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Educate kids about gambling and they won’t lose their marbles

Casino on laptop

Keeping kids ignorant is not the way to keep them safe. Calvin Ayre praises a YMCA-sponsored program in Ontario that educates 10 to 14-year old children about the dynamics of gambling, risks included. This article was originally published on on September 1, 2010.

I was quite impressed when I came across the story of a YMCA-sponsored program in Ontario designed to explain the dynamics of gambling (including the element of risk) to 10-14 year old kids. Personally, I think gambling education is the equivalent of sex education. Both are aspects of real world, grown-up life that kids will eventually encounter, and the better educated they are on either subject, the better prepared they’ll be to cope with the risks involved.

Naturally, there will be those who seek to eliminate such programs, just as there are those who pull their kids out of school rather than letting little Janie or Johnny’s delicate ears hear the word ‘condom’. My own belief is that keeping kids ignorant is not the way to keep them safe. Studies have shown that abstinence-only education programs do little to cut down teen pregnancies or rates of STD transmission – if anything, it increases the likelihood of both, because kids aren’t taught to ‘wrap that rascal’ before they (inevitably) abstain from their abstinence.

Apart from the invaluable knowledge transfer, I appreciate the hysteria-free manner in which this program is being conducted, i.e. no religious-inspired harrangues using apocalyptic “gambling = certain death” memes. Perhaps responsible authorities are finally starting to realize that when you demonize a product or activity, people will only want it more. If you doubt me, check out this 2008 World Health Organization study which showed that 20.2% of American kids had tried marijuana before the age of 15, whereas only 7% of teens in Holland (where pot laws and attitudes are infinitely more liberal) could say the same.

It’s common knowledge that it was the early 1990’s when I launched the tech companies that eventually grew into the Bodog juggernaut, but in truth, my first foray into running a casino came when I was just 12 years old. It was an impressive operation, consisting entirely of a piece of plywood, a few nails and some elastic bands. During lunch and/or recess of my Grade Six year, I’d prop this homemade ‘marble board’ up against the school’s brick wall and loudly proclaim that I was open for business.

This may be hard for younger generations to grasp, but back in my day, marbles were a kind of kid currency. Your parents would buy you a bag of the things down at the local department store, and with that stake, you could then engage in the endless rounds of head-to-head games with other kids at school or in your neighborhood. These games were played ‘for keeps’, and so was mine.

My marble board worked thusly: a kid would take one of his own marbles, place it at the top of my board, and let ‘er rip. As the marble rolled down the board, it would rebound off the stretched elastic bands much like a pinball off a bumper, and would ultimately come to rest in one of several ‘pockets’ at the bottom. Each of these pockets would be inscribed with a certain predetermined ‘payout’, and depending on where your marble landed, you could walk away several marbles richer, or the marble might end up in my own bag.

I was a pretty solid maths student growing up, and I spent HOURS calculating the specific odds of these payouts. My goal was to ensure that the players won enough that they’d continue to play, but let’s face it, every casino has a built-in house edge. My ‘house’ might have lacked three other walls, a roof and a door, but it still had an ‘edge’. In fact, by the end of ‘marble season’ I was the undisputed marble monarch. You know that scene in Scarface where Tony sees the Goodyear blimp go by with “the world is yours” message on the side?

My cornering of the marble market gave me the wherewithal to purchase treats from other kids’ lunch boxes every single day. Seriously, if you replace the yéyo piled up on Tony Montana’s desk with the sugar-powder from packages of Pixy Stix, that’s pretty much how I remember my elementary school days. (Perhaps that’s how I ended up playing a character in the Scarface video game.) Of even greater importance to a kid on the cusp of puberty, I also discovered that you could trade one marble for one kiss from a pretty girl. Trust me, if anything impressed upon me the potential rewards of business success, this was it.

None of the kids who lost their marbles to my board were ever given any formal education about the myths and realities of gambling. If they had, they might have chosen to avoid my board entirely, choosing instead to risk their marbles in the one-on-one pure skill games which all the kids played in our schoolyard. But despite the teachers being fully aware of my little entrepreneurial exercise, they never said anything, and so the kids never learned anything. Had the teachers said something, I might have ended up punching a time clock at a marble factory, instead of launching one of the sexiest gaming entertainment brands on the planet. But if there’s a moral to this story, it’s that it’s never too early to start teaching kids that life is a game that’s played for all the marbles.

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