The following information is taken from the booklet Gambling: Choices and Guidelines by Roger Svendsen and Tom Griffin. The booklet is available from the Gambling Problems Resource Center at 1-800-437-3641.

Recreation with Risk

Gambling has rapidly become an acceptable and regular part of our society. Winning lottery numbers are drawn live on television. Odds on sports events, results of horse and dog races and advertising for casinos are carried daily in our newspapers. Billboards, TV and radio ads all communicate the availability of gambling. Yes, there is even an occasional ad or poster announcing a hotline number to call for help with a gambling problem. Gambling has become a daily part of our lives. Gambling joins boating, walking, fishing, exercising, reading, traveling and attending movies, plays, concerts and sporting events as a favorite recreational activity. But many of these activities involve some level of risk. Safe boating requires use of a life jacket. Safe traveling requires use of a seat belt. Even reading for pleasure requires good lighting to reduce eye strain. For most people, gambling is a social or recreational activity, something that is fun and entertaining. But for others, gambling causes problems and, for some, it becomes uncontrollable and is no longer a choice. Compulsive gambling is not a bad habit but rather a life-threatening disorder. Compulsive gambling is destructive to families, friendships and careers. Bills go unpaid. Basic needs like money for food and rent are neglected. Some gamblers become suicidal. Most will need help to change their gambling behavior.

Recreational gambling requires an understanding of the characteristics of low-risk gambling, as well as the signs of a gambling problem. People who choose to gamble also need to anticipate risks and take action to reduce or eliminate the risks as much as possible.


Each person has choices to make about gambling, first, about whether or not to gamble and, second, how to reduce the risk of a gambling problem if he or she chooses to gamble. All people, at any age, are responsible for the consequences of their decisions.

Some people choose not to gamble in any form for a variety of reasons, some non-gamblers are morally opposed to gambling, some think it's simply foolish, and others may have a family history of gambling problems, chemical dependency or other addictions and just don't want to take the risk. Many people have not examined their beliefs about gambling. They simply have not thought seriously about the benefits and risks of gambling or discussed it with anyone for a variety of reasons. Many had no family discussions when growing up because gambling was not as popular, visible or available; their parents didn't consider it to be an important issue. It is still not a part of most school curricula. For many people, new forms of gambling like state lotteries and casinos have arrived so rapidly that they simply haven't had sufficient time to consider their choices.

Regardless of the reason for this silence, guidelines for low-risk, appropriate gambling for adults are needed. Many people have not developed a personal set of guidelines when considering (1) whether or not to gamble, or (2) how to gamble in a low-risk, appropriate and legal manner if they decide to gamble.

Characteristics of Low-Risk Gambling

For the large numbers of people who regularly gamble, there are a few generally accepted guidelines for low-risk gambling to keep in mind:

  • Low-risk gamblers know that over time nearly everyone loses. The recreational benefits of gambling are found in the excitement of taking a chance, the thrill of winning and the fun of being with friends while gambling. Rarely is financial gain one of the benefits.
  • Low-risk gambling is done socially, with family, friends or colleagues, not alone. It is often combined with eating and other forms of entertainment.
  • Low-risk gambling is done for limited amounts of time, both in frequency and duration. Although no one can accurately predict when problems will develop, we do know that, as one gambles more frequently and for longer periods of time, the risk increases.
  • Low-risk gambling always has predetermined, acceptable limits for losses. Any money spent on gambling needs to be considered an entertainment cost. Given the wide range of income and expenses for people, an acceptable amount for a gambling loss could range from zero dollars a year to several thousand dollars a year.

Developing a set of personal guidelines for low-risk, legal and appropriate choices about whether, when and how much to gamble can provide direction for personal decisions as well as teach appropriate behavior to others.

Setting Personal Guidelines

Making choices about gambling based on the guidelines that follow is likely to reduce the risk of developing a gambling problem. These guidelines can also be used as a basis for talking to someone whose gambling concerns you.

1. The decision to gamble is a personal choice.

No one should feel pressured to gamble. Many people will choose to gamble socially, for a limited period of time and with predetermined limits for losses. Others will simply have no desire to gamble. Some people with a family history of gambling problems or other addictions may choose not to risk gambling at all. The bottom line is that no one should feel that she/he has to gamble to be accepted.

2. Gambling is not essential for having a good time.

The real value of social activities is being with friends and taking time out from the pressures of daily living. Gambling should not be seen as necessary for having fun and being with friends. Gambling can be an enjoyable complement to other activities, but shouldn't be seen as the only method of socializing.

3. What constitutes an acceptable loss needs to be established before starting to gamble.

People need to expect that they will lose more often than they will win. The odds are always against winning. Any money spent on gambling needs to be considered the cost of entertainment. Money that is needed for basics such as food, clothing, shelter, education or child care should not be used for gambling. People should only gamble money they can afford to lose and avoid betting where the level is out of their range. For those who choose to gamble, it is essential to know when to stop.

4. Borrowing money to gamble should be avoided and discouraged.

Borrowing money from a friend or relative, writing bad checks, pawning personal possessions, taking out loans, or borrowing from any other source of funds with the intention of repaying with gambling winnings is always high-risk and inappropriate.

5. There are times when people should not gamble.

  • When under the legal gambling age.
  • When the gambling interferes with one's work or family responsibilities.
  • When in recovery from compulsive/pathological gambling. And, for many, when in recovery from chemical dependency or other addictions.
  • When in the early stages of recovery from other addictions such as chemical dependency.
  • When the form of gambling is illegal.
  • When the gambling is prohibited by an organizational or employer policy.
  • When trying to make up for a gambling loss or series of losses (chasing).

6. There are certain high risk situations during which gambling should be avoided.

  • When feeling lonely, angry, depressed or under stress.
  • When coping with the death or loss of a loved one.
  • When trying to solve any personal or family problems.
  • When trying to impress others.

7. Use of alcohol or other drugs when gambling is risky.

Alcohol or other drug use can affect a person's judgment and can interfere with his/her ability to control gambling and adhere to predetermined limits.

The choices people make about gambling sends clear messages to others. A person can be a positive role model for young people and friends if one chooses not to gamble or if one chooses to gamble in a low risk, legal and appropriate manner.

What to Say if Someone's Gambling Concerns You

A simple and straightforward approach to letting someone know you are concerned is often most helpful. Yet, that can sound easier to do than it really is. Not everyone will be thankful that someone cares enough to share his/her concern. None of us can control what a person says or does in reaction to what we say, but we can control what we say, how we say it, and where and when we talk to a person about whom we are concerned.