Why Do You Have to Be 21 to Gamble?

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Four players at a green felt table; one pushes a sizable chip stack towards the camera.
BetMGM Dec 04, 2023, 11:20 AM

American citizens can drive a car or join the army at 18, but the legal age to go to a casino or play online casino games is 21. Some critics maintain that the age limit for gambling is entirely arbitrary. After all, the legal age for casinos varies from one country to the next. However, after looking at the matter closely, it turns out that there are good reasons behind the U.S. gambling age laws. 

The bottom line is to protect young adults and allow them the time and space to develop the healthy habits necessary for responsible gambling, as endorsed by the industry as a whole. Keep on reading to understand why 21 is a sensible minimum gambling age.

Cognitive Development

The principle of responsible gambling is the bedrock of the gambling industry in the U.S. today. It’s a vitally important principle that recreational gamblers should understand the risks, treat gambling as a form of entertainment and not as a way to make money and that they never risk money that would be inconvenient to lose. In other words, you have to be emotionally mature to make any sort of gambling decision.

That doesn’t mean that 18-year-olds are incapable of making responsible decisions. However, it’s important to remember that the brain continues developing until the mid-20s. As a result, a minority of individuals below the age of 21 may be more at risk of developing a gambling disorder, with potentially catastrophic consequences for them and the people in their lives.

By setting a legal gambling age of 21, states where gambling is legal give young adults a chance to achieve the requisite level of emotional maturity. Of course, there are also states where gambling is illegal for various reasons.

Mitigating Risk

According to an article by Linda Hollén, Rita Dörner, Mark D. Griffiths, and Alan Emond in the “Journal of Gambling Studies,” cognitive immaturity puts young people at risk of developing specific gambling problems. The illusion of control over outcomes is one. An example of this is when a string of lucky wins convinces a beginner gambler that they have some kind of gambling super-power. As any experienced gambler will tell you, no such powers exist. Most gambling games are purely based on chance, and there’s no way of influencing the outcomes.

Of course, most chance-based games have a degree of predictability based on statistical probability. Advanced blackjack players, for example, can leverage basic blackjack strategy to reduce the house edge to close on 0.5%. However, the developing young adult mind has not yet had time to develop this skill. This lack of understanding can lead to them chasing losses where the correct response would be to walk away to play another day.

Another important aspect of cognitive development is executive function, which is not fully developed in adolescence. As a result, young adults can be more prone to impulsive behavior, such as placing bets too often.

By the time they reach the casino minimum age of 21, young adults will likely have reached a stage of cognitive development where they are no longer at heightened risk of developing these issues. Until then, any attempt to access gambling activities will lead to them being banned from casinos.

Bankroll Management

Responsible gambling emphasizes bankroll management as a critical skill when it comes to recreational gambling. Responsible gamblers will set aside money they can afford to lose for their bankroll and play only with their money. To have a bankroll in the first place, of course, you need to have surplus cash, which is something that not all people below the age of 21 have. A low income combined with the factors mentioned previously creates the additional risk that a young person may perceive gambling as a means to make a “big win” that will solve all their financial problems at a stroke.

Educating people that gambling is never a good solution to money matters is an integral part of responsible gambling programs within the casino industry. Keeping the American gambling age at 21 helps to encourage young adults who are interested in gambling to build a solid financial base for themselves. With that in place, they have the foundation to think about bankrolling recreational gambling activities.

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Actress Vanessa Hudgens flipping casino chips next to the text "The King of Casinos"
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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.