished between games of chance and games of skill. “Poker is a game of skill. There’s still chance involved but if you’re good at poker, you’ve got a good chance.” Oisín Barrett couldn’t agree more.

A full house

“Poker is my game,” he told me. At the coffee table, Barrett had a patience that reflected his hobby. He would wait for me to initiate, rarely offering more than was asked of him. His anecdotes were insightful, but to the point. In control but not leading, this seemed key to his understanding of the game: “A lot of poker is psychological. You can win by talking to someone. A lot of people don’t talk, and a lot of them don’t shut up. A lot of the time I’m overlooked as just a kid. A lot of the guys there are like 70 and living on their own ego. They’re like ‘I’ve been playing since before you were born’, and I’m like, ‘I’ve been winning, so …” Barrett says this isn’t just limited to how they talk, but their persona as a whole: “Guys coming out flashy, you know what he’s going to play like before he sits down. He comes in wearing lots of rings, wearing a suit with no tie and collar popped, you know he’s going to go hard and fast. It’s like rock, paper, scissors – you do the opposite of what he’s doing to take him out.”

Explaining that poker is limited to private clubs in Ireland, he recounted how he had taken up the unusual hobby. As a 16-year-old, he had lost €10 to a friend who challenged him to a poker match. Indignant, he went home, learned the rules and asked for a rematch. “I got my ten quid back. We’ve been playing at least once a month for the last six or seven years. Good friend.” His interest sparked, he continued to play until he ended up frequenting the Fitzwilliam’s Casino in Dublin. “I usually hit the Saturday one, a 25-quid game. I’d be the youngest one. I stay away from online poker. It’s too fast for me. Too easy to lose everything in that.” To unpack the distinction between online and physical gambling, I asked him to elaborate: “I like to make a night of it. Online poker you can pick up anytime. I did play it for a bit, and I didn’t like the way it feels. Even if I lose 30 quid, that’s the same amount of time I would’ve had at a pub, and I would’ve dropped 30 or 40 quid there as well. It’s a good hobby, and I think of it as more of a hobby than anything else.”

“I stay away from online poker. It’s too fast for me. Too easy to lose everything in that”

That said, to Barrett, money mattered. The most he’s claimed to have won in a night? “A grand. See, [my friend] had the problem of being pot committed. That’s bad. Don’t do that. Luckily I don’t. Once I’ve lost it, I cut my losses and leave. He didn’t pay it back in one night – he paid it back over a month. I felt bad taking it off him. But usually, you put the money out front, because I wouldn’t trust them to pay it back later.” And would he play if it wasn’t for money? Apparently not. “Even though I love it. I know all the background lore, the funny quotes and people, I’d just get bored if it wasn’t for cash. There’s something about gambling that makes it super interesting.”

Having heard about students who gamble in order to pay for drinks on a night out, he said that while he didn’t, friends of his would: “We’ll be at the pub, and there’s a place with slots across the street. He’ll go across with cash, and come back with no cash. He loves to win, and he’s got a bit of a problem with that. I think he’s lost a lot more than he’s won, but you only hear about him winning.” For him, the Fitzwilliams seems the only place worth thinking about. In his words: “It’s a nice place – no drink. Food, tea and coffee. You can’t drink, because drinking makes people rowdy, and gambling makes people angry.” After asking for his advice on where we should go that night, he insisted: “The Fitzwilliams is the only one worth going to. The rest of them are really dark and shady with 17 million slot machines. People glued to them that don’t leave, ever.”

Casino night

Over the casino speakers, Miley Cyrus’s Black Mirror song ‘I’m On a Roll’ played alongside the clink of the slots. Having ignored Barrett’s advice, we understood why he had warned us from the venue. A staff member floated between the men at the slots, offering them sandwiches to keep them spending. At the back, a screen displaying a woman in a low-cut red dress seductively intoned that all bets were closed, and play was starting. The machines surrounding her showed varieties of the same game, dressed in different forms of vice. From the icing dripping from the donuts to the Jessica Rabbit-esque characters adorning the games, the design of the room was confident that sex sells. The illicit temptations hadn’t been there in the online iterations – in place of the pretty pinks and deep reds, the apps had modelled themselves to look closer to free Facebook games. Far from any sense of boldness, the online apps seemed innocent.

After half an hour, the tedium of pressing a button to the alternating rasp of “bets are now open” and “play is starting” grew old. Printing off a slip from the machine, we cashed out and watched as the crisp bills were ejected – notes that replaced earlier bets rather than any profit from the night.

Back on O’Connell Street, the usual crowds of late-night clubgoers poured in and out of McDonalds. They passed the casinos, but not out of disdain or caution – they just weren’t interested. Inside, there were no big mysteries. Barrett’s words echoed: “Slots creep me out. You walk over and there’s an old lady who’s there, and only her arm works to crank the machine.” The over-18s sign and promise of easy-cash had oversold the experience, and the truth was more banal.

That harmlessness had taken on a different tone in the context of the kitchen however. Where the sleaze and frivolity of the casino had been off-putting as a night-out, the app, when linked directly to your bank account, had facilitated a dangerous disconnect. With a few taps of the button on a touchscreen, three realities were possible. In the first: the story that you tell your friends; you win big. In the second, you break even and come back another night. But the third? In the third, the house wins and you shut down the app, as if you were never really there and the money was never really yours.

Sam Cox

Sam Cox

Sam Cox is the current Crossword Editor of Trinity News. He is a Junior Sophister Psychology student, and a former Features Editor and Assistant Features Editor.