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Bracket bets can be dangerous temptation for problem gamblers

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From the president of the United States to your grandmother's bridge club, everybody wants to get some skin in the game by filling out a bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament. It's never been easier (with online brackets) or more lucrative (with the $1 billion Bracket Challenge).

But for compulsive gamblers or those battling a gambling addiction, the innocent spring rite of a $5 tournament wager can present a danger or a trigger for relapse.

“Brackets are fun for a lot of people, but they make it harder for people who do have problems,” said Tiffani Pinkerton, a prevention specialist with Heartland Family Service in Nebraska in a story in Omaha.com.

For compulsive gamblers, March can be the cruelest month, with the the confluence of college hoops and tax-refund season. March Madness has become a favorite for bettors; in Nevada, wagers of more than $324 million were placed on pro and college basketball in March 2013, a 193 percent increase over March 1991.

“Some gamblers who are in treatment for sports gambling will fall off around this time of year,” said Gina Fricke, therapist at Peace and Power Counseling in Omaha. “Sports gambling is just so publicized that it's hard to avoid that exposure.”

Research has shown that about 85 percent of the adult population will gamble, and that 10 percent of that number will develop some sort of gambling problem. A 2009 story in US News and World Report noted that the number of adolescents and young adults addicted to gambling is two to four times the adult rate, and that 4 to 7 percent of college students meet the criteria for pathological gambling. Research finds that the earlier a person begins gambling, the more dangerous the activity; the average problem gambler starts wagering around age 10.

The story, written by Central Michigan University professor Tim Otteman, an expert on sports-related gambling, warned that, "No one ends up with a sports gambling problem without making his or her first bet—and frequently that first wager is filling out an NCAA tournament bracket." He went on to say that completing an NCAA tournament bracket "may serve as a gateway to participation in more expensive and dangerous forms of sports gambling" for some young gamblers.

March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month, according to the National Problem Gambling Council.

"The goal of this campaign is to educate the general public, and health care professionals about the warning signs of problem gambling and raise awareness about the help that is available both locally and nationally. The campaign was previously held during the first week of March to coincide with March Madness, one of the most widely bet upon events in the U.S. Now, the campaign takes place during the entire month of March!"

The Minnesota-based Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance, in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, is spreading information about problem gambling.

"Most people can spend $20 in the March Madness brackets and bet based on the color of a team’s uniform and do it to have something to root for," said Ottman. "But we owe it to people — especially kids — to warn them that it could lead you down the wrong path.”

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