For many, an occasional hand of online poker or a trip to the casino will only hurt their wallets. But some Yale doctors said new links to depression may mean that compulsive gamblers suffer in other ways.
One set of genetic factors may contribute to both pathological gambling and major depression, according to a study conducted by researchers at the Yale and Washington University schools of medicine. Their findings, published in the September issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, may bring scientists closer to identifying the particular genes that work against the mind to cause the two disorders, lead author and Yale Psychiatry Professor Marc Potenza said.
While many Yale students said they did not know anyone they would consider a pathological gambler, some also said they were aware of a widespread gambling community throughout the University. Many people with serious gambling problems — which affect 1.6 percent of North American adults within their lifetimes — are reluctant to admit their disorder to others, or even to themselves, said Dr. Marvin Steinberg, the executive director at the Conn. Partnership for Responsible Gambling.
“Almost everyone knows someone, even if it’s just a secret,” he said.
At Yale, the infamous Trumbull College poker game began as a small weekly match among friends, but its stakes gradually rose and attracted so many players that Sports Illustrated came to campus last spring to highlight it.
“It’s just the biggest on campus,” Jesse Pizarro ’06 said. “It’s got the best live players. A lot of money changes hands, too.”
Some students said they have heard about the higher-stakes games, but are reluctant to place bets of that size.
“I wouldn’t put that much money on the line without knowing how good [the other players] are,” Nick Coman ’09 said.
But other students said they think poker has begun to decline during their time at Yale. David Nitkin ’07 said students often crowded a poker table purchased last year for the Ezra Stiles College common room, but this fall the table sees far fewer games.
“Last year we played every Thursday,” Nitkin said. “This year it hasn’t been [used] so much. I feel it almost becoming passe — everyone does it,” he said.
Several poker enthusiasts at Yale said they know many die-hard card players, but no one who they think has a gambling problem.
“If I had to guess, I’ve never gambled with a pathological gambler,” Nitkin said.
Christopher Bartley ’04, the founder of the Yale Poker Society group on facebook.com, still hosts poker tournaments in his New Haven apartment, but also said he does not know problem gamblers. Bartley said many of the people he has played with have lost thousands of dollars, but went into tournaments with thousands of dollars to lose.
Pizarro said he thinks online gambling, not games in college common rooms, could pose the greatest threat to Yalies who do not know when to cash in.
“Online poker is much easier to have a problem [with],” Pizarro said. “Live poker is competitive, but it’s friendly. No one’s going to let you keep losing week after week.”
For data, the study relied on the Vietnam Era Twin Registry — a pool of over 10,000 interviews of Caucasian male twins — to determine how many individuals exhibited pathological gambling, major depression or both. Study authors said the VET registry made the study’s conclusions more relevant.
“It is a population-based sample — it can be generalized,” said Dr. Hong Xian, a co-author of the study who also serves as a research assistant professor of medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine. “Others use hospital patients or are clinic-based, which can’t be generalized.”
Potenza said future studies could also examine how the gene or genes involved interact with the mind to cause the disorders, but he said the most recent study was limited by the demographics of its sample. The twins studied were largely well-educated Caucasian male twins who served in the military during the Vietnam War, he said. Further research would be needed to extend the conclusions to women or other groups, he said.