Student Gambling on Campus

Should colleges ban online poker? These sites have no redeeming social value, are of questionable legality (especially since they don't pay U.S. taxes, though they run on U.S. money), and have significant harmful potential. But there is also a freedom of speech issue, and danger involved whenever colleges move to strongly restrict student behavior.

I was thinking about this after a Lehigh student, who had been losing money at online poker sites, casually robbed a Wachovia Bank on his way to a movie in December. It seemed a shocking story at the time, especially since the student was President of the Student Council, and the son of a minister from Ohio. (Needless to say, the student was arrested within a few hours of the incident, and is currently facing charges.)

Though I teach at Lehigh, I myself didn't hear much gossip about it after it happened. But I was intrigued to finally see a detailed account of Greg Hogan's story in this past Sunday's s New York Times Magazine. The story describes how Hogan got to the point where he felt the only way to fix his growing gambling losses was to rob a bank in broad daylight.

Here's some background on the problem -- which is nationwide, and hardly limited to Lehigh -- from Schwartz's article:

An estimated 1.6 million of 17 million U.S. college students gambled online last year, mostly on poker. According to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, the number of college males who reported gambling online once a week or more quadrupled in the last year alone. "The kids really think they can log on and become the next world champion," says Jeffrey Derevensky, who studies youth problem gambling at McGill University in Montreal. "This is an enormous social experiment. We don't really know what's going to happen."

Greg Hogan is far from the only college student to see the game's role in his life grow from a hobby to a destructive obsession. Researchers from the University of Connecticut Health Center interviewed a random sample of 880 college students and found that 1 out of every 4 of the 160 or so online gamblers in the study fit the clinical definition of a pathological gambler, suggesting that college online-poker addicts may number in the hundreds of thousands.

And here's what's different about online gambling:
Online, Hogan would play 60 to 100 hands an hour — three times the number of his live games. There was no more shuffling between hands, no more 30-second gaps to chat with his friends or consider quitting. Each hand interlocked with the next. The effect was paralyzing, narcotic. "Internet poker induces a trancelike state," says Derevensky, the McGill professor, who once treated a 17-year-old Canadian boy who lost $30,000, much of it at PokerStars. "The player loses all track of time, where they are, what they're doing." When I spoke with an online hold-'em player from Florida who had lost a whopping $250,000 online, he told me: "It fried my brain. I would roll out of bed, go to my computer and stay there for 20 hours. One night after I went to sleep, my dad called. I woke up instantly, picked up the phone and said, 'I raise.' "

It became clear pretty quickly that Hogan had a problem with online gambling, and both his family and the university were putting pressure on him to address his problem. This is where I wonder if the university might have taken stronger action:

Greg Sr. then made the six-hour drive from Ohio to install a $99 program called GamBlock on his son's computer. Highly regarded among gambling counselors, GamBlock makes it impossible for users to access any Internet casinos. (The company's founder, David Warr, says that half of his customer base, which he will only put in the "thousands," is connected to a college or university.)

Hogan soon found a way to circumvent GamBlock, gambling by night in the library's computer lounges. "It was funny to see how many other kids were playing," he says. "By this point I didn't really care so much who saw me." Greg Sr. realized what was happening and asked the administration to lock poker sites out of the public terminals. He says he was told that nothing could be done.

I don't buy it -- nothing could be done? Actually, GamBlock has a 'Corporate' version, which could easily block gambling sites for the entire Lehigh community. As I understand it, the university already regulates illegal downloading from campus computers by detecting patterns of bandwidth usage and punishing users who seem to be downloaders. But again, as with underage drinking, downloading videos and music from BitTorrent or peer-to-peer filesharing programs is illegal, so the university is again obviously justified (and smart) to do this.

Is banning gambling from campus computers really justified? I must confess that while I'm leaning towards banning, I haven't fully made up my mind about this issue -- I'm curious to hear from others on the pros and cons.