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Odds-on Losers : The number of teen-agers gambling for money is rising, but even though betting can lead to addiction, many O.C. parents and teachers have a casual attitude about this potentially destructive pastime

August 22, 1993|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Julie, a 17-year-old Fountain Valley High School student, says many of her teen-age friends bring a pair of dice to weekend parties and play until well after midnight.

"A lot of guys get together and play craps on the pool tables," she said. "They bet $40 and $50, but it's their parents' money, so they don't care if they lose it."

The betting also extends to the school parking lot, Julie says, where a handful of students often skip class to try their luck.

"There's this guy and he has this van . . . it's like a house," Julie said. "And they go out there during fourth period and play craps in the van."

Teen-age gambling is on the rise. Durand Jacobs, a Redlands psychologist who conducted a series of studies involving 3,700 students from 17 high schools in California and four other states, estimates that as many as 7 million juveniles nationally gamble for money, with more than 1 million experiencing problems.

But it isn't just the numbers that concern Jacobs and other juvenile therapists. It's the attitude of kids, parents and even educators about teen gambling.

"Public understanding of gambling problems is where our understanding of alcoholism was some 40 or 50 years ago," said Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Many kids and their parents consider gambling a "harmless diversion," with consequences much less serious than those from involvement with drugs and alcohol, or violence or promiscuity. But Jacobs says gambling can expose youngsters to crime, truancy and a desire for easy money.

"One of the points that has to be made is that most of the people went on to be compulsive gamblers because when they started as teen-agers, they were winners," Jacobs said. The "overwhelming majority" of young people, he said, were introduced to gambling by their parents or relatives who condoned it as fun and games.

The urge strikes early, with more than one-third of the students surveyed in 1989 saying they had bet for money by their 11th birthday, Jacobs said. More than 80% of them had wagered on a variety of games with family and friends by the time they were 15.

David Giem, a Newport Beach adolescent therapist, says teens don't come to him for gambling problems.

"They don't seek help until they are really into it, and by that time, they're older, " he said. Parents don't generally seek help for their children until the accompanying problems--stealing and truancy--get their attention, he said.

By the time teen-agers reach his office, "they're heavily into drugs, or really depressed."

Depending on whom you ask--from the cop who gambles with his kids to "teach them not to be sore losers," to the Gambler's Anonymous member who attributes early betting to his current status as "has-been"--teen-age wagering means different things to different people.

As she watched her boys play dice while waiting to order at a local family restaurant, an Irvine mother of two Rancho San Joaquin Intermediate School students said gambling is a phase, and sort of a rite of passage for American youth.

"It's just for fun," she said. "We really don't mind."

The boys said kids at the junior high school gamble in the bathrooms "or places that aren't obvious" with lunch money or pocket change by flipping coins in the air and betting on "heads or tails."

"We just do it for fun," said one of the youths. "The most I ever bet was a dollar."

Conne Kirkpatrick, a high school teacher from San Clemente, agrees that an occasional poker game isn't any cause for alarm. She said her 18-year-old son, Ryan, wagers from time to time.

"He plays poker with some of his friends, and as far as I know, it's with (poker) chips or small change," she said. "It makes him feel grown up in one way or another."

"I don't get all carried away," said the recent San Clemente High School graduate. "It's just fun."

Jerry, a police officer from Orange County, says gambling can have a beneficial effect on children. "I sit down and play cards with them. It teaches them that there has to be a winner and a loser," he said. "This way, I'm there with them."

Fourteen-year-old "A.C." said he started wagering with friends because "I was too old for Nintendo and too young to drive, and didn't have anything to do." Until recently, he enjoyed wagering on an afternoon poker hand or blacktop hoops with the guys, but when he started losing five bucks here and there, his gambling habit came to an abrupt halt.

"I'm a sore loser, and I started to lose, so I stopped," he said.

His 16-year-old friend Sano, however, said he loves to play poker and doesn't plan on stopping.

"I'll probably get a game together tonight," said the Los Alamitos High School student. "I just play with friends, and my parents don't mind unless I whine about losing."

Although the survey indicates that schoolyard gambling extends across the country, school officials rarely admit that it's occurring on their campuses.

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