What Is Gambling?


Gambling is a risky activity in which individuals place bets on the outcome of a game or contest, an event that is uncertain and unpredictable. The act of gambling involves a conscious decision to assume a risk, usually with the hope of gaining something of value. In some forms of gambling, skills and knowledge on the part of bettors may improve chances for success but are not required. For example, a bettor’s knowledge of card-playing strategies can improve odds for winning certain games; and betting on horse races with a high probability of victory is based on the jockeys’ skill in predicting probable outcomes of the race (Bruce and Johnson 1996). The term “gambling” also covers stock markets and other activities that involve placing bets on future events. Insurance is one form of such an activity; paying the premium on a life insurance policy, for instance, amounts to a bet that an individual will die within a specified time period, and payout ratios are established based on actuarial data.

In recent years, our understanding of gambling has undergone a profound change. Previously, people who gambled to the extent that they had adverse consequences were considered to be immoral or addicted; today, we view these people as having psychological problems. This change in understanding has been reflected in the various editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Some people engage in gambling behavior for social reasons, while others do so to achieve a sense of excitement or gratification. A few people develop serious gambling disorders that may result in emotional and financial difficulties. These include pathological gambling (PG), a psychiatric disorder characterized by recurrent, maladaptive patterns of gambling behaviors. PG typically begins in adolescence or young adulthood and is characterized by a progressive preoccupation with gambling. Males appear to be more likely to develop PG than females. In addition, males tend to start gambling at a younger age and to prefer strategic, face-to-face forms of gambling, such as poker or blackjack.

Many factors influence an individual’s propensity to engage in gambling, including gender, family history, and culture. Individuals who have a history of alcohol or substance abuse are also more likely to develop a problem with gambling.

It is essential for family members of a problem gambler to set boundaries in managing the person’s money. While it is difficult to overcome a loved one’s addiction, there are several resources available for families of problem gamblers to receive help. In addition to therapy, these resources include marriage, career, and credit counseling. Some of these programs offer inpatient or residential treatment for those with severe gambling problems. Others provide telephone and online support groups for those who want to quit gambling. They can also provide encouragement and inspiration from other gamblers who have successfully broken their addictions. These programs can be especially helpful for people who have lost substantial sums of money and strained or broken relationships because of their gambling habits.