On Campus

Colleges Buy-In For the Latest Student Addiction

Online gambling can be as addictive as any substance, but colleges think nothing of enabling students through high-speed Internet connections throughout campus.

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Whenever the topic of online gambling comes up, I think about the time the president of my college graduating class robbed a bank to pay off the thousands of dollars of debt he acquired playing online Texas Hold ‘Em. So, when I read that Barney Frank (D. Mass.) was at the World Series of Poker on July 5th, rallying support for his recently introduced bill aimed at overturning the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), I was brought back to the exact moment I found out that our class president had done the unthinkable.

It was mid-December 2005, finals week, and the first semester of my sophomore year at Lehigh University was drawing to a close. Sitting in our cramped, triple-person room inside a mountaintop sorority house, my roommate Jill and I were recapping the past months and discussing how much exams sucked. Suddenly, a third roommate, the recording secretary of the class, burst through the door with an exasperated groan. She explained that she was trying to study in the library but the entire student body and the press were hounding her with questions. Greg Hogan, sophomore class president, had been arrested for robbing a nearby Wachovia. As we’d soon learn, he was $7500 in hole from playing online Texas Hold ‘Em.

Hogan was one of the first people I met at college. He went to an all-boys high school in Ohio and I remember him having this innocent “OMG I’m going to college with girls!” look on his face when we introduced ourselves at an orientation session in the spring of 2004. We were placed in the same freshman dorm, but ended up in different social circles. Although I didn’t know much about him beyond a reputation for being very involved—he was in a frat, was class president, worked for the chaplain and played in the orchestra—I’d never have thought this friendly, doe-eyed guy was capable of stealing anything, let alone robbing a bank.

Before he was sentenced, Mattathias Schwartz of The New York Times Magazine sat down with Hogan and wrote a piece entitled "The Hold-Em Holdup," which appeared in a June 2006 edition about debt in America. I read the article and remember getting chills as Schwartz described spots on Lehigh’s campus that I had been to hundreds of times. As Hogan confessed to Schwartz and later to the judge, he and several other friends were en route to see The Chronicles of Narnia when he asked his friend Kip to pull over at a nearby Wachovia so he could withdraw money. Inside the bank and in broad daylight, Hogan slipped a teller a note saying he had a gun and to give him everything she had. He left with $2871 and got back into the car headed for Narnia, inadvertently making his friends accomplices to a federal crime. Some time after the movie, Hogan’s friends dropped him off at orchestra practice and returned to their frat, which had already been infiltrated by the FBI and local police. Hogan was arrested at practice and immediately confessed, leaving the class of ’08 without a president and the orchestra short a cellist.

Naturally, the MSM ate the story up. By the end of the week, national news networks had spun a “privileged, preppy class president robs bank” tale, which was not entirely accurate. Adding to the sensation, Hogan’s father was a Baptist minister involved in Ohio politics. As the facts began to surface, sensation and outrage dissipated somewhat and the story became more sorrowful and tragic than anything else. Hogan had been suffering from a serious and secret addiction for over a year. Like many people, rich or poor, he had sought professional help, attended therapy sessions, and had boundless support from his family, but his addiction won in the end. Sadly, when classes started up again the next semester, Facebook groups like “FREE HOGAN” and bank-robbing jokes had all but eclipsed the distinguished reputation Greg Hogan had been building for himself at Lehigh. Worse still, the judge did not let him off easy.  The one-time class president ended up serving 22 months in Pennsylvania state prison.

During the time of Hogan’s sentencing in 2006, Congress was reviewing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), the same bill that Barney Frank and many lobbyists are now hoping to overturn. Before the passage of the UIGEA, the legality of online gambling was essentially a “gray area,” as no federal law against it existed. However, once enacted, removed clauses and unclear language within the UIGEA led to confusion about penalties and the law’s application to sports betting only. The result has been that many online gambling firms operate using offshore banks and millions of Americans are able to play on their sites every day. An increasing number of these players are college students, and as Schwartz points out, universities have done little to combat this growing problem:
Administrators who would never consider letting Budweiser install taps in dorm rooms have made high-speed Internet access a standard amenity, putting every student with a credit card minutes away from 24-hour high-stakes gambling. Online casinos advertise heavily on sites directed at college students like CollegeHumor.com, where students post pictures of themselves playing online poker during lectures with captions like: "Gambling while in class. Who doesn't think that wireless Internet is the greatest invention ever?”
After the Hogan debacle, I wondered for a long time how someone as intelligent and clean-cut as Greg Hogan could become addicted to basically sitting at his computer all day. Was online gambling more addictive than regular gambling? Why did so many people I know play online poker? Why was it not really legal to do so? Finally, it dawned on me during a weekend at the Borgata in my senior year: the Internet completely changes the whole experience of gambling. By nature, playing cards is a social experience that involves interaction with people at a casino or some other location. You see and feel the chips that represent your money. At a casino, aural and visual senses are constantly stimulated—there are flashing neon lights, there are drinks, there are people dressed glamorously all around you. When you make a bad bet and lose a lot of money, you feel the presence of other human eyes watching you, judging you. You might wonder what they’re thinking of you and feel ashamed. When you’re gambling online, no one is with you at your laptop clicking little rectangles lined with spades and clubs—it’s just you and the screen. There’s no one to laugh at you when you lose miserably and thus there is much less shame involved and a diminished sense of reality. This is what makes online gambling different and more dangerous than regular gambling.

Despite these dangers, online gambling should not be illegal. As history has proven, prohibition doesn’t work; the people always manage to find a way to indulge their vices despite their government’s best efforts. Barney Frank’s bill should and probably will be passed, but its implications worry me. The likelihood of an increased number of people getting in over their heads while mindlessly clicking away on their PCs seems inevitable as many Americans are unemployed and looking for extra money. Back in 2005, Hogan may have been an anomaly, but in this climate, online addicts could become increasingly common. If passed, the legislation would likely not take effect until 2010 when economic conditions may or may not have improved. As for the growing problem of online gambling at colleges, Schwartz puts it best: “Never before have the means to lose so much been so available to so many at such a young age.” Once it’s legalized, the only thing that will protect those prone to a dangerous and devastating addiction will be foolproof regulation—and a lot of it.

DISCUSSION
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 14, 2009, 08:33AM
    I agree with the offer. No having to pull out your wallet and plop down money that you just got from the ATM is a HUGE psychological difference. What I think is also important is how Hogan reached the decision that robbing a bank was the only way to get money. To me, it seems lazy. i don't profess to be in his shoes, but if in his situation, I would have come up with a few more reasonable options. I bring this up as I think it speaks to the fact that a lot of college young people today have a sense of entitlement that deals with the quick fix versus realizing true wealth/success takes time.
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 14, 2009, 08:34AM
    PS- "I agree with the author", not offer....
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 14, 2009, 11:01AM
    They were on their way to see Chronicles of Narnia? Oh, life!
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 14, 2009, 12:24PM
    While I enjoyed the story, and the background on the young would-be Dillinger, I don't agree that online gambling should be heavily regulated. Let people make up their own minds: Greg Hogan is an exception, as most don't go to his extremes or pile up huge debts. Some do abuse gambling, certainly, just like every other addictive substance or activity, but so long as they're violating the privacy or well-being of someone else, let freedom of choice ring.
    Responses to this comment
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 14, 2009, 06:50PM
    live and let live, high speed internet is a great thing. gambling, while I don't endorse or participate in it myself, is something that every man and woman should be able to do.
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 15, 2009, 05:54AM
    What I find funny is that his gambling debt was far less than the cost of an average semester at Lehigh -- just look at the 2009/2010 semester: http://www4.lehigh.edu/admissions/undergrad/tuition/costs.aspx Pffhh, not buying the sob story -- dumbass kid decides to rob a bank instead of calling mommy and daddy. boo hoo.
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 15, 2009, 06:16AM
    zkauf and enix bring up good points. the most perplexing aspect of the whole thing was that he arrived at the conclusion that robbing a bank was the only solution to his problem. Obviously he was a smart kid so no one understood this, and he was evaluated to see if he'd psychologically "snapped" or whatever, but the doctors did not find him to be insane. Neither did the judge. I think he didnt ask his parents for anymore help because it was a pride thing. Like I said, I didnt know him well but many people said he had a very confident, extreme type A personality and he probably couldnt bear to let his parents down any mroe than he already had.
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 15, 2009, 06:40AM
    Also - I really encourage anyone thats interested in this story to read Schwartz's piece the whole way through because he gets into a pretty in depth discussion of the online gaming industry and how these businesses operate. It seems that online gaming outfits such as Full Tilt Poker / Poker Stars, etc. need people like Hogan - "fish" as they're called - to be a viable business. Aka - they need people that will continually lose badly to provide them with a fixed income. That said, its totally someone's choice if they continually lose very badly and choose to keep playing, maybe some people have the kind of money to do that and the same scenario happens at casinos all the time. That said, there are many computer programs out there that people use on these sites. As Schwartz mentions, there are programs to find "fish", track people's playing patterns, and even crack the algorithms that online poker sites use to operate. This completely changes the fairness and legitimacy of the game. This is why there needs to be regulation - if this is going to be a legit business there needs to be a way to tell if people are using these programs or these programs needed to be eradicated entirely (which probably is an unrealistic proposition)
    Responses to this comment
  • Go to comment.
    Jul 15, 2009, 08:42AM
    Yes, this sort of regulation is unrealistic. You play poker online, you take your chances. If you get burned, most people will stop. People, both legit and sleazy, are making money on this, just as they do with online porn (which is available to kids), tobacco, liquor and lottery tickets. The revenue stream generated is far too much for the government to get too heavy-handed about regulation. Sure, tobacco is regulated, in the interest of "health," of course, but if the government was so concerned about health issues, they'd ban tobacco. That won't happen, because of the failed Prohibition experiment (which only gained steam during Wilson's administration because of heavy anti-immigration bias in the U.S. stoked by World War I) and because too much money goes into federal and state coffers. Just another reason to legalize marijuana.
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