Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Teen Gamblers Racking Up Debts

The lure of easy money is tempting Armenian youngsters into the capital’s betting shops.
By Karine Asatrian
Two teenage boys walk into a betting shop on the central street in Yerevan and begin studying forms on a table covered with information about upcoming football matches.

After a half-hour discussion, they mark their bets, pay at the cash desk and leave. They have bet 1,000 drams – about two US dollars - in hope of winning five times that amount.

“We hope to win something,” said Vahagn, a football fan and at 16-years-old already a regular gambler.

There are several hundred betting shops in Armenia. By law, they are not supposed to accept bets from under-18s and will lose their license or face a fine if they do. But a visit to several in the city centre suggests under-age gambling is common in Yerevan and that teens are wagering and often losing large amounts.

Yerevan’s bookies open around noon, and the schoolchildren start to arrive after classes. Most of the teenagers IWPR spoke to said they were doing badly at school.

Fifteen-year-old Artak began gambling two years ago and has since run up debts of 500,000 drams, some 1,400 dollars.

Like many gamblers, Artak started off well, winning up to 10 times his initial wager. Then he started to lose and became obsessed with where he would find money.

First he pawned his mobile phone, and then staff in one betting shop gave him credit. When his debts got too high, Artak turned to his parents. They pawned their television, video camera and jewellery, but it still wasn’t enough.

Artak eventually earned enough money to reclaim his parents’ possessions, but rather than do that he headed for the betting shop instead.

Asked when he would stop gambling, Artak said, “When I win enough money to cover my debts and buy myself a good phone and a gold chain.”

Karen is now 16, but was 14 when he started gambling. A keen football fan, he felt he could predict the outcome of games. “At first I almost always won, but then I began to lose,” he said.

He owes 50,000 drams and paid off an earlier debt by stealing money from his parents. He was caught and punished by them but says it made no difference.

“Punishment and advice from my parents don’t help me any more,” said Karen. “I don’t know whether I’ll ever rid myself of this obsession.”

Some start even younger than Karen.

Residents of a Yerevan apartment block were concerned to see an ambulance arrive for their neighbour, Marietta, who had always been in good health. She developed heart problems when she discovered that her 13-year-old son Vardan was a compulsive gambler.

It was a classmate of Vardan’s who told her that her son was making money by betting on the outcome of football matches. She went looking for him after classes and discovered him in a betting shop.

“Every day I found that money was disappearing from the house,” Marietta told IWPR. “It didn’t occur to me to suspect Vardan. I suspected everyone but him.”

Marietta gave up her job to try to cure her son of his addiction. At first it was slow going, but she bought him a computer and says she has managed to divert his mania for gambling into one for computer games.

But parents have other ways of fighting back. Armenian law says transactions carried out by minors under 14 are not legal. “Parents can go to court any time, have the transaction declared illegal and get back the money their children staked,” said lawyer Karen Tumanian.

There are some who say the authorities should be intervening more directly.

Child psychologist Ruben Poghosian accuses the government of doing nothing to fight Armenia’s teenage gambling problem. He says betting shops are too easily accessible and “the children see that anyone can make money there”.

“It’s also the thrill of gambling,” said Poghosian. “It’s a trap which even adults find hard to resist.”

He says gambling is part of a wider social problem and believes teenagers need to find other ways of earning money– no easy task in present-day Armenia. “Find them a distraction which is thrilling and will bring a child a great deal of pleasure,” he advised, suggesting that they take part in sport themselves rather than gambling on it.

But with pawnshops sustaining the young gamblers by readily accepting their valuables including mobile phones, diverting teenagers’ attention from gambling could be difficult.

“We don’t give out money to children for pawned items,” said a worker at a pawnshop in the Shengavit district of Yerevan – even though several teenagers said that they had pawned their telephones there.

Meanwhile, the betting shops themselves deny any responsibility for the problem.

Gagik Boyajian, executive director of the Vivaro betting agency, told IWPR that his staff had been told “not once, not twice but dozens of times” not to accept bets from underage punters and that therefore their “conscience is clean”.

“How can we check whether they are 18 or not? Should we ask for their passport every time?” said Boyajian.

As for the finance ministry, it told IWPR that if betting shops are found accepting bets from teenagers they could be fined up to 100,000 drams, around 280 dollars.

But this seems a small deterrent compared with the large amounts the gambling shops are making from their hundreds of underage clients.

Karine Asatrian is a reporter with A1+ television in Yerevan.