The film focuses on a main character, a young adult Caucasian male, Ben is drawn to gambling by his professor and peers. Ben is a stereotypical high-achieving student who is very driven to succeed. Like many college students today, Ben is concerned about his ability to pay for medical school. His financial concerns motivate him to join an underground blackjack team at his school in order to use his winnings to pay for medical school. Ben’s monetary motive for gambling is not unique for people his age.
According to Neighbors, Lostutter, Cronce, and Larimer (2002), 40% of college-aged students who gambled wrote that money was the main reason why they gambled. He originally decides to gamble for those reasons. Ben is a character who is likely to get the audience to root for him as he is like many college students today who cannot afford to pay for school. He is stereotyped as a male when he gambles in that he is very impulsive. Ben discovers that his math skills enable him to become a great card counter. Interestingly, his female teammates play minor roles on the gambling team.
Ben is the one who wins the most money for his team. Relationship with gambling Ben initially takes up gambling for virtuous and even understandable reasons (to pay his tuition). When he realizes that he can excel and make more money than he ever could in school, he begins to neglect his schoolwork and takes trips with his peers to Vegas on weekends. Gambling starts to become his life because it allows him the kind of freedom he has never experienced before. According to MacLaurin and Hashimoto (2008), gambling desire comes from being able to take voluntary risks to control one’s destiny. Gamblers can also exercise a symbolic path of freedom that their environmental and social settings do not allow (MacLaurin & Hashimoto, 2008).
Despite winning all the money needed to pay for medical school, Ben does not stop. In one scene he gambles for too long and loses $200,000 after his teammates were constantly trying to signal him to leave the table. Micky becomes infuriated with him because Ben gambles with his emotions and impulsivity. Micky leaves the team and severs his relationship with Ben. Ben’s teammate Jill tries to persuade him that he has won all the money he needs to pay for medical school and that he should stop gambling. He tells her that medical school does not matter to him anymore because he enjoys the thrills of Vegas.
He then persuades his teammates to gamble without Micky by leading them through the casino. The consequences are that he gets captured and beaten by Cole and the rest of the security team. When Ben arrives back at school he goes into his room and notices that all his money has been taken from him. On his door, there is a notice that he cannot graduate because some of his classes are marked as incomplete. Ben also lets his studies take a backseat to his gambling activity which is surprisingly common among gamblers his age.
Benson, Norman, and Griffiths (2011) studied 109 college students who were in the first and final years of school found that the trait of impulsivity is strongly correlated with gambling frequency and the risk-taking tendencies of these students are like those of pathological gamblers. Interestingly Benson et al. (2011) surveyed college age gamblers and found that academic withdrawal increases with gambling frequency perhaps because college students who are doing poorly in their classes might gamble more to cope with the stress. Ben is flying to Las Vegas every week and is constantly in the mindset of gambling.
As a result, he develops behaviors like those of a person who gambles compulsively. The compulsive gambler This film, like many films about gambling, focuses on adult males who are compulsive action gamblers (Turner, Fritz, & Zangeneh, 2007). In Turner’s analysis of themes, this movie fits under Turner’s second theme which focuses on the supernatural skill of a professional gambler (Turner et al., 2007). Compulsive action gamblers may seem to possess supernatural skill; compulsive action gamblers are highly social, have an IQ over 120, have high confidence levels, and think they can develop a system to beat the casinos (Action or Escape Gambler, n.d.). Compulsive action gamblers usually experience a huge winning phase in which they win large sums of money, sometimes as much as one year’s salary.
The winning phase is followed by a losing phase in which the gambler starts to bet larger amounts of money, loses, attempts to regain his losses by gambling more, and sometimes even borrows money to help pay for his gambling. The third phase is the desperation phase in which the gambler will withdraw from life, potentially sever all their relationships, and continue gambling uncontrollably. The final desperation phase occurs when the pathological gambler has nothing else left in his life, becomes hopeless, depressed, and will take actions that may land him in legal trouble (Action or Escape Gambler, n.d.). Ben certainly has the potential to become a compulsive gambler. He is very intelligent, sociable, and he has been able to use a system to beat the house. He experiences a huge winning phase when he wins sums of money large enough to pay for his medical education.
His losing phase was very brief; he lost $200,000 and went back to the casino again to chase the money he lost. He experiences a tiny bit of a desperation phase where his life is in shambles after losing money that he gambled. He essentially spends all his free time gambling and as a result, does not focus on school, lies to his friends and family, and consequently has nowhere to go. His version of being in the hopeless phase occurs after he gets the notice on his door and decides to potentially risk his life going back to the Vegas casinos. His mind is very occupied with gambling, but it does not appear to consume him as it does in truly compulsive gamblers.
He gambles with his team and never alone. He never takes out of his personal finances to gamble and only in one situation does he gamble uncontrollably. He does have the potential to develop a gambling disorder and perhaps could already be diagnosed with one according to diagnostic criteria in the DSM V. Diagnosis characteristics According to What is Gambling Disorder? (n.d.), gambling disorder is characterized by problematic gambling behavior that may result in the gambler lying to family members and friends to cover up their gambling and sometimes to seek excitement or action.
According to (DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria: Gambling Disorder, n.d.), the diagnosis of gambling disorder is based on the occurrence in the past year of the following nine criteria: the need to gamble with increasing amounts of money, irritability when told to cut down on gambling, repeated unsuccessful attempts to control gambling behavior, stop, or reduce gambling activity, repeated thoughts about gambling including past winnings, gambling to cope with stress, chasing one’s loss, lying about gambling activities, jeopardizing or losing a significant relationship, career, or education opportunity, relying on others to help with financial problems related to gambling. If the gambler meets 4-5 of these criteria they are considered at mild risk, moderate risk for 6-7, severe risk for 8-9 (DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria: Gambling Disorder, n.d.). Ben never had a full-blown gambling addiction. He never borrowed money to gamble, he never tried to stop gambling in the first place, gambled to cope with stress, nor did he rely on others to help with finances.
However, there are some gray areas. We never know for sure if his thoughts are constantly preoccupied with gambling, but we do know that his life started to revolve around gambling in that he looked forward to the weekend when he would go to Vegas, and gambling became the focal point of his life. When he loses $200,000 he continued to bet higher, possibly to feel a rush. He most definitely did chase his losses multiple times. When he loses the $200,000 he convinced his team to go without his professor to get that money back. Toward the end, he goes back with his professor to remake all the money that he lost. When he is losing $200,000, Jill tries to convince him to leave the table and go upstairs, irritated, he brushes her off and continues gambling.
Later Jill confronts him about why he continues to gamble. He tells her that his life in Las Vegas and that he has had the most fun there. Ultimately the gambling causes endangers his graduation from college. He could be diagnosed with 4-5 of the criteria, so he would be considered at mild risk gambling disorder-based DSM V criteria (DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria: Gambling Disorder, n.d.). Ben gambles for economic reasons at first but he is later consumed by the rush of winning. He withdraws from his school work and lies to his friends and family. His gambling causes him to risk his ability to graduate. Although Ben has many traits of a compulsive gambler, he doesn’t experience the full effect of compulsive gambling on his life.
Based on the DSM V criteria, Ben’s risk for gambling disorder is mild. Fortunately, there are people in his life, such as Jill, who discourage his compulsive behaviors and refuse to act as enablers. Conclusion 21 portrays the glamorous exterior of the casino as well as the criminal underbelly which retains its roots in the mobster era. Inside, the casino is a clever prison that entraps patrons; its environment manipulates gamblers to stay longer, play more, and bet higher. In such an environment, even the most financially conservative person might spend more time and money than they intended due to the influence of the carefully created environment including flashing lights, ambient, loud noise, and comfortable seating. Someone who is seeking an endorphin rush might be even more vulnerable to the environmental manipulations of the casinos. The movie shows the dangers of spending extensive amounts of time in casinos.
Although there are a variety of games to play at the casino, the card game blackjack has enormous appeal to intelligent players who play to win. Because blackjack requires skill and the player has the highest chance of any game to beat the house (49%) and has a social component among players, it attracts players who are social, extremely intelligent, and confident enough to believe they can ultimately beat the casino. The movie’s main character, Ben has all of these traits and additionally seeks economic benefit and excitement from the casino. 21 shows that very intelligent people like Ben can take on the casino using strategies like card counting but are still vulnerable to the casino’s security tactics–both legal and illegal. Ben is also still susceptible to developing gambling disorder.
Despite his intelligence, at certain points, the rush of winning and excitement of the atmosphere gets the best of Ben, and he meets several DSM V criteria for gambling disorder. Luckily, Ben does not descend into severe compulsive gambling behavior, though the audience is aware of how close he was to losing his opportunities due to gambling. 21 portrays the criminal aspects of the gambling industry and shows the audience the effects of problem gambling on a person’s personal life. The audience is likely to conclude that excessive gambling is not worth the personal and mental health safety risk despite the potential gains from games like blackjack. The audience is also challenged to reconsider the stereotype of a compulsive gambler, who is often considered nave and sleazy. Ben, who begins to fall into the pattern of a compulsive gambler, is intelligent, comes from a privileged background, and is a high-achieving individual. Yet he is not immune to the pitfalls of the casino environment.
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