There's a certain reaction some folks have when they hear the title of the course University of Maryland professor Stephen McDaniel has been offering at the College Park campus.
The name of the course is "Gambling in the New Millennium."
"So they ask, 'Are you really teaching students how to gamble?'" McDaniel said.
Of course, the answer is, "No."
However, after taking his course, McDaniel's students will understand a great deal more about the broad range of the gambling world and be far better informed consumers than most of their elders, who have been buying lottery tickets, betting on the races and frequenting casinos for years.
The gambling course is part of the university's I-Series of academic offerings, where the approach is to explore a specific topic in-depth and examine its various aspects.
"In the case of this course, gambling can be used as a prism to view economics, religion, government, public policy, public health, marketing, consumer behaviors -- so many different things," McDaniel said. "For the average 18- to 20-year-old, mention the word
history and their eyes glaze over. But start with a subject that they are already interested in, and you immediately have their attention."
The most recent spring semester was the third time McDaniel has taught the gambling course. He's an associate professor in kinesiology, and many of his courses revolve around sports. McDaniel's gambling course has 80 students, and typically, there's a waiting list.
So what do McDaniel's students learn?
Well, the course is nothing less than a sweeping tour of gaming in America.
McDaniel discusses lotteries, casino gambling, horse racing, poker (online and live), sports wagering and even references the most recent entry on the gaming landscape -- daily fantasy sports.
He delves into how gaming operators -- whether it's the state-run lottery or a commercial casino -- market their products; how they use loyalty programs to analyze the habits of their customers, and he gives extensive attention to the deleterious effects that gambling has on some people.
"What research has told us is that generally 1 to 3 percent of people are susceptible to developing a gambling problem, but that triples for this demographic," McDaniel said, referring to those of college age, give or take a few years.
The discussion of problem gambling, from how gaming can be a stimuli for the brain to the financial and social impacts of gambling addiction, is reinforced by guest lecturers who are problem gaming counselors and even recovering gambling addicts.
In addition to lessons that address problem gambling, McDaniel's course ranges far and wide across the gaming landscape. He has recruited guest speakers from the Maryland Jockey Club to talk about the horse racing industry; from the casino umbrella group, the American Gaming Association, and even from the state lottery.
McDaniel also supplements classroom lectures with gambling films, such as the classic James Caan version of "The Gambler;" the tale of the MIT blackjack card counting team, "21," and the documentary on poker, "All In: The Poker Movie."
After a recent class on causes and effects of problem gaming, a group of students chatted about the course. In every case, they had had some previous exposure to gambling, whether it was family penny-ante card games or regular poker with their friends or daily fantasy sports.
"I have three older brothers, and they all watch sports and bet a little, and my father enjoys poker," said Grace Hutchinson, a sophomore economics major. "What surprised me was when we had the speakers come in [from the gaming industry] -- I was expecting these big, imposing guys, and they were just regular people. Actually, I found that a little reassuring."
Other stereotypes are dispelled in the class.
"It was surprising to find out that the problem gamblers who lose the most money are the ones who could least afford it," said Andrew Gounaris, a sophomore kinesiology major. "You figure that people who gamble away $200,000 have $200,000 to lose, but that's not it. It's people losing that kind of money who can't afford it."
Ryan Goldberg, a freshman finance and international business major, was surprised by both the scope of problem gambling and how some people become compulsive gamblers as a result of stimuli that reinforce a need for a gambling rush.
"I've never felt that I absolutely had to play poker or had to get a lineup in [in daily fantasy sports]," Goldberg said. "It was surprising to me that people are playing for [motives] that go beyond the money."
Occasionally, what piqued a student's interest was his or her own academic area, as was the case for Tom Kowalsky, a freshman marketing major. McDaniel's course illustrates how casinos collect data on their customers through casino loyalty programs. Through the patrons' use of player loyalty cards, casinos find out their customers' preferred games, financial thresholds and even when they are likely to visit the casino.
"I was impressed by the marketing that goes into it -- how the lottery and casinos target customers and gear their advertising to different people," Kowalsky said.
McDaniel emphasized that it's not his place to tell students that gambling is either good or bad. But because of its prevalence in today's society -- 48 states have some sort of gambling and nearly 40 have casinos -- he believes it's important students understand as much as possible about an activity and industry that has such immense impact economically and culturally, as well as on public policy and public health.
"My job isn't to tell students what to think," McDaniel said, "but rather what to think about."
And if at some point in the future they walk into a casino, and they recall something from his class about the distinction of playing a game like roulette, where outcomes are random, as opposed to blackjack, where some skill can be brought to bear, that's not a bad thing, either, McDaniel said.
"Overall, I think I'd be a smarter gambler," said Jared Ungar, a freshman who is still undecided about a major. "And today, when we looked at problem gambling, that showed that if you're not a smart gambler, there can be a lot of different consequences."
Issue 221: May 2016