‘I am not weak. I am unlucky’

Dr Anna Thomas, who studied international students and gambling, says many are naive about the risks. Photo: Penny Stephens1Hong-Li read about Crown Casino in a Lonely Planet guide. At a family send-off at Chengdu Shuangliu Airport, en route to a three-year stint as a student in Melbourne, one of his cousins gave him a copy of the travel bible.
Nanjing Night Net

“A 24-hour non-stop cavalcade of illuminated excess,” he read. “You’ll either be spellbound or nauseated.”

Thirty-five thousand feet above the ground, however, the neon gaud of some casino seemed irrelevant. Gambling had never really interested him. At his farewell party the previous evening, everyone had played mah-jong, the way they do at weddings and at wakes. The ivory tiles, emblazoned with dragons and flowers, clicked and rattled into the night.

Completely incomprehensible to the layman, mah-jong is a means of bringing extended families like Hong-Li’s together. It’s even said to sharpen the brains of the elderly. But he drifted in and out of the game, chatting instead to friends. Everyone was envious of his impending adventure.

Hong-Li * is 22 years old. His face is sallow and wrung out. During his 18 months in Australia he has cultivated a wispy beard and a pot belly. He shows me a photograph taken in the week before he flew out of Chengdu. In it, he is lean and full of boyish brio. He and his stunning girlfriend stare down the camera. He shakes his head. “I need to go to the gym, exercise more, go in the sun more,” he says.

There are three subsequent photos in his iPhone gallery – a self-portrait taken at arm’s length, a pile of gaming chips and a shot of his landlord’s cat. “It’s been hard to make friends,” he says, picking at the phone. “Especially recently.”

I was introduced to Hong-Li via the man tutoring him in algorithms, of all people. I wanted someone who could offer an insight into the challenges faced by the more than half a million international students currently enrolled in Australian colleges and universities. Hong-Li, I was told, was isolated and disengaged.

When Hong-Li suggested we meet in the food hall at Crown, it was obvious the casino loomed large in his stay in Melbourne.

While he is loath to admit it, Hong-Li is one of a growing number of international students with gambling addictions. Though hard data has traditionally been hard to come by, a study conducted by Swinburne University’s Dr Anna Thomas and Professor Susan Moore, which sampled nearly 1600 local and international students from Victoria and Queensland, painted a bleak picture.

Published this week in The Journal of Gambling Studies, the study found that while international students actually gamble less than their Australian classmates, they are more prone to problem gambling overall.

Dr Thomas and Professor Moore found that 6.7 per cent of international students have serious gambling addictions, nearly six times the average of the general population. Also, international students that gamble are far more vulnerable to problem gambling than local students. “Many come from a quite closeted environment and suddenly they have a lot of freedom in a new country and possibly access to a large amount of money for living expenses,” Dr Thomas says.

“Also, international students often come from countries where gambling is restricted, or in some cases where it is banned altogether. The casino is therefore new and very exciting for them.

“However, they are often very naive about the risks, believing they can beat the odds of a totally random casino game. When they do run into trouble, we found that many are reluctant to seek formal help and counselling.”

Wesa Chau, the founder of the Australian Federation of International Students and a former ambassador for Responsible Gambling Awareness, says in Chinese culture there is a stigma attached to seeking help.

“Chinese people do not like to go and see counsellors,” she says. “If they do, they are seen as being crazy. Counselling still equals mental illness for many Chinese.”

In this respect Hong-Li may well be true to type. The only thing he needs, he insists, is a few more good hands of blackjack.

“We don’t have counselling for this at home,” he says. “We don’t have a word for counsellor. Gambling is big in our culture, too. So many Chinese films are about gambling. Every family plays dice and card games. But if you cannot control it, you are considered a weak person. I think I am not weak. I am only unlucky.”

Erroneous beliefs about gambling are disproportionately high with some international students, says Diane Jenkins, a Gambler’s Help community educator in Hong-Li’s area of Melbourne.

“More so than local students, some international students think they can beat the house,” she says. “They think they’ve developed a system that can win in the long run.”

Ms Jenkins says loneliness, boredom and poor living conditions can also lead to excessive gambling. “Students are often looking for something exciting and going to the casino they think will bring this to their life. We hear again and again that they don’t like the degree that they’re doing. Also, some of the accommodation that we hear about is almost like a cell and they often struggle cooking for themselves now they are away from home.”

Hong-Li says there was nothing to do in his early months in Melbourne. “My study was easy. There was nowhere to go out where I live. I have to come into town, but I know few people here. I don’t drink. The casino was interesting to me.”

Walking along the Yarra River one night after class, he was stopped in his tracks by Crown’s hourly explosion of fire. Flanked by tourists, he stood open-mouthed, slightly taken aback by the spectacle. In his pocket he had a $10 note and some coins for the bus home.

When the fiery display petered out, he wandered onto the gaming floor and took in a game of roulette. Eventually, he wagered his note on his lucky number, eight. “No more bets,” the dealer said in the neutral voice common to the game. The ball spun and spun and then stopped – number eight.

He put one-third of his winnings in his jacket pocket and placed the remainder on the eight and again it won for him. In a little over a minute, he had won $8000. By the first inexorable whoosh of the next fire show, he was waiting at a cab rank, his heart racing and his wallet bulging. He’d just won more than $15,000.

The next day, he stayed longer. He returned a considerable proportion of his previous day’s winnings, before breaking even with a late run of eights. Within a week, he was cutting classes to visit Crown. He eschewed the pokies and the big wheel and instead sought out games that would test his skill. He scoured internet sites for information on blackjack and baccarat. Years of intense mathematical training were finally bearing fruit.

Those first few months, he says, “were like a trance”. He was betting up to $1000 a hand. In five minutes one day he won $20,000 by doubling up on blackjack.

The next week was the Melbourne spring racing carnival. Crown was swamped with boozehounds. “The vibe was very bad,” he says. With an eye to impressing some Chinese girls in their Flemington frocks and fascinators, he coolly put $3000 on the eight. A successful wager would have netted him more than $100,000. The ball locked into the slot and the croupier mouthed “eight black . . .” But it teased and trickled next door – 23 red.

He started chasing his losses. Within a week, he had blown everything – all his winnings, all his tuition fees and all the money he’d put aside for rent.

Hong-Li shares a two-bedroom house in the south-eastern suburbs with an Indian student who juggles full-time study with a job at a convenience store. They barely see one another. There is no direct train line to the city so he catches two buses to get to university or – as is the case now – the casino.

On the way there, he writes emails to his family and friends, conjuring up stories of cramming sessions, exam results, celebratory parties and road-trips around Australia. On the way home, his brain is too scrambled for such concoctions and he invariably falls asleep.

His father is a senior manager at a large factory. I ask if his parents are wealthy. “They are hard-working, yes,” he says. “My father is very high in his job.” He sighs. “They are honest people. Proud.”

The first time Hong-Li was wiped out, he told his parents he needed to buy a car. They wired $20,000. He later told them he was taking extra units over summer. Well done, they said, and transferred thousands more. Most recently, they have covered the alleged costs of moving to the inner city, an essential means of bumping up his grades.

Hong-Li says he’s not as superstitious as many of his countrymen. But he adheres to several rituals. If he’s having a rough trot, he adjourns to the bathroom and washes his hands for several minutes before taking up residence at a table out of view from the losing one.

Before he starts punting in earnest at the baccarat tables, he has a few looseners at roulette. He always bets on the eight. He doubles up if he wins. He moves on after half-a-dozen unsuccessful bets. He always seeks out an Australian croupier.

Today his bus was 20 minutes late and the table where he normally opens proceedings flashed its recent results: 8, 16, 8, 8, 24, 8. “That bus should have been on time,” he says.

When things were going well, he found himself bumping into increasingly familiar faces, speaking the same tongue.

“We’d say hello and talk about if we’re winning, what dealers we like, what numbers are up, what we’re eating,” he says.

But the more money he loses the less inclined he is to connect with other people. “Sometimes I’m in there all day, from morning until the last bus, and I don’t say a word to anyone,” he says. “All I do is wave my hand to the dealer.”

One man he is communicating with is his loan shark. He initially applied to Cash Converters for a payday loan but he was rejected, owing to a lack of payslips. The loan shark, who is roughly the same age and from the same Chinese province, rings several times a week and leaves messages. He tells Hong-Li he has his father’s email address.

“I am paying big interest rates,” Hong-Li says, shaking his head. “I am trying to win the rates right now.”

Hong-Li says although he is depressed he tries to remain positive. Optimism, they say, blooms the cheek of every gambler. “I have a good system.”

He says he

has to go and heads for the casino proper. His eyes are fixed on the carpet, a dizzying, hotchpotch arrangement of coins and jewels. He passes a conga line of poker machines and arrives at a roulette table. He stops, straightens his shoulders, nods to the croupier and reaches for his wallet.

* Hong Li is an assumed name

Jonathan Horn is a Melbourne writer.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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