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Mar 05
From a 10-year-old “successful gambler” to defending a PhD on poker

​Contributed by Niri Talberg, MA, Researcher at Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research, Oslo, Norway

“If you stop winning, try your luck as a researcher”

I was quite proud and excited when I delivered the coupon in the kiosk that warm summer day in 1991. I was 10 years old and as always I spent the beginning of our summer holidays at my grandfather's house. That summer, to keep me occupied, I had been allowed to study the most prestigious form of gambling and the only form of sports betting available for Norwegians: “tippekupongen”. It was a weekly coupon that consisted of 12 soccer matches with three possible outcomes. After thorough analysis of the teams' injuries, current form, and history against their opponent, I started sweet-talking, nagging, and eventually persuading my grandfather and father into giving me enough money to purchase 8 half-hedges, to the cost of 256 Norwegian kroner [41 CAD]. Back then there was no age limit for gambling. For the first (and last) time in my gambling career, it went exactly as I had expected in all 12 games. I am quite sure that if I had won a million kroner (or even a million CAD) today, it would have felt like a lot less than the 2,688 CAD I won that day. With that, a passionate gambler was born.

When I started secondary education, the betting options had increased a great deal. I could try my luck on two betting coupons each week in addition to regular sports betting with matches every day. I was regarded as an experienced sports better and enjoyed some recognition from older peers. My systems had become more sophisticated; but to be honest, we were far from breaking even. I was used to a strictly regulated gambling market, however things were about to change. The old mechanical and fairly harmless slot machines were swapped out with highly aggressive electronical machines. Instead of wagering 6 kroner [1 CAD] in 10-15 seconds, it was now possible to wager 1000 kroner [160 CAD] in 10 seconds. I would see the new machines in almost all convenience stores and kiosks, and unlike the old machines, they were almost always occupied by adults and often retirees. The topic was hotly debated and the lobbyists managed to delay effective regulation until the end of 2006. I did not lose a lot of money on the slot machines, mostly because I never had much pocket money. However, I did experience losing track of time while playing and one time I forgot to collect my dog when going home from the kiosk. As for many others, this second part of my gambling career was less successful than the first.

In 2003, another form of gambling got my attention. Bookstores sold poker chips and there were often poker tournaments on TV. I watched James Bond playing Texas Hold’em at the movie theater (instead of baccarat) and even Coca Cola used poker to sell Cola light (Cola Zero) to us boys. I read several poker books and practiced with play money for at least one year before I started to gamble with real money. I had finally found a game where I made money in the long run after having tried multiple forms of gambling for the last 15 years. I started studying at the university and become increasingly interested in reading research on gambling while my own gambling became less frequent. I strongly felt that the Norwegian research literature did not understand the difference between poker and other games, and that questions used to diagnose gambling problems were unfit for a game like poker. I decided that I had to make my own survey and hand coded 953 surveys into the statistical program SPSS.

After submitting my Masters, I worked several years as an Educational and Psychological Counsellor. School refusal was among the topics I worked on. Gaming had become a lot more time-consuming since technology made it possible to play computer and video games online and cooperate with team mates from around the globe in different time zones. Games that continued even after the player had stopped playing were a new thing. As a counsellor, I experienced that it is quite hard to talk a pupil into going to school if he risks being kicked out of his team if he misses their practice. And chances are he won’t tell you about the game. Although I had completed my Masters, my survey had brought up more questions than it answered. I was eager to do more research to understand the poker players’ perspective.

In 2013, I finally got funding to become a PhD student at my university’s department of education. Although the quantitative data I had collected was a great stepping stone, it was crucial to talk to several players and listen to their histories. It lead to a qualitative trilogy where I study (1) their learning process, (2) how poker has affected their education and (3) the long-term effects (problems with relating to stigmatization from non-players and ethical dilemmas when playing against suspected problem gamblers). The article on long-term effects will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Gambling Issues (JGI) and the article on how gambling affects education is now available in JGI 2017:37. In the article currently in the JGI, you can meet several players that are considering dropping out of education to pursue careers as professional poker players and a few that already have. The competition among the players can be described like an arms race where investing more time than their opponents is essential to develop sufficient skills. I argue that the poker player base has become more homogenous and skilled. Since having a significant skill advantage over other players is necessary to make playing profitable, I believe that the players’ inclination to drop out of education is reduced.

Looking ahead, today March 5th, 2018 is a quite significant day for me. It is the due date for my first born, a son, and also the day I am expected to defend my PhD thesis at the University of Oslo. I am sure you all wonder; will I allow my son to gamble in 2028 when he turns 10? Probably not, however the games competing for his attention are likely to be almost unlimited.


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