Gambling problems and help-seeking among poker players


Poker players are a distinct subgroup of gamblers with unique norms, jargon, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that differ considerably from other types of gamblers. Furthermore, gambling problems are uniquely experienced within this subgroup as Bjerg (2010) found that poker players develop gambling problems differently than other gamblers. Consequently, assumptions about problem gambling among poker players, including our general understanding of problems, diagnostic tools, and treatment approaches should be adapted to reflect the unique experiences of poker players. Suurvali et al. (2009) emphasized the importance of conducting research that examines specific barriers to treatment-seeking in subgroups of gamblers. They suggested that in-depth qualitative approaches (e.g., focus groups and interviews) with gamblers can provide important insights into why they may not acknowledge their problems and how this non-acknowledgement can be overcome. In addition to exploring barriers to treatment-seeking, it is important to understand recovery processes that may be unique to poker players.

Three phases of research were conducted (Phase I complete, Phases II and III underway) to examine the unique experiences of poker players with regard to gambling problems and help-seeking behaviours. In Phase I, six 90-minute focus groups were held with 10-12 regular poker players in three urban centres (Winnipeg, Las Vegas, Halifax) to explore poker-specific gambling problems and recovery. A qualitative thematic analysis of the conversational data identified several major themes: 1) poker players prefer poker for its cognitive complexity, competition, and potential for long-term profitability, 2) poker-specific gambling problems are often related to non-monetary outcomes (e.g., spending too much time playing), 3) poker-specific explanations for continued play in the face of mounting losses include lack of insight into one’s own skill level and strength of competition, and self-serving cognitive biases of attributing wins to skill and losses to bad luck, and 4) poker players are largely unaware of treatment options specific to poker players and often engage in self-directed measures when poker involvement becomes problematic (e.g., taking a weeklong “timeout”). These data highlighted the unique experiences of poker players to explore further in the subsequent phases of research.

In Phase II, semi-structured individual interviews were conducted (data collection underway) to examine the qualitative experiences of individuals with regard to problem gambling and treatment-seeking. In Phase III, larger-scale quantitative data on non-problem, resolved, and unresolved problem poker players will be collected (data collection to conclude in Spring 2016) via online surveys of poker players.

The results of the three phases of research highlight help-seeking factors that may be specific to poker players including the general experiences of poker players with gambling problems who have sought to change their gambling, problem insight and readiness for change, barriers to accessing treatment, motivations for seeking treatment, as well as natural recovery and non-traditional approaches to changing problematic gambling behaviours (e.g., self-directed change). This research aims to understand, and ultimately, to increase treatment accessibility for poker players who may not otherwise seek help for gambling problems.

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