Caught in the Shuffle

The odds of getting into Harvard are approximately one in ten. Instead of playing cards, the gamblers have a hand

The odds of getting into Harvard are approximately one in ten. Instead of playing cards, the gamblers have a hand of actvities and scores. For the interview, they put on a poker face, knowing that their fate lies as much in the luck of the draw as in their intelligence and skill. Pulsating with adrenaline and anxiety, they play their best game, unsure of how it will end. The letter comes, and abruptly the game is over. Acceptance is the jackpot.

Everyone here has felt the thrill of uncertainty—and the winner’s high. Determined to recreate that rush, some students have kept playing the odds. This time, with their money.

Last year, the residents of the Pforzheimer Bell Tower suite reserved Thursday nights for the boys. Twenty guys converged in the room each week. They puffed on cigarettes and cigars, forming a smoky haze that mingled with the jazz music playing in the background. Over 30 forms of liquor lined the bar, and beer flowed from a tap. But the main attraction was always the card table in the middle of the room.

Poker Night for this gang was a social event—bonding, not winning, was the ultimate goal. According to Ryan Damm ’01, the average put-down was $10 and winners rarely left with more than $40. The games were never overly intense. “I have plenty of vices, but I don’t think gambling ranks up there,” Damm says. “Though I do have vices that accompany gambling: I drink a lot, smoke a lot, eat a lot of fattening foods...It’s not a healthy lifestyle, but it’s tons of fun.

Some students aren’t just having a good time. While the majority of gambling at Harvard is a casual form of socializing, to others the thrill of the unknown is a serious personal pursuit. “It’s more of a solitary thing,” says another Pfoho ’01 grad. He says his primary motivation for gambling is entertainment. “Also, to prove that I’m better than the average schmuck out there. Gambling as a source of income is most definitely secondary. Ninety-nine percent of people who consistently bet lose money.”

That doesn’t stop him from dropping anywhere from $10 to $500 on online sports gambling—every night. Most of the time, gambling takes up about two hours of his day, but watching football Sundays and Mondays can take anywhere from six to 12 hours. His ability to spend time doing anything else or even seeing anyone has dwindled. In addition to sucking away his social life, he says that gambling can alter his personality. “This seriously affects people’s lives,” he says. “After a win, I am a happy, confident kid. After losing, I’m pissed off and I feel like a chump. How something so independent of skills could affect someone’s moods is ridiculous. I gamble every day.”

Signs like these—the altered emotional states and need to gamble daily—point towards a gambling addiction. According to the American Psychiatric Association, addiction is a behavior which a person keeps repeating, despite negative consequences. Dana Forman, associate program director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling notes that, “gambling leads to loss of large material items, careers, personal relationships and even emotional health. People may even lose their physical health,” he says. “They may get ulcers and headaches—things that they may not think have a connection to gambling. The person might get into legal trouble. Many gamblers end up in jail or court. Many attempt or even commit suicide.”

Research done by the Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addictions categorizes different gambling behaviors into three levels, ranging from innocent fun to pathological behavior, which is characterized by financial and personal distress, depression, manic episodes and even personality issues. States Forman, “Those susceptible to addiction usually have emotional problems or a slightly incorrect map of the world. There’s a common pattern called ‘chasing.’ Individuals start out by dabbling in gambling and winning. So they think: ‘Wow, this is easy!’ They might believe that they’re luckier or smarter than most individuals. And then they try to recapture that euphoria. They keep ‘chasing’ that feeling.”

Gambling experts liken the pattern to drug abusers. According to Gene Heyman, former Harvard psychology professor and current specializer in substance abuse at McLean Hospital, “At a behavioral level, gamblers are very similar to substance abusers. But not demographically. Unlike substance abusers, gamblers don’t usually have an association with criminal behavior. And they tend to be more intellectual.”

Poker, after all, requires a brain.

“I really enjoy games of choice,” Damm says. “I play a kind of poker called ‘Texas Hold’em’. It has the least chances required and it’s the most betting intensive. It’s skill-based.” This form of poker, he says, is prevalent among Harvard gamblers with quantitative skills and attracts computer science, economics and applied math concentrators.

According to Stephen M. Davis ’02, the best players tend to concentrate in subjects that involve some psychology, particularly economics and social studies. Davis explains: “The only two games that you can make money at are blackjack and poker. Blackjack is a lot of brain gymnastics. Poker also involves a lot of math, but it also involves reading people. The human element in addition to mathematics makes it a game of skill as opposed to purely a game of luck. And I suppose that appeals to a Harvard kid.”

Poker has indeed reserved its place in Harvard tradition. One of the school’s most famous graduates, Al Gore ’69, reportedly spent all of his free time playing cards with his friends in Dunster House. The final clubs, the most prominent remnant of Harvard’s elite male establishment, were planned with card games in mind. In addition to libraries, dining rooms and bars, most of the club houses were built with poker rooms.

One Class of 1974 alum and former final club member fondly recalls the poker of his college days. “We would stay up extremely late, until four or five in the morning,” he says. “We looked forward to it. We played by the rules. We knew the rules.” At that time, players would abide by three commandments. One could choose the game. One could not raise more than 25-cent bets. And no one could raise more than three times. In addition, there were no IOU’s, and one could leave.