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Markers of gambling harm: Poker and beyond

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Dr Maris Catania explores the markers of gambling harm. HTML_

Researchers who study addiction and behavioural psychology will find that the online gambling data is an invaluable source of information.

Before the modernisation, the industry relied heavily on manual data collection from operators in person or unreliable customer surveys.

It was difficult to create a clear picture due to the lack of reliable and granular information.

Data fills the gaps for safer gaming


Researchers are now able, thanks to digital data’s richness, to provide empirical evidence to help fill some of these gaps.

Understanding the background, causes and effects of disordered gaming is improving.

Industry is beginning to test and make data-driven forecasts about the players’ risk level based on their choices and behaviors. From a safe-gambling perspective, we might be able even to determine which games are more risky than others.

We’ll look at a recent study which examined the indicators of gambling-related damage across different categories, using data collected from regulated websites. Some of the information might interest poker players in particular.

Different gambling products Markers for harm

This paper is entitled “Behavioural markers of harm and their potential in identifying product risk in online gambling.” The study was conducted by Kindred Group 2022, and covers 100,000 UK players over a six-month period.

I was part of the group as Kindred’s former director of responsible gaming and senior consultant of SG:certified.

This research was conducted to determine if certain products were more closely associated with established behaviour markers that indicate harm. The markers were discovered through prior research.

Bonus-seeking behavior

The music is played at odd hours

– In-session deposits

Setting RG to a lower level

Deposits that are declined

This analysis is based on the larger finding that the markers are correlated with how much time the customer has spent gambling. Researchers found that the level of risk associated with different categories of games was measurable.

They explained that “all markers except for easing/removing the responsible gambling settings seemed to correlate with number of days active in using specific products, such as slots, in-play betting, and most types of combinations bets in sports.”

These findings show the value in using quantitative markers to distinguish the risks and harms associated with online products.

Markers of harm and play mapped

This table shows the relationship between the number of active days and known indicators of harm for the various gambling products that were analysed.

This Table shows the link between days played and markers of harm

The data helps confirm some of our perceptions about the differences between the risks associated with different types of gambling.

Slots, for instance, are correlated with harmful markers due to their speed and immediate results.

Researchers call it a short event frequency. This attribute appears to be closely related to a variety of risk factors. Among the categories studied, slots players produced the highest rates of bonus page visits, RG changes and declined transactions.

What do the authors think?

“The results showed that there were consistently larger associations between various behavioural markers of harm and the number of active days on specific gambling activities,” they concluded.

“Specifically, short event frequencies (such as slots and in-play betting), betting on different permutations of more than one bet selection in a single transaction (for example, combination bets) and, contrary to our expectations, engaging in live rather than simulated table games play were the three structural configurations of products which appeared more strongly associated with patterns of riskier play.”

The full paper on product risk is available through the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.

Where does poker fall on the risk spectrum?

With a mean correlation of 0.07 across all markers of harm, poker ranks near the bottom of the list.

Poker players do not exhibit especially high levels of bonus-seeking behaviour, they infrequently top-up during a session and they experience fewer declined transactions than most other gamblers.

Initially poker may appear less of a high-risk game than slots or in-play betting

At first glance, the research seems to frame poker as a comparatively low-risk game. Mean correlations for both tournaments and cash games indicate that players who play more often are not necessarily exposing themselves to proportionally more risk.

When played online in particular, the game does not meet any of the three highest-risk criteria identified by the researchers. It has a long event frequency, a relatively concise betting structure and is entirely simulated by software.

But is that the whole story?

What’s missing in the data, however, is a consideration of the intangible characteristics that set poker apart from most forms of gambling – most notably the element of skill.

In broad terms, research is not yet conclusive on how the role of skill in a particular game affects its correlation to these risk markers. And it may seem logical that the presence of skill would naturally mitigate some of the exposure to gambling-related harm.

If we look harder, however, we can start to spot some ways in which skill-dependent games like poker could expose a player to a unique set of risks related to time management.

Preoccupation and poker

Poker demands so much more time than the other games you’ll find in a casino and that’s the start of any discussion about its associated risks. It is an all-consuming game in ways that most forms of gambling are not and becoming a successful player fundamentally requires a substantial investment of time.

That leads to the complementary issue of potential preoccupation.

Slots players, as a contrary example, aren’t typically preoccupied with the games they play. Once you walk away from the slot machine, you’re probably done thinking about it.

But poker has a way of sticking with you after you leave the table, partially because of that element of skill. The fact that your results depend on your skill to a significant extent provides a built-in incentive to invest more of your time and energy into mastering it.

Online poker is a particularly immersive game that may draw players back in

You might therefore spend your free time reading poker books or consuming poker content to try to boost your overall level of skill. Your friends probably play poker too and you likely spend a considerable amount of conversation talking through hands with them. There aren’t many decisions to analyse after you leave the roulette wheel, but poker players live in constant pursuit of perfection.

We can see some evidence of this preoccupation in another section of the paper that analysed activity rates. A full 18% of the online poker population was found to play on a weekly basis, nearly double the percentage of the next-largest cohort (slots). The average online poker player plays approximately 33 days out of every year too, almost twice as frequently as any other category of gambler. Slots players by comparison average about 17 days of activity per year.

Beware of the Tetris effect

It’s all too easy for poker to cross the line from hobby (or job) to a dangerous preoccupation. And it’s certainly not unique as a threat in this regard. Video games, social media, television drama, secular jobs – all of these things have the potential to occupy too much of our brains through periods in which we should be tending to other responsibilities.

Behavioural researchers already have a term for this sort of unconscious preoccupation: The Tetris Effect.

As early video games like Tetris began to become a part of pop culture in the late 1900s, some players began to experience the sounds and visuals of the game in their subconscious thoughts and dreams. For a cohort of Tetris players, the game became a preoccupation. Even when they weren’t playing it with their hands, they were playing it in their heads.

The way people started to play Tetris in their heads could be compared to online poker

The point at which this preoccupation becomes dangerous in a game like Tetris or poker is hard to define and it’s indeterminable using the established time-based markers of harm in gambling.

It’s also hard to spot in poker in particular, because the element of skill and the other fundamental qualities of the game tend to excuse some of the time commitment as the mere pursuit of perfection.

Maintaining a healthy balance in poker play

If you played slots from sundown to sunrise, for example, your friends would probably start to get worried about you. That sort of behaviour would be a fairly obvious cause for concern. But in online poker, playing long or odd hours is not necessarily an indication of increased risk.

Maybe the game is running in a different time zone, or maybe it’s a big tournament day, or maybe you’re just leveraging the pensive nature of the game itself.

That said, it is worthwhile to pay attention to your habits in this regard. The data seems to show that most poker players don’t let the game deplete their finances. But beware of the hidden dangers that arise when poker begins to consume your everyday thoughts and behaviours.

Being cognisant of the risk factors associated with your non-financial resources can help you maintain a healthy balance between the time and energy you spend playing poker and the effort you put into betting yourself away from the tables.

Making markers into mileposts

SG:certified is one of the groups leading the effort to put real regulatory action behind this type of research into gambling behaviour. After all, what good is new insight if we don’t use it to implement some responsive practices? And what’s the use of making rules if they’re not enforced?

Think about traffic laws as a parallel. Most drivers can appreciate the correlation between excessive speed and traffic accidents and decades of transportation research has led most governments to impose speed limits for their public roads. It’s the only reasonable response to the data.

These restrictions not only serve to make the public aware of the safe limits, they also provide a defined threshold for enforcement.

Merely identifying the safe speed for a given road isn’t enough to protect drivers. Making the roadways safer requires monitoring and enforcement. It requires speed checks and the issuance of citations for those who violate the posted limits. Rules need to have consequences in order to matter.

Gambling regulation is not so different from traffic management. The rules designed to make gambling safer are rooted in empirical evidence and their main purpose isn’t to dole out punishments. Regulations, like speed limits, primarily exist to protect the public.

Catania and SG:certified operate in that overlap between safer-gambling research and policy, leveraging their bespoke compliance dashboard to help stakeholders collaborate on strategies for building products and processes that truly protect consumers – particularly those at high risk. In this way, the gambling industry can begin to mark its progress toward a safer future.

If you’re an operator or a regulator keen on keeping your product up to speed with the most-current behavioural research in gambling, SG:certified is eager to show you the path forward. You can schedule a free demo with their team here.

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