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However, the youths will continue to gamble, “Step by step,” says Wu. “They do not become addicted all of a sudden,” he adds.

“You neither treat the money you have won nor the chips you are holding as money. You don’t treat it as your hard-earned money,” says 20-year-old Thomas, who does not want to disclose his real name. After being admitted to university, Thomas tried his hand at all kinds of investments, such as buying stocks, warrants and futures, for the purpose of saving  up to the make the down payment on a flat.

Thomas was once a full-time investor, skipping classes and staring at the stock market numbers around the clock. In the end, he lost more than HK$50,000 in a single month on futures. This wiped out all the savings he had made by working three part-time jobs. At that moment, he thought there was no hope in life.

But then he switched to gambling in Macau’s casinos. He was greatly excited by the quick changes in fortune he experienced when playing table games. The teenager astonished other gamblers by placing three separate bets, ranging from HK$4,000 to HK$7,000 on table games when he had only HK$20,000 left.

Thomas recalls one occasion when he lost HK$10,000 in one bet on the table. He was left utterly shocked, could hardly breathe and felt his legs were shaking. He thought about how he could not afford to lose all he had earned in the past two months in just one second. He was so angry that he overdrew his credit card to gamble again. On another occasion, he also tried to borrow over HK$10,000 from his girlfriend, claiming it was financial support for his daily expenses.

Thomas says he is frugal in his daily spending because he wants to save money to play table games. He has no doubts about which he would opt for given a choice between a HK$20 lunch set or a HK$50 one. “Why not save HK$30 for gambling? Choose between HK$3,000 and HK$2,000 for table games? HK$3,000 for sure,” he says.

The way he sees it, he can never make enough for a down payment on a flat by working part-time in an office for an hourly wage of HK$50 or by giving private tuition classes for children at HK$150 per hour. The only way he can make a few hundred thousand dollars quickly is through gambling.

He has spent so much time studying the theories behind winning strategies for card games like Texas hold’em and Blackjack that his grades nosedived and he no longer receives a scholarship from his university.

Despite the drawbacks, he says gambling is part of his life. He reckons it is impossible to quit and that an “appropriate” degree of gambling is an acceptable form of entertainment.  He says gambling is a necessary outlet for everyone to relieve their stress.

Yet he denies that he has a problem or that he is a pathological gambler because he thinks he could stop himself if he wanted to. Thomas explains it is normal to lose money in luxurious casinos – including when he lost all his savings of HK$80,000 over four months this past summer.

However, according to Jessie Wong Yuk-ming, a social worker and the centre-in-charge of Yuk Lai Hin Counseling Centre, Thomas would probably be assessed as a problem gambler according to DSM IV. DSM IV is a psychological assessment tool designed by the American Psychiatric Association. Ten symptoms are given as indicators in the assessment for problem gambling. They include always being preoccupied with gambling, chasing losses, increasing the amount of money spent on gambling, getting restless when trying to quit gambling, and using others’ money to continue gambling.  People are assessed as problem gamblers if three or more symptoms are indicated, and as pathological gamblers when five or more symptoms are present.

Wong says Thomas has at least three symptoms indicated in DSM IV, as he tried to chase his losses, is preoccupied with thinking of ways to get money through gambling and tried to borrow on his credit card and from his girlfriend. She says problem gamblers have a psychological dependency on gambling and harbour irrational thoughts that gambling can help them to make money.

Wong adds teenagers are susceptible to pressure from their companions, especially when they have tense relationships with their families. They believe that gambling is a way to maintain status in their relationships with friends and this gradually leads to addiction.