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Online Poker Causes Gambling Addiction? We Think Not

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The recent report of an Australian parliamentary inquiry into online poker brought to the public forum the question of the impact of the game on problem gambling. Among the entities that demonstrated a hostility to poker was the Salvation Army Australia, which raised concerns about the allegedly addictive nature of online poker and its disproportionate effects on troubled individuals, including those susceptible to gambling addiction.

Parliamentary Report Background

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A Senate inquiry was launched in July while legislators were debating the merits of the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2016, which sought to close loopholes in the 2001 Interactive Gambling Act. The Amendment, which effectively banned online poker in the country, was passed in August 2017 ahead of the completion of the report by the Committee on Environment and Communications. The final report on the participation of Australians in online poker was presented on Oct. 18, 2017.

As part of the process, the Committee encouraged organizations and members of the public to submit their opinions and experiences related to internet poker. Many private citizens and groups explained their positive experiences with internet-based card games, but some came out strongly against encouraging people to play. The submission of the Salvation Army Australia was number 6 of a total of 266. It sought to explain the supposed threat that online poker posed to the most vulnerable members of society.

What Did the Salvation Army Say?

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The filling submitted by the Salvation Army presented statistics from the National Economic and Social Impact Survey (ESIS) conducted by the organization annually as well as research from outside entities. The Salvation Army found that:

Between 1,300 to 2,700 people participated in ESIS since 2012 and for four consecutive years (2012 to 2015), ESIS reports have found that between 6 to 9% of our respondents used gambling as means of supplementing their income*(2016, 2017 not counted). This is an alarming trend among those who are facing poverty and are extremely vulnerable to even minor fluctuations in finances.

As an example of the claims from independent studies used by the Salvation Army in making its case, we find the following sentence, which was placed after a discussion of the ways in which online poker buffs can mislead themselves into thinking they have more control of their results than is warranted:

To capitalise on this distorted thinking, online poker sites deliberately place emphasis on the element of skill involved in poker so as to encourage this ‘illusion of control’ in players.

The authors of the Salvation Army's submission actually contend that internet poker sites are purposely deceiving their customers by giving them the “illusion of control.” The footnote for this sentence is “Parke, A. and Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Identifying risk and mitigating gambling-related harm in online poker. Journal of Risk Research, 1-21.”

For these and other reasons, the Salvation Army recommended that “…the current Interactive Gambling Act 2001 [remain] and not be subject to any change by any proposed amendments.”

Problems With the Salvation Army's Thinking

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The two passages above were just a couple of the statements put together by the Salvation Army to advance its argument. Unfortunately, they're not substantiated very well by the original source documents referred to.

In the case of the ESIS report findings that 6% to 9% of respondents used gambling to supplement their income, the Salvation Army states that this is “an alarming trend among those who are facing poverty and are extremely vulnerable…” When we look at the wording of the question posed to survey takers, however, a different picture emerges. The 2015 ESIS allowed respondents to select various financial hardships faced in the past year. Among them were “I have gone without meals” and “I have needed to sell or pawn possessions.” These are definitely indicators of financial hardship, or at least they seem to be so according to any common-sense interpretation of the language employed. The option dealing with gambling, “I have attempted to supplement my income by gambling (e.g. pokies),” doesn't appear to encompass the same level of hardship though. The 8% of respondents who reported falling into this category aren't divided between those who won versus those who lost, and in any case, there's no info available on how much they spent trying to supplement their income through real money gaming. Also, this number includes all types of gambling rather than just poker, so using this evidence to promote banning online poker is a big stretch at best. When we start with the 8% figure and try to guess how many people actually lost money rather than winning, how much cash was forfeited, and what percentage of them were engaged in online poker play, we come to the realization that the real number is probably a couple of per cent at most although the lack of granularity in the source text makes any such estimation, of necessity, inaccurate.

Let's look now at the study authored by Parke, A. and Griffiths, M.D. where we encounter the following line:

Khazaal et al. (2013) suggest that online poker sites deliberately overemphasise the role that skill has in determining poker gambling outcomes, to encourage an illusion of control in poker players beyond the reality of what probability would objectively dictate.

The researchers are merely stating that another paper “suggests” that some overly aggressive marketing techniques are being used regarding the role that skill plays in poker results. What the Salvation Army presents as fact is just third-hand inference. If we want to see what Mr. Parke and Dr. Griffiths really think about the role the sites play in gaming addiction, we need only refer to the conclusion of their paper where they explain:

Although online poker appears to be less associated with gambling-related harm than other forms of online gambling (Wardle et al. 2011), it is imperative for the credibility and long-term viability of the market for the online poker gambling industry to be taking steps to mitigate harm that online poker players may experience as a result of regular participation… Currently, there are multiple responsible gambling features available on online poker websites that inhibit player dissociation and therefore potentially limit harmful play.

This is quite an unlikely text to reference if the Salvation Army is seeking to imply that online poker presents unique risks and that the sites are purposely attempting to court gambling addicts! In fact, by recommending that the prohibitions against online poker remain in place, the organization may be increasing the harms of gambling addiction. The offshore sites that now service the Australian market are mostly well-run entities that have deployed suites of self-exclusion and other protective measures, but some of them probably skimp a little bit in this area. If all Australian online poker companies had to comply with the demands of a stringent licensing regime, those rooms with lacking or absent responsible gambling elements would have to either beef up their efforts or leave the market. As it is now, there's no realistic way for the authorities to force gambling firms to fulfil their responsibilities to mitigate harm.

Other Research Into the Subject

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We've just examined some of the claims that the Salvation Army has made about the prevalence of problem gambling in online poker, and we find the proofs presented to be inadequate. This becomes even more apparent when we consider the many academic analyses that come down on the other side of the fence. Two researchers from the University of Sydney, Sally Gainsbury and Alex Blaszczynski, conducted a study in which 1,001 Australian online gamblers participated. They submitted a response to the parliamentary inquiry in which they shared their findings, which included:

When asked what form of gambling had contributed most to any gambling-related problems, poker was the least common response among the whole sample, reported by only 4% of respondents… This suggests that among the respondents in our sample, poker made a relatively small contribution to the harms arising from gambling in comparison to other gambling activities

Furthermore, the researchers identified a big failure in the way past research has treated poker playing:

Similarly, professional poker players may report high scores on measures of involvement in terms of time spent playing and thinking about poker, engage in poker rather than other activities, and increase the amount of money that they bet on poker. This may not be indicative of problems if individuals are engaging in online poker in a disciplined and rationale [sic] manner. It is recommended that further research examine the experience of gambling-related harms among online poker players, using measures of harm that are appropriate for this population.

This suggests that many previous conclusions about the risks of internet poker have been overstated because the methodology used didn't differentiate between the unique aspects of poker as compared to other types of real money wagering.

Even among those who have personal issues with gambling-related harms, people who engage in poker online may fare better than their counterparts in brick-and-mortar casinos. A July 2014 article in The Atlantic disputed the widespread belief that the 24/7 availability of online betting websites exacerbates the ills of problem gambling. The magazine cited the findings of Dr. Ingo Fiedler of the University of Hamburg who studied the habits of more than 2 million player identities on PokerStars cash game tables during a six-month period in 2009 and 2010. Dr. Fiedler discovered that the average amount of time played was less than five hours over the course of the timeframe studied, and because most of the population enjoyed micro- and low-stakes tables, the average rake paid was less than a dollar per hour. Another treatment of this subject, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, tracked the activities of 3,445 internet poker players. It recorded their table buyins and learned that 95% of them purchased an average of €12 in chips twice per week over the course of six months.

Clearly, the sums involved in online poker, for anyone apart from the most dedicated enthusiasts, are much smaller than those required to partake in offline gaming. Indeed, minimum buyins at live casino poker rooms are usually $100 or higher. There is good reason to believe that among those with gambling addictions, the potential for loss from online gaming is much less severe than in traditional gambling environments.

Salvation Army's Possible Motivations

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Some may wonder why the Salvation Army Australia has even taken a position on this matter. After all, this group isn't prominent in the world of gambling, either offline or online, and they're not among the first names to come to mind when thinking about the topic. The answer lies in the humanitarian work that the non-profit does. You see, it funds more than 1,000 social programs and helps more than a million people per year. Through its experiences with its philanthropic programs, serving those in need, the charity has formed its anti-gambling perspective. Unfortunately, this is a biased view rather than a balanced one. The organization risks alienating the public by lobbying for overly restrictive rules that may indeed be appropriate for the small percentage of problem gamblers but that are too paternalistic for Australian society as a whole.

You Can Still Play Poker

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Despite the attempts by the Salvation Army Australia and other do-gooders to restrict your individual freedoms, you can still play cards on your computer. There are several sites that have ignored the prohibitions against internet poker and continue to serve the Australian market. None of the laws that are in force criminalize ordinary players; they all target the companies running the games. If you're curious about the online poker rooms that you can sign up for from the Land Down Under, then check out our page devoted to Australian online poker.

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Although the Salvation Army Australia possibly went overboard in its assertions, gambling addiction is a real and potentially devastating issue. If you think you might have a problem, you may wish to check out the following resources: