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.
Of course, that was decades ago. Gambling at the clubs can get pricey nowadays, especially when some members exchange small fortunes in one night. “Before it was just males smoking some cigars and drinking some beer while playing some poker. No one lost more than $20 a night,” the grad says. “And it was hard to win more than that. Nowadays, guys [in final clubs] gamble lots of money—hundreds of dollars instead of tens. I think that now it’s getting out of control for some people. And I’m not sure that today’s 18 to 21 year-olds see it. I’m not sure that everyone’s aware of what’s going on.”
Current final club members don’t like to talk about gambling in the clubs, but it is impossible to deny its popularity. One sophomore who frequents clubs says, “There’s a lot of money flying around in final clubs. All of the guys are wealthy. I know that some nights guys drop hundreds—$400 or so,” he says. While the poker tradition is a continuation of decades of games, the rules are a bit different than those in the ’70s. “At one of the clubs there’s the unwritten rule that players who win must return,” he says. This gives losers the chance to win back their money because cash in play remains on the table. And winners can’t keep their streak going forever—eventually the wealth spreads. To ensure even greater fair play, all outstanding debts are recorded. “Loads of money is owed, and it’s all there in the books,” he explains. “It’s owed for long periods of time, but it stays in the books. I don’t know if it ever gets paid or what, though. They do it for fun. It’s friendly gambling.”
Another sophomore knows of club games where players have won and lost thousands of dollars. “Though, it’s usually losing,” he comments. “One of my friends lost $2,000 in one night. I don’t think the games are meant to get that high. They only made him pay $1,500.” Though he describes his friend as “anxious” during the pay-back period, he still categorizes the event as friendly.
This sort of high-stakes gambling among friends is not entirely uncommon outside of the clubs. One junior Pforzheimer resident plays under such circumstances in his weekly poker group. They would consider themselves friends—after all, half of them blocked together. “We’re all willing to float money back and forth,” he says. “We all buy in and let whoever pay it the next week. It’s more that people just don’t have money on them than people don’t have money at all—it’s more credit than debt. There are none of us who it’s a serious money drain on. The highest debt I’ve ever known anyone to owe was about $1,500. It was an extreme situation. And it got paid off in three days.”
While this student denied that gambling is a problem for him, he did admit that it could have a negative impact on his grades. “I’ll play until 5:30 or 6 in the morning,” he says. “If it starts to screw up my sleep schedule, it will in turn screw up my work.”
But for this student gambler, making the money is at times more important than making the grades. “I gamble as a combination of making money and having fun,” he claims. He admits it’s a pretty nerve-racking means of making money, but the thrill usually outweighs the anxiety. “Though it’s not something I’m willing to do if I’m losing a lot of money,” he says.
Not everyone has that much self-control. One Cabot ’01 graduate and former gambling addict recounts his experiences. “I got into poker at Yale,” he begins. “I was down there for a year and stumbled into an underground game. The first night I played, I lost $150.” Instead of getting discouraged by his initial disappointment, he was determined to learn how to play the game. Three months later he won his money back, and more. He started playing poker at a “semi-professional” level, using the money that he won to support himself. It was a job that he would later regret.
“I was obsessed with gambling,” he admits. “My last fall semester it was at its worst. Especially during football season. It got pretty bad. I would gamble a little every day. There was a three-week stretch where I played poker probably five hours a day. There was one day where I played all day,” he recalls. He ended up losing about $200. “That was the lowest of low,” he says.
For a while, the thrill of the game had overwhelmed him. “It helps that I’m not a wealthy person,” he explains. “I realized that I couldn’t afford it anymore. It’s more troubling for students who have higher credit limits and more money, like my friend at Yale. He called me at the end of fall semester saying that he needed help. In one week he lost $10,000—that was when he decided to stop. I decided to stop when I lost about $1,600. You realize at some point that it’s not what you want to do for the rest of your life. It interfered with my relationships. It got out of hand.”
It was not only the poker games that took over his life. He would go to Foxwoods with friends once a week during the spring semester of his junior year. And then there was online gambling.
“One of the worst things in the world is an online casino,” he claims. “You never know if they’re legit. Last fall semester I was playing online at least five days a week. The debt I owed was to the credit card company. Also, you can’t see the people. You never know who’s colluding. I stopped.”
Even if it only takes a simple click to close the window, his connection to the thrill was much harder to sever. “Online sports gambling is probably worst for going into debt. It’s very addictive. You lose your money faster than in poker...You just click around. I quit sports gambling because you have to research books and stuff. More often you’ll lose anyway.”
For people who have experienced the world of professional gambling, all of that other stuff is child’s play. “No one at Harvard goes for the stakes that I do,” says a Winthrop resident who turned his hobby into a career two summers ago. “They have a game at the Fly, but the stakes are way too small. I invited a couple of final club guys to play with me because I thought that they were really wealthy. But they said that the stakes were way too high. One of the greatest appeals for me about Harvard was that I thought there were a lot of wealthy guys here. But they haven’t panned out.”
Unsurprisingly, this economics concentrator’s game of choice is poker—Texas Hold’em, to be exact. He used to play with his own money, but that stopped when he met a wealthy man looking for a player to back. Impressed with his natural ability, the man offered to pay him a fixed rate to play in high stakes games. “Under his money, I played amongst the biggest players in the world,” he recalls. “The structure of the game was ‘10/20 no-limit.’” The minimum buy-in was $10,000, and the players could raise the bets without stop.
“I would buy in for $30,000 to $50,000,” he continues. “I played six times a week on average for eight to ten hours a day. That was a normal work week. At least 50 hours. I might play a 40-hour session and then sleep a day and a half. I did what it took to stay up on the game. I couldn’t afford to sleep—that was how I supported myself.”
It wasn’t exactly legal. “I was in New York and I played in underground clubs, because there’s no legal gambling in New York,” he says. “I loved it—it was like home.” That home was in Chelsea. He would buzz at an ordinary-looking black door, and then he would be admitted into a waiting area with video cameras, which would scan the area for police. If there were no cops, he would enter into a room with about eight poker tables. If there were cops, there would be a “Raid Procedure.”
“Guys would yell ‘Raid!’ and we would hide all the cash,” he recalls. “It happened more times than I’d like to remember.”
“There were the most amazingly eclectic, interesting people put together,” he states. “I play very high-stakes games. There are two types of people who gravitate towards those games: they’re either extremely wealthy or extremely good card players.” The players ranged from drug-dealers to Ivy Leaguers—they came from all different backgrounds. “I was friends with a guy who was in jail for stabbing a man to death,” he says. “These are people who you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with. Poker really is a great equalizer in life.”
All of the games were extremely intense. “They were not social, even if it sounded like people were having social conversations,” he says. “They might ask how you are, but they don’t really give a shit. All they want to know is how they can use it against you.” There was never any drinking—at all. “I will not play if I had one sip of alcohol. But people do drugs. Coke is popular. If a guy’s been up 30 hours, he might need a stimulant.”
“You win some and you lose some,” he adds. In the long run, he says, he was fairly successful as a player, but that didn’t keep him from becoming emotionally drained when the game consumed him. “If I play well, I’m happy. If I play a hand poorly, it haunts me...literally. I’ll have nightmares,” he admits. “Sometimes it would be hard to go on with my life. I couldn’t function. I would spend every waking and sleeping hour going over that hand, trying to decide what I should have done. Those decisions are so important that you think about them all the time. It’s totally depressing.”
Thinking about the effects of the game on his life, he reveals his other fears. “I have much more than money to lose,” he reflects. “I have the rest of my life to lose.”
When he was playing in New York, he lived with his girlfriend. During his period of marathon matches, he wouldn’t see her for days at a time due to his heavy gambling schedule. “Then once I got back I’d pass out for another day,” he says. “It’s a definite strain on these things. You can lose your pride, your self-respect, your self-control.”
Of course, there’s more to win than money too. He loves the sensation that comes with making high-level decisions. “Poker’s an emotional rollercoaster—the greatest rush in the entire world,” he claims.
Though he is careful to establish that he doesn’t experience a typical gambler’s rush—money is not the stimulant of his game. “I’m not a gambler,” he maintains. “It’s something more than gambling. It’s intellectual warfare. You must know your opponents better than they know themselves...You must know how they’re going to react. Poker’s all about being able to synthesize the psychological and quantitative aspects of the game into a coherent reasoning. I like that.”
His days as a professional gambler behind him, he now reads and writes poker theory and strategy in his spare time. “I love the game in a really deep and fundamental way,” he says.
And love hurts.
Forman, of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, explains, “In general, college-aged addicts don’t usually come in for treatment. Young people don’t usually admit that they might have a problem. That may take years and years of losses.”