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Late Nights, High Stakes

The booming online gambling industry reaps billions a year,
but it’s also creating a new generation of addicted Americans

By Lawrence Lloyd

     The Lakers were playing the Boston Celtics in late March in a matchup of struggling teams. LA was hovering around the break-even mark, and Boston hobbled into Staples Center with an even worse record. But there were other reasons for Serge Shirvanian, 33, to focus intently on the game in his Newhall home just north of Los Angeles. He and a friend had placed a wager on the second half of the game; the line was 102, and the two friends bet on the “over,” meaning the combined score of both teams in the second half needed to exceed 102 points. They each bet $20  at, the site the friend often uses.

    Blanca, Shirvanian’s wife, rolled her eyes. As the game progressed, Shirvanian and his friend calculated the number of points the teams needed to score in order for them to win. They cheered Kobe’s every acrobatic move into the key. They shouted angrily at each missed shot. The Lakers won, 105-97, and the friends won $36 for their efforts.

      In other words, it was a standard Sunday night.

The unregulated world of online gambling
lures Americans, and there are consequences.


     Shirvanian is immersed in the world of online gambling, a booming, unregulated $15 billion-a-year industry whose growth lures more than 30 million Americans into playing poker or betting on sporting events each year.  Gambling has become so pervasive that mainstream culture has latched on. Bravo invited a plethora of C- and D-list celebrities for Celebrity Poker Showdown. The Game Show Network did the same with Celebrity Blackjack, and ESPN regularly airs reruns of poker tournaments. SpikeTV even has a reality show, “King of Vegas,” in which 12 contestants compete in eight different table games (including roulette, blackjack and several types of poker) to win $1 million. David Williams, one of the contestants, made millions playing poker while he was in college and had his breakthrough at the 2004 World Series of Poker. And it’s no surprise how he qualified: online.

     The access to online gambling has also impacted race tracks and other venues, forcing places like the Hollywood race track in Inglewood, Calif., once frequented by Marilyn Monroe and other stars, to lure customers to the races by offering free admission, free food and other perks. But it may be too late to stem the tide, given widespread consumer notions that gambling at home is more comfortable and enjoyable than going somewhere to wager.
“After going to Vegas and getting used to gambling, I found out that you could play online,” Shirvanian said. “Why drive all the way over there when you can bring it home? Get with some friends, drink, have fun.”

       He still goes to Vegas a few times each year, but he looks at betting as a recreational thing, and knows he never gets in too deep. When he wins, he feels great. When he loses, he threatens to stop betting – but he knows he’s going to get right back into it.

The industry’s growth impacts once-popular venues like the Hollywood Race Track, forcing it and other traditional venues to offer
free perks to lure customers.

      “[When I lose] it feels kind of like ugh, whatever. Easy come, easy go. I try to put it behind me because it stresses you out if you lost money. And you get kind of cranky.”

      But Blanca’s urging has gotten to him. In the past month and half, he has only placed three wagers, the fewest for him in two years.

      Blanca is against her husband’s gambling. She is pregnant and due in a few months, and she says that by the time the baby comes, there needs to be absolutely no betting. She takes issue with the $4,000 he loses annually on betting, primarily on pro football or basketball. But the gambling helps Shirvanian forge a sense of community. He bets with friends, they go to Vegas together, and even in Southern California, they have developed a mock league where they get virtual money for each correct wager. Besides, it’s his money.


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