A person gambles by placing a wager or stake on an event that depends on chance. This can take the form of betting on sports or games, playing a game such as poker, or using gambling machines (fruit machines and scratchcards). The player’s winnings or losses are determined by the outcome of this event. For many people, gambling is a fun and enjoyable pastime, but for others it can cause serious problems that lead to financial and emotional distress.
The Psychiatric Association defines pathological gambling as a disorder that affects an individual’s control over their behavior. It describes symptoms such as: (1) a desire to win money or other things of value that can be lost; (2) an irrational belief that a future loss will cancel out previous wins, or a near-win (such as two out of three cherries on a slot machine) signals an imminent win; (3) lying to family members, therapists, or employers to conceal the extent of gambling involvement; (4) engaging in illegal activities (e.g., forgery, fraud, theft, embezzlement) to fund gambling; (5) jeopardizing or losing a job, educational or career opportunity, or important relationships due to gambling; and (6) an intense urge to gamble when a person is experiencing distress, anxiety, or depression.
Symptoms of gambling disorder can begin in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. The condition often runs in families, and can be aggravated by stress, depression, or other factors such as a history of abuse, alcohol use, or poverty. Research indicates that cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for gambling disorders. Other therapies that may be useful include psychodynamic therapy, group therapy, and pharmacological interventions.