Series:  Part One

Teenage Gambling

February 27, 1994

By Lynn Waddell


© Las Vegas SUN

It’s Saturday night at Binion’s Horseshoe. Cindy is made up like a cosmetics clerk and wearing black high-heels, jeans and flowing black blouse. She has already won $100 on a dollar slot machine and is trying her luck on a nickel machine.

There are many like her, more than casinos and gaming authorities care to acknowledge.

Cindy is 18.

“I don’t think they even care if I gamble,” the California teen said, referring to the casino employees. “At least as long as you don’t win big.”

Nevada’s legal gambling age is 21. But in a state where gambling is a religion and at a time when casinos are becoming Disneyesque, teens like Cindy easily enter casinos and plunk sometimes hundreds of dollars into slot machines and onto the green felt tables.

A SUN survey of local high school students shows that 52 percent of the 768 questioned have gambled in a business here.  Of those who have gambled, 92 percent have done so in a casino.

“Gambling is a part of life here,” one Cheyenne High School student said. “You can get away with it as long as you act like you know what you are doing.”

Dozens of teens interviewed, whose last names are not being used at their request,

said it’s easier to gamble than to buy beer. Plus, free beer can go along with gambling.

They also prefer casinos because the chance of getting thrown out is low. And if they do, they can just go to another casino because rarely do teens get arrested for gambling.

More teenage boys than girls gamble, according to the SUN survey. While 63 percent of the boys had gambled, only 43 percent of girls had.

Boys also had more bets made for them. Fifty-nine percent said they had someone place a wager on their behalf, while only 43 percent of the girls had done so.

Few teens gamble in grocery stores. Those interviewed said it was because they are more easily spotted by change people there.

“Every time I’ve tried a grocery store, man, this change lady always asks me to step away from the machine,” the Cheyenne student said.

As for convenience stores, 30 percent of the youths who have gambled have done so there, according to the survey.

A 15-year-old Western High School student pours quarters into a video poker machine at a local 7-Eleven. The machine bears a large sign prohibiting anyone under 21 to gamble. But neither of the two store clerks question when the 15-year-old and three of his teenage friends ask for change and began to play.

Fear of being caught by employees keeps most teens away from table games. But it doesn’t stop them from making sports bets, which ranked second behind slots and video poker as the teen’s most popular wager. Eighty-three percent of those who’ve gambled said they have tried their luck at the machines.

“It’s easier to play slots in a casino, especially when it’s a holiday weekend and there’s a lot of people in town. The casinos just don’t have enough security guards,” one teen said.

Jean Falzon, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling based in New York, said teens are lured to slot machines because they’re familiar. “This is the Nintendo generation. Youths are very used to video displays, and it doesn’t take much observation to see kids do develop a fascination with them.”

Teens use the similarity between video games and video poker as an argument for gambling. “It’s no different than putting a quarter in a video game. At least this way there’s a chance of getting your money back,” said one 15-year-old gambler.

Sometimes they’re chasing more than $100. Ten percent of those surveyed said they have bet more than $100 gambling in one outing. Most youths said they only gamble small amounts, with 38.9 percent saying they bet between $1 and $10.

“We don’t do it for fun. We do it for the money,” said Tommy, a Western High School student. “People who used to sell drugs and stuff are now gambling for money.”

Long-term effects

While dropping a few quarters into a slot machine may not seem like a big deal, sociologists and psychologists warn there’s a cost to society and teens.

The first national study on teen gambling done in 1989 showed that 13 percent of the gambling youths committed crimes to finance their habit.

The study done by California’s Loma Linda University Professor Durand Jacobs and several psychologists in other states, surveyed 2,700 high school students in California, New Jersey, Virginia and Connecticut.

Five percent of those surveyed classified as pathological gamblers. That’s much higher than the national estimate for adults, which is 1.5 percent.

Rachel Volberg, a sociologist and leading researcher in gambling studies, said research shows that most adult problem gamblers began gambling before age 12.

Volberg, who has also done a teen gambling survey, said minors with gambling problems are also more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol.

If minors gamble in casinos, they have free access to alcohol. For instance, the minor who won the Caesars Palace jackpot said he was offered drinks by the casino before winning.     I

Las Vegas 15-year-old Shelly said she generally turns down alcohol when she gambles for fear she will get caught. Her mom, who often taken her gambling, tells her to just order soda.

Few Statistics

How much youth gambling has caused criminal behavior or disrupted youths’ lives locally is unknown because no one has studied it here. For that matter, there’s been no public research on the gambling problems of adult Nevadans.

Rob Hunter, a leading psychologist in treating gambling addictions, said he hasn’t seen many teens come through his program in Las Vegas, but usually problem gamblers bottom out before seeking treatment. Most teens probably haven’t yet reached that point because it often takes years, he said.

Gamblers Anonymous refused to reveal any information it has on underage gamblers to protect the privacy of its members. “We’re just here to help people stop gambling who have problems with it,” said Alan P., a local GA member.

Donald Bumgarner, head of guidance counseling at Western High School, said he and other staff suspect gambling problems.

“We are aware of what we think is a sideline to gambling problems: stealing,” Bumgarner said. “If they are involved in gambling, it probably takes their lunch money and may account for some purses being stolen.”

Several teenage boys said many often use their lunch money to play craps in the school locker rooms. “It’s nothing to go to school with lunch money and walk home with $50 in your pocket,” one teen bragged. “Sometimes there may be seven craps games going on at once.”

Gaming lifestyle

As much as anything, youths like Cindy at Binion’s say they don’t think anyone really cares if they gamble, even their parents.

Some Gorman High School students said it’s not uncommon for their parents to bring parlay cards home for them, or make sports bets for them.

To many longtime Las Vegas residents, that may come as no surprise. Gambling has been a legal and sustaining part of Nevada for nearly 60 years. Youths pass slot machines when they go into the supermarket to pick up a loaf of bread and when they go into 7-Eleven for a Coke.

Their parents are often dealers, cocktail waitresses, pit bosses or somehow making a living off the casino industry.

Gaming Control Board Chairman Bill Bible said the tradition of gambling runs so deep in Nevada that residents in rural areas became angry with gaming agents for not allowing kids to make bets on horse races.

“They had a policy that as long as you were tall enough to reach the window, you could bet,” Bible said.

Theme Park Gambles

Gambling’s becoming a greater attraction for youths as new casinos attempt to lure families with theme parks and thrill rides.

“They are working on tomorrow’s customers,” psychologist Jacobs said. “They are building their customer base for the future.”

The three newest mega-resorts – Luxor, Treasure Island and MGM Grand – have gone to great expense to attract families.

Luxor has simulated motion rides. Treasure Island has a pyrotechnic pirate battle that lures children like a toy shop. MGM Grand not only has a children’s favorite movie theme, “The Wizard of Oz,” it also has a theme park out back.

Circus Circus pioneered the trend. With its trapeze acts, clowns and carnival games, it became a magnet for families. But when Chairman Bill Bennett and William Pennington bought it, gambling and kiddy attractions were physically intertwined, Bennett said. “Any idiot could see it was impossible to keep kids separated,” Bennett said of the layout.

Bennett and Pennington rearranged the casino interior and put the kids’ games on a level above the casino floor. Now children cannot leave the mezzanine level without an adult escort.  “It’s a problem I think we have under control,” Bennett said.

Even with those efforts, a handful of teenagers were playing slots at Circus Circus on President’s Day weekend.

Mixed Messages

Most casinos don’t attempt to keep children from entering the casino. Instead, youths must walk through casinos to get to the attractions created for them.

There’s only one entrance into the MGM Grand’s theme park and it requires passing rows of slot machines.

Treasure Island’s carnival games are located at the back of the casino. Only youths entering from the parking garage can avoid the casino. Those who enter through the front door or hotel elevators must walk through the casino to reach the games.

Caesars Palace has only one exit, other than the valet, from its Forum Shops mall into its casino.

The result is there are a lot of minors inside casinos. Often they can be seen standing or sitting beside their parents while they gamble. A recent photograph in The New York Times showed parents playing slots while a baby stroller idled nearby.

While there’s been no research on this new family marketing trend’s impact on underage gambling, critics say it doesn’t bode well.  “I don’t think we need children running around in casinos,” said Bill Thompson, UNLV professor of public administration. “We shouldn’t have casinos like MGM that are designed so that you have to walk half mile to get to funland.”

Larry Woolf, president and chief executive officer of the MGM Grand, said kids don’t have to walk through the casino to get to the theme park, just past slots on one side.

“They can see the machines, but they don’t have to trudge through the casino, for parents that have any concerns,” Woolf said.

Metro Police recognize the potential problem of mixing theme park attractions and gambling.

“If we are going to be a family-oriented location, we’ve got to expect it,” Lt. Carl Fruge said. “We can’t ignore it. We have to address it. The consequences severely outweigh any monetary gain.”


© Las Vegas SUN