Dangerous Bet on Campus
By BEN GOSE
David, a senior at the University of Florida, is trying to buy some blackjack chips at an Internet site called Bedrock Gaming. But the online casino doesn't want his business. It rejects the first credit card that he enters, then a second. He moves on to another site, the New York Casino, but again, both cards are rejected.
The problem, he soon realizes, is that he didn't make even the minimum payment on the most recent bill for either card. His online gambling habit, of course, is one reason that he carries a balance. "I don't think I took a shower for two days the first time I found out about Internet gambling," says David, who asked that his last name not be used. More than once, he has awakened in the middle of the night in his apartment north of the campus, poured himself a glass of milk, bought $30 in virtual chips, blown it all, and gone back to sleep.
This time, he asks for $500 in "play money," which costs nothing. It is gone within five minutes.
David seems like a prime example of what some educators see as a disturbing trend: students' taking big financial risks with their limited funds. He owes $1,500 on his credit cards and concedes that his betting could be viewed as compulsive.
The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators has organized a committee that is looking into gambling among college students. And the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has suffered point-shaving scandals at several member institutions, has acknowledged that illegal sports gambling is rampant among students. The N.C.A.A. is supporting a bill in Congress that would outlaw gambling on college sports in Nevada, the only state in which such betting is legal.
Studies show that college students are three times as likely as adults to become problem gamblers -- and today, students can wager with greater ease than ever.
Students here can buy state lottery tickets, drive 20 minutes to wager on jai alai, or travel easily to Jacksonville or Tampa for dog and horse racing and for offshore casino gambling. They can place bets at the hundreds of casinos that compete against Bedrock Gaming in cyberspace. And at least 10 students at Florida work as bookies, according to Jordan, a junior who acknowledges taking illegal bets on sports games for two years.
Even more students may be engaging in what many view as de facto gambling in the stock market, through online brokers. The University of Florida's Student Investment Club, an undergraduate group that for now is riding technology stocks to an impressive return on real money, has seen membership shoot from 30 students to 100 in the past year.
"Every gambler I know has an online account," says Jordan, who agreed to discuss his gambling business on the condition that his real name not be used. "The same people who study the injury reports during football season are studying the message boards on the Internet" for tips on stocks, he says. "It's almost the same mindset -- that their insight is going to give them a leg up. It isn't."
Yet, notwithstanding the efforts of some college leaders, gambling and day trading are hardly on the radar at most institutions. The student-personnel association said last fall that it would encourage its member colleges to survey students about gambling. As of last month, however, only about eight institutions had agreed to do so. "We haven't had much national publicity on it," explains Gwendolyn J. Dungy, the organization's executive director.
Some colleges may be reluctant to look too closely at gambling, for fear of the negative publicity that could result. Jim Caswell is vice president for student affairs at Southern Methodist University, one of the few institutions that has surveyed students about their gambling habits. But he understands why other colleges don't spend much time on the opic.
"We have enough on our plates," he says. "If we see no evil and hear no evil, why do we need to cultivate evil?"
Mr. Caswell became concerned about the issue last year, after someone handed out advertisements at fraternity houses for an online gambling site. He commissioned a campus survey of 400 students; 5 percent said they gambled frequently via the Internet. "I see this as a stealth movement, and you've got to be aware of stealth movements," he says. "Otherwise, they'll explode in your face."
Four years ago, shortly after Sports Illustrated ran a feature on a campus bookie at Florida, the university's athletics department worked with the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling on what would have been an innovative campaign about the downside of sports wagering. Campus athletes would have been featured in public-service announcements. But Florida administrators killed the program at the last minute.
"We walk a fine line when making determinations on our athletes' behalf as to what causes they need to speak for or against," says Mike Hill, director of marketing for the athletics department and the person who worked most closely with the compulsive-gambling council.
Pat Fowler, the non-profit council's executive director, says that nearly every other institution in the state also has ignored her offers to conduct campus programs at little or no cost. "If our kids were involved in any other addictive behavior like they are in gambling, we'd be up in arms," she says. "For some reason, we've chosen to ignore this problem."
Threats of violence, however, do elicit attention. In December 1998, the county sheriff's office here arrested Michael Beckerman, a University of Florida student, after he hired a man to collect a gambling debt from another student. The hired man, who turned out to be an informant, was instructed by Mr. Beckerman to use "any means necessary -- including breaking [the student's] fingers and toes," according to the sheriff's office.
The charges against Mr. Beckerman were deferred, but he was required to leave the county, perform 100 hours of community service, attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings, and make a donation to charity. The case was closed in March, after his lawyer provided documentation that he had met those conditions.
James E. Scott, Florida's vice president for student affairs, acknowledges that illegal gambling might be widespread among students. Florida students can bet legally on dogs, horses, and the people who compete in jai alai -- why should they think twice before throwing down a bet on a football game? "Our society sends a lot of mixed messages to students about what's illegal and what's not," he says.
What's less clear, Mr. Scott says, is whether gambling causes serious problems for students. "It's almost impossible to get a handle on," he says.
One need merely ask around. Jordan, the one-time bookie at Florida, was once owed $5,000 by two roommates who suffered through a winless football weekend -- losing big bets on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. The two students could pay only $1,000. "I ended up with so much junk -- a laptop computer, a minidisk player, C.D.'s, free dinners," says Jordan, who had about 50 clients that year. The students dropped out of school before he was fully paid, he adds.
John, a middle-aged member of the local chapter of Gamblers Anonymous, says the students who come to meetings tend not to stay long. "They come to a meeting, and they think they're okay, and they're back on the street," he says over chicken wings and beer at a restaurant east of campus. John - who asked that his last name not be used, because he works at the university -- estimates that he lost $60,000 betting on jai alai before joining G.A. in 1988.
"I had a fraternity kid call me up one time, saying he needed some help. He said, 'I can't come to the meeting this week, because we're taking a fraternity trip down to the Bahamas.' I said, 'If you come back and tell me you didn't gamble while you were down there, I'll get down on my knees and kiss your ass on 13th and University Avenue.' Some of these guys are bullshitters -- you've got to get tough with them. I never heard from that guy again."
The university, he says, "should be doing a lot more for these kids. A lot of them get in over their heads."
In December 1997, Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions put together the most comprehensive look at problem gambling, compiling some 120 studies that had been conducted around the country. The Harvard researchers found that the rate of "disordered" gambling among college students was 4.7 percent, almost three times the rate among all adults (1.6 percent).
The American Psychiatric Association identifies several characteristics of pathological gamblers: They may seek excitement through increasingly large bets, continue to gamble to try to win back losses, lie to family members to conceal losses, or turn to relatives for a bailout.
Some college gamblers, however, may just be reckless with their first taste of freedom away from home, and may soon outgrow the habit.
In the fall of 1998, David, the Florida senior, lost one football bet on Sunday, tried to win the money back on Monday night, and lost again. He owed $250 -- nearly all of the spending money that his parents had sent him for the semester. He didn't have a part-time job, and was afraid to ask his parents for more -- "They would have thought I had a huge drug problem or something." Instead, he clamped down on his spending until the holiday break, when he could ask for more money without suspicion.
That incident might lead some researchers to put him in the "problem gambler" camp. But he sees his gambling as a step on the way to becoming an adult. He's already lined up an internship with a technology company in London. It could lead to a full-time job, he says, and if so, he'll have his credit-card debts paid off in no time.
The Harvard researchers acknowledge that what seems like long-term pathology may merely be a phase. "Most addiction models in general and gambling classification strategies in particular imply that sub-clinical gamblers are simply moving in one direction, toward a more pathological state," write Howard J. Shaffer and two Harvard colleagues. "However, since past-year estimates of adolescent gambling pathology consistently exceed past-year estimates of adult gambling pathology, it also is possible that some young people are actively moving away from a state of pathological gambling."
Or maybe some young gamblers simply haven't lost enough. Jonathon Colon, a senior at Florida, likes to bet on football and roulette. He says he made about $500 to $1,000 during the past football season by relying on the picks of experts, such as commentators on ESPN.
When playing roulette -- he was at the new M.G.M. Grand, in Detroit, on a trip with his parents just last month - he places bets only on the two green numbers, rather than the red and black numbers that make up the rest of the wheel. When he wins, he takes all of his chips off the table except for one, lets it ride for another spin, and then moves to another wheel. "Everyone has their own thing," says Mr. Colon, who claims to win with the strategy about two-thirds of the time.
His roulette approach does not reduce the sizable house advantage. Nor is he getting a leg up on other sports bettors by tuning into ESPN. When his winning streak eventually stops, the appeal of gambling may fade.
Ronnie Wenang, also a senior at Florida, bets frequently on sports, especially football, and loves to head to casinos for paigow poker, a game in which two hands are played against the dealer.
"If I'm watching a football game, I like to have a bet on it. Some people buy C.D.'s for $20 -- that's their entertainment. I put money on a game." He smiles. "At least that's how I justify it."
Last fall, his gambling instincts led him to the stock market. He put $2,000 in an online brokerage account and bought volatile "penny stocks," like Bentley Communications, a California company that sells products over the Internet. His picks have soared, and Mr. Wenang says he's made about $10,000 on his original stake.
Mr. Wenang has used some of that money to pay for vacations on which he can enjoy one of his favorite pastimes -- gambling. He paid $700 to go on a Caribbean cruise with some friends over spring break. A week later, he flew to Las Vegas with 10 other students for a weekend of legal betting on the opening round of the N.C.A.A. men's basketball tournament. (Florida went on to make it into the Final Four.) He won about $1,200, he says, enough to cover his tab for food, drink, and strippers.
Mr. Wenang belongs to the investment club at Florida, a group of more than 100 students who pool their money to buy stocks. Their holdings include some familiar names -- Compaq, Merrill Lynch, Tellabs. But lately the weekly meetings have focused on small technology companies with wildly gyrating share prices.
At a meeting on a recent Thursday night one student asked Michael Ashington-Pickett, the club's president, whether he was holding on to his own investment in Superconductor Technologies, a company that makes products used in the wireless-phone industry. Mr. Ashington-Pickett had mentioned the company during a February meeting, when it was trading at about $30; it had gone up to $120 within a few weeks, then back down to around $50.
He said he was holding on. "The day traders are done with this stock. Long term, I think you'll see steady growth."
Mr. Ashington-Pickett says he's made a lot of money in the market, although he declines to be more specific. Tony Yanez, who oversees the club's technology investments, isn't quite as cagey. When Mr. Yanez, a senior, inherited $6,000 from his grandfather a few years ago, he took the advice of a friend's fiancÚ and put it in EMC, a company that specializes in data storage. "I didn't know shit," he says. "I just trusted him." Since then the stock has risen from a split-adjusted 4 to more than 130, and although Mr. Yanez has sold some along the way, he says his holdings are now worth well over $100,000.
Now, like Mr. Ashington-Pickett, he is a stock-market junkie. On campus, he checks stock prices and makes trades from computers in a library near the business school.
At the Thursday meeting, a student asks Mr. Yanez which online broker he prefers. Another student, Dustin Dunaway, sits nearby and soaks it all in. "This is exactly what I want to do," he says, "but I'm kind of ignorant about all this." His parents have given him some money to invest, but Mr. Dunaway, a junior, is sticking to "fake trading" -- in which he tracks transactions that he might have made -- until he gets his bearings.
"Everybody wants to get into the market," Mr. Yanez says. "They see all those E-Trade commercials on TV."
The losers -- if they are out there -- aren't speaking up. Mr. Ashington-Pickett and Mr. Yanez say they don't know anyone who has, for example, blown student-loan money on a highflier that headed south.
A July 1999 survey by Gomez Advisors, a research organization based in Lincoln, Mass., that follows the online-brokerage industry, suggests that students aren't quite as serious about their investing as are adults. Twenty-five percent of the 550,000 traders who are 25 or younger invested "for the fun or challenge of it," compared with only 14 percent of the adults.
John Kraft, dean of Florida's business school, says the explosion of online investing could end badly for students, who were toddlers when the current bull market began. "Students find out the guy down the hall made X amount," he says. "Pretty soon everybody has signed on."
But the business school, he adds, has no plans to offer Wall Street 101 -- the kind of plain language investing course that Mr. Ashington-Pickett and others would like to see. The school might be held liable for investors' losses if the stock market tanks, Mr. Kraft says. "That's not the business we're in."
Fair enough, but what about gambling? Should the university be providing more education to students about the risks?
"If it's out of sight, it's out of mind," says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, a non-profit group whose mission is to help people with the disorder. "But kids do get into serious trouble--and turning a blind eye to it certainly doesn't help the people that [administrators] should be protecting."
Among the busiest student gamblers, however, there's a feeling that more education would not make much difference. Jordan, the former Florida bookie, says plenty of students these days are smoking marijuana, despite having been told for years to "Just Say No." "Even if the university was handling out pamphlets about gambling every day, I think I would have had the same number of clients," he says. "Maybe more."
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