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How to control your gambling

What’s fun at first can all too easily get out of hand. Learn the warning signs and use these tips to rein things in

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Luke Clark

is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where he is also the director of the Centre for Gambling Research. He is co-editor-in-chief at the journal International Gambling Studies.

Edited by Christian Jarrett





Need to know

The way gambling is portrayed in the movies or in TV ads, it usually looks like a lot of fun. It’s exciting, and there’s often a social buzz. Maybe your own experiences with gambling started out this way too, but you’ve noticed that your relationship with gambling has begun to change. Something that used to seem like harmless fun is starting to feel more like an uncontrollable habit. Maybe the bets haven’t been going your way, and you’re struggling to make other payments.

Opportunities to gamble in modern society have increased, and the underlying technologies have evolved. We’re all familiar with the traditional ways of gambling, from lottery products and scratch cards, slot machines, bingo and casino table games, to betting on sports and horse racing. In many parts of the world, all these forms of gambling are now also available on the internet. We’re rarely more than a few seconds from being able to bet on a gambling website – whatever the time of day or night, or wherever we are.

Then there’s the surge in advertising. Gambling ads during televised sports or late-night TV are just the tip of the iceberg. If you’ve downloaded a gambling app, perhaps you receive push notifications for new promotions. In spectator sports, gambling firms might also advertise pitch-side, or sponsor the team strip. Naturally, gambling operators also have an active presence on social media. In recent research from the University of Bristol in the UK, the opening weekend of the 2023 English Premier League football season was accompanied by 11,000 gambling ‘messages’ across TV, radio and social media. These messages contain persuasive triggers and cues that can drive an urge to gamble among fans.

When gambling gets out of control, the negative consequences can take different forms, but they usually emerge from financial losses. Commercial gambling games contain a ‘house edge’, which is what makes them a profitable business. This means that, with continued gambling, the gambler is destined, mathematically, to lose money in the long run.

Worrying about debts, loss of sleep, unpaid bills and having to make financial sacrifices in other areas, such as groceries or holidays, are all common experiences for people whose gambling gets out of hand. Partners and children typically also bear the financial hardship of gambling losses and, unlike a hangover, gambling debts can take months or years to pay off. When your losses also affect your spouse or partner, this can lead to arguments, guilty feelings, and perhaps a temptation to lie about your intentions to gamble again. You might turn to friends and family to borrow money. Your job or studies may suffer as you become distracted and preoccupied.

In its most severe form, the official medical term for gambling addiction is gambling disorder. Since 2013, it has been categorised by US psychiatry alongside substance use disorders as the first ‘behavioural addiction’. Among the symptoms of gambling disorder are various hallmarks that overlap with drug and alcohol addictions. Betting with larger sums of money over time is analogous to ‘tolerance’ – for example where someone with an alcohol use disorder finds that they need to gradually increase the quantity of alcohol they consume to achieve the same psychological effects. Similarly, when someone is prevented from gambling (eg, through a lack of funds, or being away on vacation), they might experience withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability or difficulty concentrating, akin to the withdrawal that can be experienced after stopping consuming a drug or alcohol. Nowadays, gambling disorder is recognised as a debilitating condition that can be associated with the most severe outcomes, including suicide and bankruptcy.

There’s a lot of stigma around gambling problems. With a chemical addiction, it is well recognised that drugs exert powerful effects on the brain, to alter reward-seeking and self-control. Even though gambling seems to hijack the same neural systems as drugs, via the allure of unpredictable rewards, these effects are less well understood, which may contribute to heightened stigma. Problem gambling is sometimes referred to as a hidden addiction, because at a physical level there are no tell-tale signs, such as the smell of alcohol on the breath in someone with a drinking problem.

In helping you gain more control over your gambling, I am mindful of the wider forces at work. Some people are more susceptible to developing gambling problems: there is extensive research showing that men, younger people, those on lower incomes, and people who are members of marginalised and disadvantaged groups, are all at increased risk of gambling problems. But personal factors are not the whole story. Modern gambling games are sophisticated products, designed to attract bettors and keep them coming back. Some forms of gambling, such as slot machines, can get out of control more easily than other forms, such as lottery tickets. Where and how you gamble is another key factor in whether it gets out of control, in terms of the ease of access, levels of advertising, and the degree of regulation that gambling operators must follow.

Whatever your background or preferred forms of gambling, if you are looking to get more control over your gambling, or you are concerned about a loved one and the effects that gambling is starting to have on them, I hope this Guide will help you.

What to do

Recognise the warning signs

One immediate tell-tale sign that your gambling might be getting out of hand is frequent loss chasing. Imagine a run of bad luck where you’re sure a win is just around the corner – maybe you carry on betting for longer than you’d planned, or maybe you go all-in on the last bet of the day? In poker, this is sometimes called going ‘on tilt’ – a visceral and desperate state where rational thought is lost. Some gamblers find themselves going back to gamble the next day, still trying to break even and recover those losses. Gamblers sometimes also chase after wins, believing that they’re on a magical winning streak.

Other early signs that your gambling is getting out of control can be more subtle. To help you get a measure of your situation, there are a number of questionnaires available online for self-testing, such as the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI).

The PGSI asks nine questions that tap symptoms, such as tolerance (‘Have you needed to gamble with larger amounts of money to get the same feeling of excitement?’), and some of the negative consequences of gambling that I described earlier, such as adverse effects on your personal relationships. Agreeing more strongly with more of the items is an indication of problematic gambling. If you’re showing milder signs of a gambling problem, the tools and tips that follow are designed to help you get back in control. For readers worried their problems are more serious, I’ve provided some advice on resources and getting further help in the final step of this section.

An alternative to self-test tools is to track your gambling in more objective terms. Your bank statements often provide the best answer to whether you’re gambling more than you can afford, particularly if you bet online, because all those deposits will be tracked. Looking back at your gambling expenditure might be an uncomfortable experience. Research indicates that gamblers’ memories for their spending are often fallible. You’ll probably recall any jackpot wins in vivid detail, but the long succession of losses that led up to the win is easily forgotten.

Understand the ways that gambling can play with your mind

The human mind is poorly equipped for thinking about chance and randomness, and gambling games capitalise on this. For example, we’re hopeless at thinking about very rare events, so when we hear the chances of winning the lottery are one in 14 million, we struggle to use this information to make a rational decision about whether it’s worth playing or not.

There are two specific effects to be vigilant for in gambling games. First, over a series of bets, you’ll find yourself looking instinctively for patterns in random outcomes, trying to predict what comes next. In the infamous gambler’s fallacy, you’ll find yourself thinking that an event is due if it hasn’t shown up for a while, such as a run of reds in roulette meaning that it’s time to go all-in on black. Casino roulette wheels often display recent ‘hot outcomes’ presumably to fuel this bias (such as flagging up ‘hot numbers’ that have been coming up frequently, or ‘cold numbers’ that are ‘overdue’).

Second, many gambling games trigger an illusion of control over the outcome by offering you some choice (eg, choosing your lottery numbers) or moment of physical dexterity (eg, throwing dice in craps). Yet the reality is these opportunities do not meaningfully change your chances of winning. This bias becomes especially complicated in gambling formats that do entail some genuine degree of skill or knowledge, such as sports betting or blackjack, but where gamblers often overestimate their level of influence. Just because you follow a particular sport or league and are knowledgeable about players and teams, you’re still betting against a bookmaker’s odds that are based on millions of datapoints.

The gambler’s fallacy and illusion of control are compelling biases that can often lead to a strong urge to place ‘just one more bet’. I’ve been teaching these effects to undergraduates for many years, but when I need to throw a pair of sixes in Monopoly, I’m still liable to blow on the dice. Simply learning to recognise these biases in your own gambling can help you make better decisions about whether to play on or walk away.

Use personal strategies to regain control

If your gambling is starting to escalate, one key way to regain control is through setting limits. The first step is to plan what a realistic limit might be:

  • Use your bank statements to calculate your monthly disposable income, and consider what proportion you might allocate to gambling. The Canadian lower-risk gambling guidelines propose spending no more than 1 per cent of monthly household income on gambling.
  • In forming this plan, bear in mind any current debts you might have and the need for a regular repayment plan.
  • Many gamblers are looking to limit their spending, but you might be more concerned about limiting the time you spend on gambling. It’s possible to apply limits to both.

With a specific limit (money and/or time) now in mind, how do you apply this limit? If you gamble online, most gambling websites offer tools for setting limits through the account settings. You should be able to set spending limits and/or limits on session length, as well as choosing the timeframe over which the spending cap applies.

Consider setting both a daily limit (this will help prevent you chasing losses or wins), but also a weekly or monthly limit (to keep your longer-term habits in check). When setting up these tools, pay attention to whether the limit is ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ – that is, if you reach your limit, is it game over (ie, a hard limit), or does the website simply inform you that you’ve reached your cap, but allow you to play on? Limit-setting tools work because they provide a precommitment that you make in a calm, objective state, to prevent later temptation. The problem with soft limits is that they still require self-control to walk away, perhaps in a moment of high excitement or deep immersion in the game. So, if the website lets you choose, it’s probably best to go for binding hard limits.

If you’re someone who gambles using cash in physical casinos or betting shops, the high-tech solutions for setting limits might not be available, so here are some further tips to try:

  • The classic: only take the cash to the casino that you are prepared to lose!
  • Leave your bank cards at home, with a trusted friend, or somewhere secure, so that you won’t be tempted to take out more money later on.
  • If you hit some wins, cash out those winnings and keep them in a separate pocket (different from your spending-money pocket), so that you’ll still have any winnings unspent at the end of the evening.
  • In some regions, limit-setting tools might also be available through loyalty card programmes or personal ID cards (if you have a member’s account with a casino or shop, check the account settings for your options).

Familiarise yourself with other tech-based tools

In addition to limit-setting tools, licensed gambling websites generally offer a number of other ‘responsible gambling tools’ you could consider using. As well as options for monitoring your spending patterns (eg, opting in to receive monthly statements), there are some options to suspend your account. Short-term blocks (‘lock outs’) might last from a few days to a few weeks, and can be applied with just a couple of clicks. These can be useful if your gambling is escalating quickly, or if you’re worried about an upcoming sports tournament, such as the lure of betting on the FIFA World Cup. Longer-term blocks, termed ‘self-exclusion’, can be set up to last several years, and are ideal if you’ve decided it’s time to fully step away from gambling.

As gambling increasingly moves online, this presents a host of new challenges for anyone looking to regain control of their gambling. Yet the internet is also providing innovative solutions to problem gambling. A common issue for online gamblers is the number of different websites available. Maybe you’ve set some limits or blocked yourself on your favourite site, but what’s to stop you just moving to a different provider? Blocking software, such as Gamban, operates within your web browser to prohibit access to a lengthy block-list of gambling websites. In the UK and Australia, some banking apps also allow you to set up financial blocks that will reject any payments you try to make to a gambling operator.

Get further help

If you feel you need more support to get your gambling under control, the options can vary quite widely by region and jurisdiction. Telephone helplines are available in most countries and are often a first point of contact for people who are concerned about their gambling. Whether you’re just starting to think about the warning signs, or you’re already at a point of crisis, helplines staffed by trained professionals can tell you about the different resources that are available in your locality. These helplines can also offer you support if you’re worried about someone else’s gambling.

Modern casinos often contain information centres and trained advisors who you can talk to about your gambling; these services would often be the access point for programmes that give you the opportunity to exclude yourself from the casino in the future.

Treatment programmes for people with gambling problems rely on psychological therapies, but can take a variety of formats, including online or in-person, and individual or group-based therapy. Two evidence-based techniques supported by clinical trials are cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing. CBT involves identifying triggers for gambling, and faulty patterns of thinking during gambling, such as the cognitive biases I described earlier. Working with your therapist, you would test the validity of these beliefs, and plan alternative ways of coping with gambling triggers outside of the clinic.

Motivational interviewing, which can be combined with CBT, involves exploring with your therapist how you perceive the costs and benefits of gambling, and considering with them whether it’s in your interests to stop gambling altogether – and if so, how to get to that point.

From a practical perspective, because many gamblers starting treatment have significant debts, psychological therapies are often combined with debt counselling, in which case you’d receive advice on different options for consolidating your debts and forming a viable repayment plan.

Although gambling problems can place tremendous strain on personal relationships, your family and social networks can also be a powerful source of support. If you have a partner or trusted friend, their perspective on your gambling could provide you with a much-needed reality check. And they could help you with some of the self-control and limiting strategies I covered above, such as helping you set up reasonable limits and blocks on gambling websites.

Key points – How to control your gambling

  1. There have never been so many ways to gamble. From lottery products to horse racing, many traditional ways to bet are now also available online, wherever you are, whatever the time of day.
  2. Recognise the warning signs. One red flag is if you find yourself repeatedly chasing your losses. Online self-assessment tests can give you a fuller picture.
  3. Understand the ways that gambling can play with your mind. Two relevant phenomena to look out for are the ‘gambler’s fallacy’ and the ‘illusion of control’.
  4. Use personal strategies to regain control. There are traditional methods, such as only taking the cash to the shop or casino that you’re prepared to lose, and online tools, such as using account features to restrict your time or money spent on gambling.
  5. Familiarise yourself with other tech-based tools. Gambling sites and apps offer a range of other tools you can use, such as short-term lockouts and longer-term blocks. Third-party blocking software and banking tools provide further options.
  6. Get further help. From gambling support helplines to therapy, there’s more support out there if you need it.

Learn more

Being aware of the rise of gamblification

As gambling increasingly moves online, it has started to permeate other areas of our lives that rely on digital technologies, including video gaming, streaming platforms, and watching sports and esports. This process, dubbed ‘gamblification’, includes some cases that explicitly portray modern gambling games, and other cases that rely on randomised rewards as the underlying mechanic of gambling. A common concern is that, by avoiding gambling regulations (such as age restrictions), these products and activities are widely available to youth and could be a gateway into real-money gambling.

The first arrival on this scene was the ‘Social Casino Game’. The label is slightly confusing, but these are free-to-play video games, typically accessed through social networking platforms, that emulate standard forms of gambling, such as slot machines. Although Social Casino Games do not involve real-money bets or prizes, they are a classic example of the ‘freemium’ model: players are limited to a fixed amount of free play (eg, so many minutes per day) so, if you want to continue playing, you have to purchase credits.

Research has shown that Social Casino gamers who spend money on these games are also more likely to engage in real-money gambling and tend to experience more serious gambling problems. If you’re familiar with these games, bear in mind that, by skirting gambling regulations, there is nothing to stop them from claiming inflated or misleading payout rates (of credits). Some Social Casino Game platforms are partnered with gambling operators, creating a possibility for ‘cross-advertising’ and perhaps allowing them to share data on your gambling habits.

Another example of gamblification is inside more conventional video games. A ‘loot box’ is a mystery box that delivers a randomised in-game prize, such as a new weapon in a battle game, or a new character in a ‘gacha game’. Loot boxes can often be earned by playing the game, but with the advent of in-game purchases (sometimes called microtransactions) they can also often be paid for with real-world currency. Some of the prizes in loot boxes are rare and valuable; if you’re a gamer, you will likely be familiar with the urge to open more loot boxes, trying to get a desired prize.

You might notice that the psychology underlying loot boxes comes down to the same intermittent reward schedule as gambling games, and the tendency to overspend in these games can resemble chasing losses. While much of the controversy around loot boxes has focused on their appeal to youth, adults can also overspend via in-game purchases, and these randomised features may hold particular appeal to experienced gamblers. If you’re reading this article and you enjoy video gaming, I would recommend reviewing your payment settings carefully, and some games now include limit-setting options similar to those I described earlier for gambling.

As the worlds of video gaming and gambling converge, a range of other gambling opportunities and related phenomena are likely to become more visible in the years to come. Esports (competing at video games) is a growing industry with a strong appeal to young men. Sports betting websites have responded quickly to its popularity by allowing customers to place bets on esports tournaments. A second, less mainstream, route for esports betting is using in-game items (‘skins’) as the currency, which are often items that have been won via loot boxes.

Lastly, online gambling is increasingly being broadcast directly on streaming platforms such as Twitch, which have grown out of the video gaming community. These platforms allow you to watch someone – often a celebrity influencer – play online slot machines for hours at time, while having some friendly banter with other viewers via a chat window. Once again, a key concern with gambling streams is the ease with which youth can access this content, but because of the gambling-related triggers on display they can also raise issues for experienced gamblers who might be struggling to control their habits.

Links & books

Many gambling resources are location specific. For readers in the UK, visit GamCare or NHS services. In Canada, visit the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) website (Ontario) or Gambling Support BC (British Columbia) or search for other provincial programmes. In the US, the National Council on Problem Gambling website includes information on the telephone helpline and links for services by state.

There are a number of podcasts for people looking for more information on the themes in this Guide. The All Bets Are Off podcast from the UK and the Fold Em podcast from the US are long-running series that cover gambling from many angles including recovery, expert perspectives and emerging forms.

The Broke Girl Society podcast (US) provides a neglected perspective on gambling in women.

In the Netflix documentary series Money, Explained (2021), the episode on gambling packs a ton of information into a short 22 minutes, from slot machine design to the funding of gambling research.

If you’re looking to learn more about sports betting specifically, there is a CBC documentary The Gamblification of Canada (2023) and an excellent BBC Africa Eye documentary (2019) on sports betting in Uganda.

The book Games without Frontiers? (2021) by Heather Wardle provides an up-to-date overview on the links between gambling and video gaming (available open access).

The book Jackpot: How Gambling Conquered Britain (2022) by Rob Davies (also available on Audible) includes excellent coverage of how the gambling advertising and marketing landscape continues to evolve.

Luke Clark is the Director of the Centre for Gambling Research at UBC, which is supported by funding from the Province of British Columbia and the British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC), a Canadian Crown Corporation. The Province of BC government and the BCLC had no role in the preparation of this article and impose no constraints on publishing.





13 March 2024