Sixteen-year-old “Yiannis” is very familiar with the Internet. He was around 13 when he first tried his hand at a free poker app. His confidence grew as he started winning and, as he had read about the huge cash prizes that could be won at international poker tournaments – he had in fact heard that one world champion was a Greek who started playing at a young age – he started dreaming of becoming a champion too.
One day Yiannis decided that it was time to test his skills in the “real world:” Using his pocket money he unlocked the next level and started playing for money for the first time at the age of 14. As he saw his winnings grow he thought about all the things his parents had refused to buy for him and set his mind on making enough money to buy an expensive cell phone.
His parents didn’t know what he was doing. He spent hours at his computer but whenever they asked him what he was doing he just said he was just playing a game; he never mentioned the poker or the money. Yiannis played every day for about a year-and-a-half, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. At some point, however, the winning stopped and he started making significant losses. He sold his fancy cell phone in a bid to get his money back, but when that failed he was faced with a dilemma.
Yiannis finally decided to “borrow” some money from his grandmother, withdrawing cash behind her back with the ATM card she had entrusted to him. Luck was still not on his side, not the first time nor the second. Things got tough as his losses grew and he started worrying about how he would return the money he had taken. He became anxious and stressed and started having problems at school. The extent of the problem emerged only when his grandmother discovered the withdrawals and confronted him.
Yiannis’s story is by no means unique. Experts tracking the phenomenon of online gambling addiction in Greece have been seeing signs that it is a burgeoning problem among the country’s teenagers, which was first picked up on in 2010. It was these signs that led to the Hellenic Association for the Study of Internet Addiction Disorder to conduct a study on the phenomenon.
The results give good cause for concern as the study found that 37 percent of participants aged 12-19 stated that they had some experience of online gambling, and 11 percent of those displayed signs of addiction.
This result mirrored the conclusions of a study in 2012 conducted in seven different European countries as well as in Greece through the University of Athens, which found that Greek teenagers topped the list of young Europeans who gambled online.
The phenomenon, when it first emerged, caught the scientific community unprepared. Since then, a growing number of associations have appeared to provide help to families with minors facing Internet addictions. Parents seeking support confirm experts’ warnings that the majority of children who are lured into gambling and develop an addiction have been heavily involved in online gaming from a young age.
Giorgos Kormas, who started a support hotline, explains how online games often inadvertently encourage gambling. They may, for example, feature a cartoon character who urges players to gather as many berries as possible. When players then first discover an online gambling game, the desire to collect poker chips is already embedded. Kormas adds that many popular video games also demand some kind of price for a hero to be given additional powers, weapons, and so on, or for a player to move up a level in the game. Even children as young as 7 know all about pre-paid cards that can be purchased at any kiosk and contain points that can be cashed in to improve a game.
The crisis effect
Psychiatrist Giorgos Floros stresses that the pressures of the crisis have also played a pivotal role in the spike in gambling, particularly among adults. He was part of a team that compiled Greece’s first-ever study on online gambling. That study found that while many young gamblers justify their addiction by claiming to be trying to help their families earn some extra money, the majority are teenagers without any particular problems or who are attracted to the idea of being able to acquire coveted objects with minimum effort.
Floros warns that other than the obvious dangers of addition, child gamblers are also vulnerable to exploitation. In one instance, a criminal gang had set up a “game” it advertised in popular chat rooms promising as much as 100 euros on various bets. In another case study presented by the psychiatrist, a 12-year-old boy received a personal message in a chat room informing him that he had lost 492,000 euros on a virtual reality game he had spent hours playing. The message was a hoax, but it frightened the boy enough to compel him to run away from home for three months.
The risks of running into unmanageable debt is also high. In another case, a 15-year-old boy in the western port city of Patra had exceeded the limit on more than 20 credit cards he had stolen from his parents and relatives by placing illegal bets. He also ran away when it all came to light, sending an SMS message to his parents a few hours later apologizing for his behavior and saying that he was going to end his life. The terrified parents promptly contacted the electronic crimes squad of the Greek Police, which traced him several hours later to an intercity bus depot in Athens in a dire psychological state.
He would spend hours every day crouched over the green baize table, seemingly calm and collected, like all experienced players. His pulse, however, would race every time the dealer handed out a new card. After countless days and nights spent gambling, smoking and drinking, betting every last euro, Panayiotis was left high and dry.
“I’ve been gambling since I was 10 years old, since my friends and I would bet each other who would knock the other’s marbles out of the circle,” Panayiotis, aged 53, told Kathimerini recently. “When I was a teenager I’d spend all my pocket money at illegal casinos.”
Sophia was addicted to games of chance, her gambling becoming a lifestyle and the measure of her emotions, determining whether she was happy, sad, angry or hopeful. She went through all of her savings and then started borrowing from friends and relatives, burning through the lot.
“It was a soul-destroying situation,” says the 35-year-old. “It ruined me financially, socially, personally and professionally. I lost touch with reality, I became a very closed, obsessed person.”
For both Panayiotis and Sophia every loss became a new opportunity to try for a new win. When their lives hit rock bottom, they decided to address their problem and sought help from the experts at the KETHEA – ALPHA addiction clinic.
“When gamblers finally decide to come here it means that they are desperate, that they have amassed too many debts, meaning they have exhausted all possible sources of borrowing, and have also reached a professional impasse,” explains Antonis Parios, a psychotherapist and head of the program.
In Panayiotis’s case, the signs that he was at risk of addiction were all around him. His father was an alcoholic and his older brother was also addicted to gambling.
“I played. The morning was spent at the betting shop, midday at the racetrack and in the afternoon I’d go to a casino,” says Panayiotis. “I was seduced by the glamour, it makes you feel like a king,” he says of his fascination with casinos, adding that he gambled for 20 years, with just a few brief intervals.
“I tried to stop the downward spiral alone. I would manage for a while and then tumble again.” From 2007 to 2009, Panayiotis estimates he spent more than 500,000 euros on gambling and saw his businesses collapse.
For Sophia, a big loss became her salvation, the event that compelled her to seek help from KETHEA two-and-a-half years ago.
“Thank God I lost, otherwise I would never have come here,” she admits. “My biggest regret was losing my parents’ trust, which I am only just starting to regain.”
KETHEA is currently treating 85 people for gambling addiction in a program that lasts between 8 and 18 months. Panayiotis joined the program five years ago and still goes to group sessions every day.
“I haven’t felt that I may relapse but I don’t want to tempt myself. I don’t even experiment with playing cards,” he says.
“In the past three years demand for help with gambling has risen by about 20 percent,” explains Parios. “The prospect of easy money, financial difficulties, unemployment and job insecurity are among the leading triggers of gambling addiction.”
KETHEA, a drug rehabilitation center, started its ALPHA program for alcohol and gambling addiction in 2003 and today it comprises eight psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists, and three administrative staff. The average age of patients is 35-47 years old, of whom more than 90 percent are men. According to data from the last 10 years, the most popular forms of gambling among addicts are games of chance (60 percent) and lotteries (51 percent). For 41 percent of gambling addicts, casino games are the most popular, 30 percent prefer cards and 16 percent go for slot machines or VLTs.
“Addiction to gambling has many common characteristics with addiction to alcohol and drugs. The difference is that the elements of impulse and ambivalence are much more prominent,” explains Parios. “There is also a much higher rate of suicide attempts among gamblers.”
The 1114 gambling addiction hotline operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.