Don’t Bet Your Life

by Shanna Ghaznavi

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Those who gamble risk more than just money. Their lives and families are at stake too.

Mike* started gambling when he was still in high school—only a few dollars here and there. By the time he was in college he had graduated to all-night poker games. As a young adult, Mike joined the Church but returned to his old habits. And later, when he was married with two children, his problem with gambling had only grown.

He mortgaged the family’s New England home, lost his children’s college funds, and couldn’t even pay the utility bills because he used all his family’s money to pay gambling debts. Along with his compulsive gambling came compulsive lying to cover up his habit and his debts. Mike’s gambling problem eventually led to divorce and the loss of his children’s trust.

Mike’s case is an extreme one, but not uncommon. His children, Kristen and Amber, now 21 and 18, know the devastating effects of gambling—and lying to cover up the problem—on a family. “It’s a plague,” says Kristen. “Stay away from it like you would the plague.”

Although their dad is now seeking help at Gamblers Anonymous, the years of heartache his gambling caused are difficult to forget. “It’s even hard to trust him now,” Amber says.

Terrible odds

It can be as addictive as drugs, as destructive as drinking, and, chances are, it’s legal where you live. Gambling, in all its many forms, is accepted in most societies, but the problems it leads to are widespread and serious. In Australia, there are three times as many teens with gambling problems as adults with gambling problems. In America, rates of compulsive gambling among teens are more than twice as high as those of adults. And the more teens there are who try it, the more there are who get hooked.

Gambling is any game of chance. It involves risking something of value on an outcome that is not certain. It includes anything from pitching pennies or flipping for baseball cards, up to the things such as poker or casino games. Even though teenagers might not be able to go into a casino and sit at a slot machine, there are many other ways to become addicted to gambling. One of the most common forms of gambling in schools is sports betting.

But what’s so bad about a raffle for charity? Or a poker game between friends? Is it wrong if you don’t lose any money?

The truth is, there’s no such thing as a friendly bet. Gambling ruins lives and families. Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “Gambling tends to corrupt its participants. Its philosophy of something for nothing undermines the virtues of work, industry, thrift, and service to others” (Ensign, June 1987, 69). And President Spencer W. Kimball said, “Damage comes to the person, whether he wins or loses, to get something for nothing, something without effort, something without paying the full price” (Ensign, May 1975, 6).

Beating the odds

The Internet and video poker, among other things, make it easy for teenagers to gamble. Most teenagers are introduced to gambling through a family member. So, how can you avoid something that is all around you and is so widely accepted? President Gordon B. Hinckley says our temptations today are easily handled through correct, personal choices (see New Era, Jan. 2001, 7).

Keresa Gifford of the Orchard Valley Ward in Las Vegas, Nevada, says, “It’s obvious what’s good and what’s bad. Temptation is not trying to sneak in. It’s just there. Either you do what’s right or you don’t.”

No dice

When you hear the word gambling, it probably goes along with a mental picture of a place like Las Vegas, one of the world’s gambling capitals. A few miles from the glaring lights of the strip in Las Vegas is a very different scene. Each weekday morning, seminary students from Western High School gather for class at their chapel to escape the influences of the world. Most of them have grown up surrounded by gambling and its culture. They know it’s there, but they don’t participate in it.

The people at their school know they are Latter-day Saints and have been turned down enough times that they have stopped asking LDS students to wager on sports or to play craps. The Western High seminary students know it can be hard to avoid the Las Vegas gambling scene and all the evils that go along with it, like pornography and drinking. But they also know it’s possible to be in the world and not of it.

“It really doesn’t matter where you live,” says Anna Haynes. “As long as you ignore the influence of the world you can easily stay strong in the Church, the same way it is anywhere else.”

You bet your life

Gambling is dangerous. It corrupts those who participate and, especially for teenagers, is addictive. Gambling is also a gateway to other unrighteous things; its usual companions are drinking, pornography, and illegal acts used to support this bad habit. Regular gambling almost always leads to financial trouble. “The drug for the gambler is money,” says Kevin O’Neill, of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, Inc. “Teenagers don’t have money, so they usually have to do something illegal to get it.” In many cases, gambling leads to theft or other immoral and illegal acts to get betting money.

But, the most harmful effect of gambling goes beyond losing your money. For Latter-day Saints, it is the loss of the companionship of the Holy Ghost that is the greatest consequence.

We lose the Spirit when we gamble because it is an activity that is inconsistent with gospel living. Elder Oaks says, “Jesus taught us to give. He will even test our willingness to sacrifice all that we have in service to Him and to our fellowmen. Satan, the adversary, teaches men to take—forcibly if necessary, deviously if feasible, continuously if possible. Whatever encourages men to take from one another without giving value in return serves the cause of Satan” (Ensign, June 1987, 69).

So gambling is the opposite of Christ’s way of giving, because for you to win, someone else has to lose.

Our lot

The Church has always opposed gambling, whether it is legalized or not. “The question of lotteries is a moral question,” says President Hinckley. “That government now promotes what it once enforced laws against becomes a sad reflection on the deterioration of public and political morality. …” (Ensign, Nov. 1985, 52).

Our prophets and apostles have given a clear warning. As Latter-day Saints, we should not take part in any form of gambling. “So what should Latter-day Saints do about gambling? They should not participate in any way, and they should encourage others, especially their family members, not to participate,” says Elder Oaks (Ensign, June 1987, 69). You can also try to help others you know who might have a gambling problem.

Gambling can ruin lives, financially and otherwise. If you know someone who has a problem and you want to help them, the first thing you need to do is educate yourself on the subject. “Talk to them as your friend,” says Mr. O’Neill, of the Council on Compulsive Gambling. “Just tell them you’re concerned, and never give them money.”

Borrowing money is one of the first signs of a gambling problem. “Don’t just let it go and think it’s no big deal,” says Mr. O’Neill. He also warns that the person who has a gambling problem will most likely deny it, so don’t try to confront them about their problem alone. Talk to a parent, counselor, or other adult you can trust. Also, gambling addiction help-lines and organizations exist in almost every country. Check the phone book for help centers that might be in your area.

As members of the Church, we don’t need luck or random chance, only the gospel with its values of diligence, hard work, and service. These values always lead to a real success where no one else needs to lose.

Symptoms of Addiction

If you or someone you know has problems with gambling, you should seek help immediately. Here are some of the major symptoms of dependence or addiction:

  • Borrowing money to gamble with or to pay gambling debts

  • Increasing isolation from family and friends

  • Declining school or work performance

  • Receiving a “high” from gambling

  • Neglecting basic needs, like money for food

  • Lying about how money is spent

  • Denying there is a problem

(Minnesota Institute of Public Health)

Check the phone book for local help centers.

President Stephen L Richards

“So obsessed do some people become with [gambling] that they cannot contemplate or think of any other way in which to increase their means and their income except by taking the chance that gambling affords” (Where Is Wisdom? 1955, 55).
—President Stephen L Richards (1879–1959)

Elder Dallin H. Oaks

“For reasons we do not understand, some persons lack the control mechanism that allows them to try something and then leave it alone. Some are susceptible to addictions to tobacco, others to alcohol or other drugs, and some can be addicted to gambling. For the susceptible, what looks like a harmless experiment actually chains them to an indulgence by bonds that seem too strong to break” (Ensign, June 1987, 69).
—Elder Dallin H. Oaks

President Heber J. Grant

“The Church … is opposed to any game of chance, occupation, or so-called business, which takes money from the person who may be possessed of it without giving value received in return. It is opposed to all practices the tendency of which is to encourage the spirit of reckless speculation. …” (Improvement Era, Sept. 1926, 1100).
—President Heber J. Grant (1856–1945)

Elder Richard L. Evans

“The spirit of gambling is a progressive thing. Usually it begins modestly; and then, like many other hazardous habits, it often grows beyond control. At best it wastes time and produces nothing. At worst it becomes a ruinous obsession and fosters false living by encouraging the futile belief that we can continually get something for nothing” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1946, 793).
—Elder Richard L. Evans (1906–1971)

President James E. Faust

“One reason for the spiritual sickness of our society is that so many do not know or care about what is morally right and wrong. … Many things are just plain and simply wrong, whether they are illegal or not. Those who persist in following after the evil things of the world cannot know the ‘peace of God, which passeth all understanding’” (Philip. 4:7) (Ensign, May 1992, 6).
—President James E. Faust

Elder Dallin H. Oaks

“What does gambling do to its participants? The attitude of taking something from someone else in order to enhance our own position—the essence of gambling—leads us away from the giving path of Christ and toward the taking path of the adversary. The act of taking or trying to take something from someone else without giving value in return is destructive of spiritual sensitivities” (Ensign, June 1987, 69).
—Elder Dallin H. Oaks

Photography by Jed Clark

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  • Names have been changed.