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Problem gamblers at risk this time of year

Was it mere coincidence that National Problem Gambling Awareness Week preceded "March Madness" on this month's calendar?

Fat chance.

Those who advocate for problem gamblers knew what they were doing when they scheduled the annual week devoted to educating the public about the warning signs of problem gambling. They placed it right before this week's start of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, a three-week orgy of televised hoops and workplace betting.

"That's a lot of the rationale behind it," Mary Drexler, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, said of the scheduling. "March is a huge gambling month."

It's been estimated that more than one in four American workers will have invested at least a few bucks to practice "bracketology" in an office pool, the picking the winners of scores of games, starting with Tuesday's first four. On Thursday, the road to the Final Four began in earnest.

Also on Thursday, the council issued a public warning that the tournament "can be an enticing trap for the susceptible," a trigger for those who may think they have a gambling problem under control.

"The college tournament usually means one thing at the office: Big Distractions," the council declared.

Community & Family Services in Norwich launched its own campaign to call attention to the pitfalls associated with March Madness. The nonprofit organization has sponsored a billboard on the southbound side of Route 32 in Uncasville that features a mock NCAA bracket. Instead of pitting Duke against Lehigh and North Carolina against Vermont, however, the choices are between "Family" and "Job Loss" and between "Mortgage" and "Bills Due."

"Americans bet an estimated $3 billion - the vast majority of it illegally - on the NCAA Tournament, making it the biggest time of the year for sports gambling," the UCFS said in a press release.

In fact, participation in office pools in Connecticut is legal so long as all of the money collected in entry fees is paid out in winnings. In other words, no pool "administrator" can take a cut.

Plenty is wagered legally during March Madness at sports books in Nevada, one of the few states that allows sports betting. Last March, $256.5 million was wagered on basketball in Nevada, about 70 percent, or $180 million, of which was bet on college basketball. By way of comparison, about $94 million was wagered on the most recent Super Bowl, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

UCFS, through its Bettor Choice Gambling Treatment Program, offers counseling for problem gamblers, including those who run into trouble during March Madness. While the program primarily works with adults, young people are particularly susceptible to the lure of sports betting, both legal and illegal, according to Fiorigio "Fred" Fetta, the program's coordinator.

People can get preoccupied with office pools and devote an inordinate amount of time to them, affecting their productivity, Fetta said.

"If they're in recovery (from a gambling addiction), it can be significant," he said. "When it comes to sports betting, the things to be on the lookout for are tolerance and withdrawal. Do they need to gamble more money to get the same effect? Do they feel restless or irritable when they try to stop?

"March Madness is huge because of its effect on the workplace."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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