Asian American Problem Gambling Rates Highest in the Country

Monday, May 6th, 2019 | Written by April Bergman
Asian American Problem Gambling Rates Highest in the Country

Experts say Asian Americans might be more at-risk of problem gambling than other US gamblers. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates as many as 8 million Americans deal with problem gambling — or about 2.42% of the population. Though alarming, the rate among Asian Americans in some communities is much higher.

Luck and fortune play a bigger role in East Asian culture than many other global cultures. Throwing dice during holiday celebrations and family gatherings goes back generations. In Southeast Asian countries where gambling is strictly banned, law enforcement looks the other way during holidays.

Vanessa de la Torre of Connecticut Public Radio says Southeast Asian refugees who came to the United States after the Vietnam War are at risk. Decades after arrival in America, elements of the old culture remain firmly in place.

Gambling Engrained in Asian Culture

Quyen Truong, a 35-year old healthcare advocate in Hartford, says gambling is engrained in the Southeast Asian culture. She described family reunions, where gambling sessions ran into the late night. Truong said, “Everybody has a roll of quarters and nickels and dimes and pennies that they use, and they bet against each other. Kids are rooting for their parents.”

For some Southeast Asian refugees, the gambling scene can be an escape. “You get involved in this activity that’s fun and, every once in a while, you make it big. You get a couple of hundred dollars and you feel like the king of the world.”

Truong added, “Of course you’re going to go for that. If you lose, though, you lose big.”

“An Opportunity Out of Poverty”

Dr. Timothy Fong, a professor of addiction psychiatry at UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program, agreed with Quyen Truong’s experiences. The UCLA professor said many American Asians have a skewed view of gambling, which plays into problem gambling.

Fong said, “Gambling is seen as an opportunity out of poverty. When you have tremendous amounts of poverty, especially in the Southeast Asian refugee population, that tends to be a very tempting idea.”

Sou Thammavong, a Laotian refugee, explained the mindset. Thammavong, who serves as the North Central Regional Mental Health Board’s outreach coordinator, “If you’re working in a factory, or you don’t necessarily see that you have a future for yourself, you can change your fortune. You can change your destiny.”

Good Luck in a Casino

Westerners look at the Asian concept of “chi” in the wrong way. Chi translates to “flow” or “energy”, but it often means as much the flow of luck or fortune as it does vital energies. Asian baccarat players stand around the table for a while to get a sense of the “flow” in that particular baccarat game.

Refugees of the Vietnam War era face a much higher rate of problem gambling. UConn Health Center conducted a survey of 100 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos living in Connecticut in 2003. Almost 60% of them reported being addicted to gambling.

That is over 30% the national average among the general population, said Dr. Fong. Making matters worse, Asian Americans are least likely among the demographic groups to use mental health services. If problem gambling exists, they are less likely to report it to a helpline, hotline, or therapist.

Gambler’s Fallacy: The Law of Averages

Asian Americans are not the only ones with misconceptions about the way gambling works. Westerners traditionally put more emphasis on mathematics and science, but their concept behind the math of gambling is flawed.

For instance, many gamblers believe in the “law of averages”. If a roulette balls lands on a red number, then the law of averages tell them the next spin should turn up black. That’s why roulette wheels have an electronic tally of the last 10 to 20 winning numbers.

In truth, the law of averages doesn’t exist. If the roulette wheel is balanced (or a slot machine working right), then no two spins have any connection whatsoever. Betting on hot number or cold numbers — or betting on something that’s “due” — is another skewed view of gambling’s principles.

With Asian Americans from the various refugee communities, though, the risk factors coalesce. Many share a western view of the gambler’s fallacy. Many also believe luck is a tangible thing. They see gambling as a quick way out of poverty, along with a form of entertainment their family shared together in their childhood. All these elements come together to create a heightened risk, so raising awareness of those risks is important.