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            Intertops was actually the first verifiable online casino. It launched in January 1996, accepting wagers for tennis, soccer and a variety of other sports. The company already had a database of clients when it began, according to Intertops co-founder Simon Noble, who is now the CEO of Pinnacle Sports. Most of the customers followed over from a telephone betting operation catering to the German-speaking market in Europe. Other casinos claimed to be internet-based, he said, but all that meant was e-mailing bets to the companies or faxing them after seeing the betting lines online. But the popularity of Intertops exceeded expectations.

       “As time passed, it never failed to amaze us. We were aware that we were going to be successful,” Noble said, “but this was beyond our wildest dreams.”
      The next casino popped up about six months later, and more followed. Noble’s company maintained its share of the business by expanding into new areas, like college basketball.
But the market is crowded now, and new internet gaming outlets will have a difficult time carving out a niche in cyberspace.
      “Unless you have a colossal marketing budget, you can’t be successful,” Noble said. “[Starting] would cost upwards of $10 million, and that doesn’t come without substantial risk.”

The Underbelly

      Of course, the gamblers themselves are taking the biggest risks. Minors can exploit the current loopholes of offshore gambling, and they can, and do, rack up debt. It’s also true that gambling can be the catalyst for a chain of events that could include bankruptcy and even suicidal thoughts. All of the potential for calamity begins innocently enough: gambling for reward.

      “Gambling is very similar to anything in life that gives us pleasure, whether it’s shopping, going on a date, or even cocaine,” said Timothy Fong, co-director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies program. “It’s a form of entertainment and all fun things all do the same thing – they stimulate reward circuits in our brain.”
      But somewhere along the way, pathological gamblers separate themselves from the recreational ones. They continue to place bets despite the gambling having severe repercussions. The pathological gambler, Fong said, will return to those detrimental activities even if they lose a job or go bankrupt.

      Gambling addiction is classified as an impulse control disorder, and current research into gambling addiction shows that pathological gamblers often have unique brain characteristics.
“It’s very much like a car on a hill, driving down the hill and the brakes are gone; that’s how we conceive it neurobiologically,” Fong said. “Some of our studies we know that pathological gamblers have different brain functioning and similar conditions to those dependent on amphetamines.”

As online gambling grows, so do the problems. Addiction and crushing debt become more commonplace among online gamblers. And many of them are young.

     Casinos themselves support the addiction. Internet gaming venues, for example, keep their current or longtime customers is by providing a variety of incentives, including monetary bonuses., a popular Antigua-based online casino, recently sent out a mailer to previously avid gambling patrons who hadn’t used its service in awhile. The flier promised a $25 bonus if customers simply logged back in to their accounts. If they deposited another $25, they would receive an additional $25, essentially luring customers with $50 of free money.

      Internet casinos have added a new dimension to the research in UCLA’s program, which started in January 2005. Fong estimates that nearly 40 percent of the patients list internet gambling as their primary outlets. Not surprisingly, most of the addicted are young.
“We’re seeing a younger crowd, adolescents and college students. They are very vulnerable populations who don’t have a lot of money and might do impulsive things,” he said. “It makes sense [because] we wouldn’t expect the older generation to be using the internet the same way.”

      Heeding the dangers is Henry Abramian of Glendale. The 33-year-old man started gambling in 1993, and like most people, it started when he went to Vegas. He bet on basketball, baseball and football teams. When Intertops came along, he started betting a few dollars each day. Then it was $50 each week. But he never felt like he was in too deep.
      “I gambled for my leisure, not for winning a lot of money. I bet so that the games were more exciting to watch,” he said. “But when I lost I felt sad and angry for gambling. I felt like I betrayed myself – like I threw my money in the trash.”


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