Poker players are a different breed. Few other gambling activities inspire people to smile and laugh genuinely with the competition. After all, punters at a slot machine or blackjack table are not known for their camaraderie with the pit boss.
So different is the game of poker that it can seem as though it isn’t really gambling. Instead, it merely seems like a game, no different than a board game or video game.
It’s not – it is certainly gambling. Because it is gambling, it is quite necessary for its players to practice responsible gambling as they play. The information that follows is a rundown on what responsible gambling is, why it’s necessary, and what to do about it.
What is “responsible gambling?”
Responsible gambling is the set of practices and strategies that can help to keep gambling a fun and safe activity. Using these actions as you play poker will severely limit the possibility that poker will become a destructive element in your life and the lives of your loved ones.
Responsible gambling is a two-way street, too. Both players and gambling providers, like casinos and cardrooms, have a set of responsible gambling practices they would do well to follow.
Responsible gambling is the healthy flip side to problem gambling. Problem gambling and gambling addiction, its more sinister cousin, are the set of practices that lead to financial and personal hardship or destruction for afflicted players.
As it happens, poker players are particularly susceptible to these two dark sides because of an inherent element in poker.
The problem: Poker and Skill
The inherent problematic element in poker is skill. Because poker is one of the few games that gamblers can play and show a long-term profit, it is often described as a skill game. In general, that description is correct, as the best players tend to make the most money over time.
However, the problem that arises is that poker has a great deal of luck (or “variance,” as we prefer to call it) involved, too. On a fairly regular basis, making the statistically-favored play on a poker table doesn’t pan out. You can get it in with the best of it and still go home with empty pockets.
Thus, poker is both a skill game and a gambling game. This truth is unfortunate because it can be difficult to parse out exactly which parts of your results are due to skill and which are due to luck. In fact, the mixing of the two qualities often leads players to overestimate their skill and underestimate the amount of luck responsible for their success – even at very high levels of the game.
It is, therefore, critically important that all poker players, including us, practice responsible gambling at all times when we play. Let’s discuss how to do that.
How to practice responsible gambling as a player
If you are planning to sit at a table soon, you need to follow some or all of the following tips:
- Poker money needs to be the very last expenditure in your budget. Never, ever gamble with money earmarked for, literally, anything else. Even other activities involving disposable income, such as outings with family or friends, should take precedence, and money for necessities like food and rent shouldn’t even be in the same room.
- Don’t play poker if you aren’t in a good headspace. Poker is not the thing to do if you’re upset, angry, or distracted by other things in your life. In fact, coming to the table with one of those attributes visible can make you a target for other players.
- Except on rare occasions, it is a poor idea to drink alcohol or use other substances prior to sitting down to play.
- Have both maximum loss and maximum time limits in place before you sit down. You should not be open-ended about how much you’re planning to spend (potentially) or how long you’re going to be at a poker table.
- The notion of streaks as reliable trends is a fallacy. You cannot expect that your hot streak is guaranteed to continue, nor can you expect that you can dig yourself out of a hole. Sometimes, it’s better to book a win or cut your losses and try again another day.
- Keep track of your wins and losses. It’s a good thing to keep an eye on how things are going. It’s also a good thing to avoid getting audited by the IRS.
How to practice responsible gambling as a gaming provider
Responsible gambling is a two-way street. It’s not just for the poker players themselves. So, here are some strategies that gambling providers like casinos and cardrooms would do well to adopt as part of their business model.
- Recognize that problem gambling is bad for business. It destroys the lives of the players and their families and causes you to lose a client. Worse, the news of a problem gambler at your facility is terrible PR.
- Post information in multiple locations, either in-person or online, about where to go for help. Make sure the information is up-to-date and easy to follow.
- Train employees to spot the signs of problem gambling and encourage them to be proactive about gently counseling the players.
- If it’s in person, provide safe areas without any gaming where players can cool down and break their destructive thought patterns. Staff these areas with trained personnel who can provide information and support.
- If it’s online, give players the ability to limit their time spent playing, their deposit amounts, and the frequency at which they may deposit. It’s also a good idea to set automatic pop-ups for players who have been grinding for many hours without ceasing.
- Ensure that all advertising does not contain deceptive language or verbiage that encourages irresponsible play habits.
- Make sure safeguards against underage players are foolproof, as young persons are particularly susceptible to problem gambling.
Signs of problem gambling
Whether you’re a poker player or the manager of a poker room or casino’s poker operation, you need to be able to recognize the signs and warnings that a gambling problem may be active.
If you notice these signs in yourself, you might consider exploring some of the organizations listed in the sections below. If you notice these signs in others, then you should gently suggest that they think about taking a break and/or quitting for the evening.
In either case, train yourself and, where applicable, your staff to realize if some of the following signs are making an appearance:
- Fixating on playing poker or when the next poker session is occurring
- Spending excessive amounts of time playing poker
- Consistently playing longer than originally intended, especially if predetermined social functions are being missed
- Dipping into monies that are required for necessities or family-oriented activities
- Poker is the only topic of conversation, or any discussion on other topics is maneuvered around to be about poker
- Feelings of guilt, anger, or depression about losses
- Irritability or sadness when not playing poker or when a poker session doesn’t occur
- Lying to friends or family members about the frequency of poker playing or how much is being spent
- Missing work, school, or other important life events in order to play
- Falling behind on bill payments or other nonnegotiable costs of life
- Canceling trips or other fun activities because the money was lost
- Neglecting personal hygiene or health in favor of continuing to play
- Playing as a means of emotional escape from one’s troubles
Some of these red flags are more dire than others. Some people are obsessed with the topic of poker and have built their social lives around the game (and other players), and that’s probably not as much of a worry.
However, if there is lying, stealing, or irresponsible use of money earmarked for necessities, it’s a very bad sign. So, it is right to be concerned if even one of the more serious signs shows up – having the power turned off or losing one’s job is enough to reach out to trained counselors or other personnel who can help you or the struggling person in your life.
National responsible gambling organizations
Responsible gambling organizations and help exist at both the national and state levels. The correct choice for you will depend on the available resources in your area and, frankly, the resource(s) that seem most likely to help.
So, let’s talk about the national organizations first. These organizations either serve directly or have branches in every state in the country. If you aren’t a resident of a state with a developed responsible gambling infrastructure, these groups are probably your best bet – no pun intended.
National Council on Problem Gambling
The largest and best-equipped responsible gambling organization in the country is the National Council on Problem Gambling. The NCPG has direct affiliates in many states and advises groups in other states in terms of their education and understanding of problem gambling.
The NCPG also has several options for anyone who suspects that they may have a gambling problem. There are information sheets, quizzes, and links to various counseling and treatment options for you to use.
Most notably, the NCPG serves as the primary steward for the National Problem Gambling Helpline, a helpline staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by trained counselors who can help you in crisis and work to get you referred to an appropriate therapist or group in your area. You can call this helpline toll-free at 1-800-522-4700, or you can also use the NCPG’s live chat function at ncpgambling.org/chat.
Direct counseling is not a silver bullet solution for problem gambling or gambling addiction. In fact, depending on the sufferer’s personality, meeting with a counselor or therapist one-on-one might have only a minimal effect. Even if direct counseling is working, your therapist may also recommend that you join a peer support group. In that case, your primary option is Gamblers Anonymous, or GA.
GA is a national organization of local meetings that bring together problem gamblers at all stages of recovery. Every single person at a GA meeting is fighting their own personal battle, so it is guaranteed to be a judgment-free space.
When you attend a GA meeting, expect to hear stories from other sufferers about their trials and their strategies to stay clean and on the right path. You will also find camaraderie, encouragement, and accountability through the group. If you prefer to work out a problem with friends, GA might be the answer for you.
However, Gamblers Anonymous may also be intimidating to you. If you are an introvert or struggle with in-person situations, the idea of a weekly meeting might only increase your stress levels. Alternatively, if you have a burning question and can’t afford to wait until the next group session, consider taking to the internet and visiting GamTalk.
GamTalk is, in essence, the online version of GA. It is moderated and frequented by fellow problem gamblers and is a judgment-free site for you to get information, ask questions, and find some peer support.
Best of all, you don’t even have to leave your home to get the help you need. If you prefer to work things on the computer or have mobility problems, GamTalk could be the way to go.
Needless to say, GamTalk is available no matter where you are, which is another reason to have it as an option. You can even use GamTalk as a supplement for your GA membership – there’s no exclusivity clause or anything.
Problem gambling and gambling addiction rarely occur in a vacuum. The family and friends of the sufferer are often affected, too, and their mental health through the struggle is important, too. So, for those who are problem gambling-adjacent, there is GAM-ANON.
GAM-ANON is the sister organization to Gamblers Anonymous and functions in much the same way. Every week, there are hundreds of GAM-ANON meetings across the country, and one is likely to be taking place nearby.
The only difference is that GAM-ANON is strictly for friends and family of those who are struggling with a gambling problem. You can find support, encouragement, or just a good shoulder upon which to cry when you reach out to the group. Nobody there will look sideways at you if you’re in the thick of it with someone important in your life.
State responsible gambling organizations
Many states have their own responsible gambling organizations. Some of them are funded by tax dollars. In fact, some of them are divisions or wings of actual state agencies.
In other states, there isn’t so much support. In those cases, the organizations are more like traditional nonprofits, where their budgets are derived from donations and fundraising.
For our purposes, we’re going to look at the five states where online poker is legal and active, and the additional state where it is legal, but not launched. Here are the relevant state-level resources in the six areas:
- Delaware — Delaware Council on Gambling Problems
- Michigan — Michigan Association on Problem Gambling
- New Jersey — Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey
- Nevada — Nevada Council on Problem Gambling
- Pennsylvania — Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania
- West Virginia – 1-800-GAMBLER (managed by the WV Lottery)
In every case, you can reach out and get assistance around the clock. Trained counselors are standing by 24/7, and can guide you to the appropriate groups or therapists in your area. In some cases, the state may even pay for the cost of therapy, meaning that you don’t have to worry about affording the help you need.
Don’t wait a minute longer
If it hasn’t been clear so far, the help for problem gambling is out there. Don’t wait a minute longer. You could start your journey toward recovery right now.
Every minute that you don’t is another minute a slave to your compulsions. The problem has gone beyond the point that you can solve it alone, and the first step is to recognize that fact.
If you’re concerned about a family member, you have no reason not to call, either. The counselors on the other ends of the helplines are more than happy to give you information and advice on how to proceed. You are not betraying someone if you’re trying to get them help – statements to the contrary are simply the disease talking.
We hope that no one reading this page is dealing with these problems. However, if you or someone you love is struggling, the time to do something about it is right this second.