Against All Odds: Is Student Gambling on the Rise?

According to the 2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey, just under two thirds of British students have gambled at some point over the previous year. More worryingly, the percentage of 16-24 year olds gambling in Britain has increased from 58% in 2007 to 68% in 2010, demonstrating a large increase in our gambling compared to previous generations. Nottingham could be seen as something of a centre of the country’s gambling world, as the same survey revealed 80% of East Midlands’ residents gambled last year: the highest percentage in Britain. Tangible demonstrations of these statistics are plain to see, as Nottingham has a particularly high number of casinos dotted across its city centre- walking home from one of the many clubs also located here, it would be difficult to avoid passing one. Furthermore, just metres from Mirage (the nightclub formerly known as Isis) lies Dusk Till Dawn, a partner of Europe’s largest poker club and one of the largest poker venues on the continent. Those studying at Nottingham may well be more exposed to gambling than your average young person, and students of our generation are more predisposed to having a flutter than has previously been the case.

The social reasons for the popularity of student gambling both in Nottingham and across the country are plain to see. For many of us, university is their first time away from home and the omnipresent watch of parental nagging. This subsequent freedom inspires an indulgence in adolescent misbehaviour and vices, from alcohol and drugs to gambling and beyond. Moreover, university is the first time in our lives when we are presented with vast amounts of money in our accounts and gambling represents an obvious temptation as to what to do with these newfound riches (or overdraft extensions). Chief Executive of the UK’s leading gambling charity Andy McLellan said in an interview with the BBC in 2009 that a primary reason that students might gamble more money than they should is that “you’re away from home, it may well be the first time you are managing your own money”.

The set-up of university life almost encourages betting. The communal environment of halls constantly creates an air of peer pressure around most things, gambling being no exception. As soon as one member of any given hall comes back from a night out with a stack of casino winnings, more and more of said person’s friends, and friends of friends, will venture off to the likes of Alea or Gala in an attempt to recreate his or her success. Mix alcohol into this atmosphere of ‘everyone’s going’ and going to a casino becomes a social event akin to going to a nightclub or bar. Also, university socials are increasingly turning to gambling as a form of organised entertainment: last year’s Media SRS Ball ended at Alea, the last Graduation Ball had blackjack and roulette (albeit with no real money at stake) and ‘casino night’, complete with craps tables and roulette wheels, is a common theme of choice in formal dinners at halls of residences.

More pertinently, gambling is fun – little can emulate its feelings of adrenaline and exhilaration. The worrying question, however, is that instead of just having fun, or perhaps trying to finance new palatial mansions and the purchase of our own football teams, we may be using gambling as a means of escaping our overdrafts. McLellan also commented to the BBC, “There are a number of pressures and risk factors there which can lead people to get into stressful situations. Sometimes it can mean that looking at gambling can appear to be a way of helping to deal with the problems you have encountered.” Thinking like this can lead to a dangerous gambling habit: the old adages that nothing is ever a certainty or that the house always wins may seem like boring rhetoric from a society that doesn’t comprehend your unsurpassed black jack strategy or your amazing knowledge of the English Premier League, but they still remain true. You do not have to go far to hear of somebody who has lost titanic sums of money on an ‘un-losable’ wager.

The dangers of gambling shouldn’t, however, be exaggerated. For as many stories of students maxing their overdrafts at casinos, there are just as many stories of students winning big. A notorious legend that has long circulated campus halls comes from Newcastle, where one student woke up from a night out with no recollection of the previous night’s events. However, instead of finding the standard half-eaten pizza and remnants of the night’s illness around him, he awoke to £900 in cash and a casino cheque for £20,000. It seems this Newcastle student had, in an inebriated stupor, entered a poker tournament and through a mixture of sheer luck and alcohol hiding his bluffing had successfully managed to win. As astonishing as this sounds, I would highly advise against attempting to recreate his success. I for one am far more likely to end up passed out on a boat to Greenland than winning big at the casino on a night out.

While anecdotal evidence always tends to show the extreme highs and lows of betting, an interview with a serious student gambler reveals a much more rounded picture. This particular Nottingham student has been through it all, got the t-shirt and lost a cheeky £6,000 in the process. He casually drops in stories of being up and down “money most people would die for”. However, if I said that during the process of this interview one of his housemates won £100 on the football match we were watching, and that this was just the tip of the iceberg, you might then have a fair impression of how gambling is treated among this group of friends. “The lifestyle I have at university is integral to my gambling”, he told me, due to the fact that he and five of his mates have formed a group of serial gamblers, demonstrating the extent to which the pastime is spurred on by social atmosphere. Speaking to this highly experienced gambler, what struck me the most was the informality of it all. The lack of regrets he seemed to have amazed me – not lamenting all the money lost, but taking pride in the good times and maintaining a very positive outlook about it all, he sagely commented “always be modest in victory and celebrate your losses.”

The wider reality is that the gambling world has taken over Britain. You can’t walk down any high street in any town without encountering several betting shops. You can’t watch TV without being bombarded by adverts for them. You can’t go on the Internet without coming across enticing and seemingly no-risk pop ups for online gambling websites. One anonymous student seeking help with a fairly serious gambling addiction on thestudentroom.co.uk claimed “I tried to give up online poker […] pop ups always remind me that its only a couple of clicks away though”. Even the Students’ Union’s NUTS (Nottingham University Television Station) is being sponsored by Betfred for its coverage of the University’s Varsity sports series, showing that online betting sites are interested in specifically targeting students in their advertising. The rise of televised poker in the past decade has both glamourised and normalised the ‘sport’, rendering it less illicit than it may have previously been.

According to a report published by Deloitte in 2010, the UK betting industry is worth a staggering £6 billion – perhaps key to the success of this industry is the fact it is now so easy and quick to dip in and out of. In this digital age, all it takes is one click of a button and you can deposit money straight into your account. Then you have an unlimited number of options as to how you wish to try and double it – Deal or No Deal, online poker or even virtual dog racing. Within my university friendship group, I would estimate that around half of my friends regularly go to casinos or bet online. Interestingly, the number of boys compared with girls who gamble within that group is remarkably unequal. Not wanting to delve into a gender related argument over the reasons for this, it certainly seems to be the case that the male population (of students at least) are the most likely to be found down the local bookies. Perhaps this is something to do with the topic of sport itself: with the diversifying range of areas of interest that one is able to bet on, coupled with the increasing culture of heading to a casino as part of a night out, more women might soon be drawn to the world of gambling.

It would be fair to say that for the vast majority of students gambling does not present a real problem, merely a pastime carried out in response to our vast amounts of freedom. However, it’s hard to be sure that this pastime is just an adolescent fad, and that when we (hopefully) start to earn good money, we won’t find ourselves spending significant cash on the roulette wheel.

Whether unions or universities should be discouraging gambling is debatable. Going to the casino or betting on a football match, after all, is perfectly legal activity. Just as the main welfare concern with alcohol is its abuse, and not merely the fact that people drink it, the focus on gambling should be preventing addiction and not attempting to curtail it for the sake of doing so. Students are, after all, supposed to possess an adult appreciation of the consequences of their actions. An interview with the Students’ Union’s welfare officer Katie Mackay shows an awareness that more might need to be provided: “As far as I am concerned, nothing has been done support wise. Gambling as a whole has been under the radar, and we need to do more.” As the most swiftly rising addiction in the UK and with students – financial crisis or not – still possessing huge amounts of disposable income, gambling most certainly matters. And it matters more than ever.

Jack Gilbert

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