Is your college kid suddenly flush with cash? He might be one of a growing number of cyber card-sharks.
Illustration by Mario Zucca
As online poker tops the gambling charts among college students, some worry it's more than just another game.
He’s 20 years old, quirky, quick and plenty bright: Ivy League, a perfect 800 on his math (and English) SATs. But No-Man, as we’ll call him, didn’t spend this summer interning on Wall Street or networking in New York’s financial corridors. Heck, he barely got out of his pajama bottoms and T-shirt at his parents’ Ossining home.
Like others in a growing army of college kids in Westchester and across the country, No-Man spent his summer staring at his computer into the wee hours, betting hundreds of dollars each night in the fast-paced, silent, and instantly available world of online poker.
“I guess I probably play for fun,” he said on a muggy August evening, firing up his 17-inch Dell laptop for a night’s gambling. Here he paused: “But I wouldn’t be playing as much if I weren’t making money.”
Lots of money.
No-Man started the night I stopped by with about 11 grand in an online casino bank account somewhere offshore, one growing, by his calculations, at an average of about $50 for each hour of playing time. And he’s strictly a “medium-stakes” player.
For No-Man, each summer night’s work was devoted to reeling in “fish,” the less skilled and less lucky players who log on to any of hundreds of online poker sites, intently watching the bits and bytes of make-believe cards and betting large sums of oh-so-real money.
Between 2005 and 2006 alone, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center reports, the number of 18- to 22-year-old males gambling online at least weekly in this country more than doubled. The report estimated that the number of college-age men who gamble online at least monthly has reached 850,000. This online betting boom has helped fuel an online gambling industry in which the number of players buying into tournaments jumped nearly 90 fold (that’s right, 9,000 percent) in the three years between March 2003 and March 2006, according to PokerPulse.com, a poker site that tracks play. To hard-edged casino managers and strike-it-rich-quick students alike, the sky seemed the limit, at least until, on the last day of its September session, Congress dealt a surprise hand: a new law aimed at shutting off the financial tap through which Americans bet billions online each year.
But experts on both sides of the gambling debate speculate casinos likely will find ways around Congress’ efforts to criminalize the transfer of funds from credit card companies to online casinos. Casinos continue to take bets and advertise on television as the 270-day window for writing new regulations stays open.
But the reaction that rippled through college dorm rooms and online poker chat rooms the week after the law passed was swift, frantic, and telling. “Everyone I know who plays poker online is overwhelmed by this right now,” wrote No-Man in an email a week later. “Some are considering moving to Canada/Thailand/Costa Rica/Britain or other places in which poker is legal.”
Just playing for fun, eh? By late fall, No-Man was still finding plenty of sites to play on—and had doubled his buy-in stakes.
Channel-surf any evening on your TV from about 7:00 on, and you’ll almost certainly find at least one celebrity or professional game of no-limit Texas Hold ’Em, today’s game of choice for college-age players. Sometimes competing games duel for audience share. The stakes of these televised games are high, the personalities of their players edgy and entertaining. So why wouldn’t today’s college card players—young, confident and pumped—want to enter a world in which any Hollywood bimbo can win big and even the losers are gracious, witty, and unscathed? After all, hasn’t ESPN declared Texas Hold ’Em a sport? Doesn’t it give poker more airtime in many weeks than, for example, the national pastime of baseball?
It’s all part of a college-age gambling environment that Jim Maney, executive director of the New York Council on Problem Gambling, calls “almost the perfect storm.” “Think about it,” he says. “The online aspect, the availability of credit, the societal acceptance.” That’s barely half of it. For college-age players, add the fast pace of playing multiple games simultaneously, the adrenalin rush of betting it all on a single card, the hard-core casino come-ons of “free” cash to newcomers, and signing bonuses to those who bring along friends, and those storm conditions approach epic proportions. And think about it: This storm surges around the clock, 24 hours a day, every day, in any dorm room with a computer.
The trouble is, perfect storms tend to suck some under the waves.
“Every time guys are winning, somebody is losing—you’ve got to keep that in mind,” says Dan Romer, director of Annenberg’s annual survey of adolescent gambling. “We always hear the stories of when these kids win. What we don’t hear is when they lose.”
Actually, both have gotten ink. Take your pick. There’s the story of Chris Moneymaker, the guy with the great poker name who won $2.5 million along with the World Series of Poker, gaining a seat because he invested $40 in an online poker tournament. Or the story of Westchester’s own Doug Kim, who, after graduating from Duke University, lasted until the final round in the same tournament, bringing home more than $2.3 million. Then there are stories such as that of the Lehigh College class president, the preacher’s son, a compulsive player so thrown by his losses of $7,500 and so compelled to gamble that he robbed a bank.
Winners and losers.
Only ask a college player which camp he’s in—and most are male; according to a recent Annenberg study, only 1 percent of college-age women gamble online—and the odds are overwhelming he’ll tell you he’s a winner, Maney says. No one self-identifies as fish or fried, loser or addict. Not, at least, until they’ve hit a wall.
“I need to get to the parents; I need to get to the teachers,” says Frank Limone, coordinator of the Problem Gambling Recovery Program at Westchester Jewish Community Services in Mamaroneck. “Most parents say, ‘At least I know where my kids are. They’re just having such a good time in the family room playing Texas Hold ’Em, and I’m making the snacks.’”
He’s seen those good times destroy lives. “I know of a seventeen-year-old who took his brother’s credit card, started playing, and lost seventeen thousand dollars,” Limone says. “It’s an invisible disease.”
Statistics on problem gambling are hard to pin down, but Youth Gambling International, a McGill University research center in Montreal, estimates 4 to 6 percent of adolescents run into serious trouble. Many college gamblers start playing Texas Hold ’Em and betting on sports well before they leave home, though the students I talked with said they didn’t play as often, play as often online, or bet as much until they left for college.
In Westchester, Ellen Morehouse, executive director of Student Assistance Services Corporation, a Tarrytown-based agency focused on adolescent alcohol and substance abuse, surveyed gambling among the county’s teens after she heard a Yale researcher talk about the link between pre-adolescent gambling and substance abuse. The “quick and dirty” survey of 9th to 12th graders in 18 Westchester communities—from Yonkers to Chappaqua, Armonk to Irvington—found gambling pervasive. Of 820 students who responded, 54 percent said they’d gambled, including three-quarters of the boys, Morehouse says.
It’s small wonder. It’s been commonplace until the last few years for parents to throw parties and educators to sponsor school dances with casino themes, according to Morehouse. “I’ve seen an increase in parental perception,” she says. “And I think part of it is a growing awareness of the correlation between gambling and substance abuse.”
But ask college-age players if their game of choice presents problems, and they’ll shrug and say they know when to quit.
Passion or poison?
Taylor Beringer, a 20-year-old college sophomore from Purchase, started betting online at home at 17—but only after he talked it over with his mother. Since then, he says, he’s stuck with low-stakes tournaments, reserves poker for recreation time, and maintains a healthy respect for the game and his own limits. “It’s all about whether you can maintain being patient and having a limit,” he says. “You’ve got to set a limit.”
No-Man makes no effort to hide his betting or his winnings from his parents either. “We talk about it all the time,” says his father, Mitchell, a college journalism professor, who acknowledges that “you get a little nervous when anybody gambles so much.” But, he adds, “I guess I don’t worry that he’s going to get sucked into some financial whirlpool and end up in debt. He’s a pretty responsible guy. He explains what’s going on, and I, in my fatherly way, suggest that it might be nice to spend more time doing things that might be more directly related to a career.”
Even some high-stakes players, such as No-Man’s friend, Quinn Sivage, speak openly of their gambling and proudly of their success. Sivage, a 20-year-old Brown University student, went from watching ESPN poker as a high school senior to today often buying in to nine online games at $1,000 a pop and playing all nine simultaneously. On the day we talked, he’d already played 1,000(!) hands. He says he’s won tens of thousands of dollars. But he also says he’d quit tomorrow if his active poker bankroll of $30,000 dissipated overnight. “The big thing for me is the competitive aspect of it,” he says, insisting poker hasn’t lessened his interest in other aspects of school or life.
Yet some players can’t just turn online poker on and off like a light switch. One is Alex, a 19-year-old from an affluent Westchester community along the Hudson. He is taking a leave from The University of Michigan this year, in part to come to grips with a tendency to binge gamble.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to play again,” he says candidly. “It’s definitely something that I want to get under control because it’s damaging.” He says he’s seeing a therapist and attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
Alex started playing Texas Hold ’Em online “just for fun” the summer before his senior year in high school. By the following fall, with the freedom of college life and a modest spending account that went with it, he was playing for money, four or five hours a day. After he lost “about $1,000,” he told his parents in October and quit for a couple of months. But before the winter break, he started playing again, buying into games for $200 to $300. For awhile, he won. “As I started to build up more and more money, I’d buy in for more and more,” he says.
Finally this August, playing stakes of $500 a game, he lost $1,500 in a couple of days. “I was doing well,” he recalls. “But I just kept playing and playing. It was then I realized I have a problem.”
In some ways, Alex is lucky. He hasn’t gambled in two and a half months and he is dealing with his problem before life crashed around him.
Randy, as we’ll call him, got in much deeper. But then, the Scarsdale student had been betting heavily long before he attended another well-respected Midwest state university. His parents, he says, gave him everything. In the 9th grade, after betting on Play Station for “a lot of money,” he owed $3,000. When he was 16, his mother paid $6,800 to a bookie to cover his debts. He sold drugs. Bet on sports. Won three grand at a casino one night and lost it all by sunrise. “If there were no games to bet on, I’d go into poker.com and bet,” he says. By November of his freshman year, another $30,000 in debt, he hit bottom, joined Gamblers Anonymous and, so far, he says, has stayed away from gambling. But the temptation, he acknowledges, never goes away. “Thank God I got out of that Internet gambling,” he says. “Otherwise I’d be doomed. I’ve never seen anything so available.”
Maybe so. But society has yet to close down bars or liquor stores, though stories of alcoholism surface in the dark corners of uncounted families. And poker, as a game that draws some 65 million Americans to the table, has plenty of healthy and happy players.
Still, when I was in college decades ago, we played our games, mostly five- and seven-card stud, around tables covered with chips and beer and tossed in raises of 25 cents a card—not a few hundred dollars or more. If we were no angels, our games were less edgy, less intense, and less isolating than today’s version.
“It’s not the same old game we played,” Maney, of New York state’s gambling council, warns.
But no one back then harbored illusions of turning pro. Yet significant numbers of today’s college players—video-game-suckled, tech-savvy, impatient, and in their minds invincible—do harbor such dreams. Their game, Texas Hold ’Em, is faster and more daring. And online, with multiple hands in play simultaneously, the profits and losses, adrenalin and agony, get ratcheted up an order of magnitude or more.
For most of the summer, the bank has stayed on No-Man’s side. The night I show up he’s playing four games simultaneously at six-player tables. As he bets, he reviews past hands on a computer program to see how, when, and how much opponents bet. He scribbles online notes about opponents and chats with cyberspace buddies at different games.
Like others of his generation, No-Man considers himself a student of the game and takes pride in his skill. Still, in a landscape in which only the house wins every time, “raking” away a few percent of the total bet on each hand, luck always plays a part in who wins.
At 9:47 pm, 45 minutes into tonight’s play, No-Man has earned $35. He catches two terrific hands—only someone else’s are better. First he loses $160 with a pair of aces, then $190 with three 8s to a player who draws a gut-shot (inside) straight, a hand that by all rights that player shouldn’t have drawn for. Coupled with smaller losses at other tables, No-Man finds himself down $500 just 13 minutes later.
“Bad session,” he mutters. But he’s too savvy to tilt, to try to make it all back at once, a pattern that gets compulsive players into a cesspool of trouble fast. “No limit hold ‘em is really a matter of waiting for good hands,” he says. “You have to be disciplined.”
This will be a night of trying to break even, of pushing rocks uphill. By 10:33, No-Man has cut his losses by half. At 11:10, still down $300, he calls it quits. “I’ve played so much poker, I’m starting to get sick of it,” he says. “I’m starting to get bored.”
But that boredom passed. I caught up with No-Man again in late October. He said he was playing less but betting more—$400 buy-ins for each of the four to six games he plays simultaneously. His bankroll had increased to $16,000, chump change compared to his plans for the year ahead. Starting winter break, his goal is to match his friend Quinn Sivage and play $1,000 buy-in, no-limit games.
His mother (with a hint of something—is it pride, concern, a little of both?) tells me No-Man has told her he plans to win $250,000 at poker so he’ll never have to work.
His mother, he tells me, has it wrong.
“I made a bet with my mom that I could make $250,000 in the next year,” he acknowledges. “But I never said I wasn’t going to work.”
Figuring Out the Next Step
This much college administrators know: online poker is a growing campus problem.
Now they’re grappling with the next step.
“What are we going to do about it?” asks Jim Maney, executive director of the New York Council on Problem Gambling (NYCPG). He organized a symposium for college administrators in Albany Dec. 1 after an informal survey of health and student services staff on campuses in New York and elsewhere identified online poker as the No. 1 college gambling issue. Ninety-eight college administrators responded. Their comments suggest problems ranging from debt to social isolation and depression plague up to 10 percent of college gamblers.
Maney says he’s not pushing an agenda. But, he adds, “colleges can decide what to put on their websites. Should we allow these online gambling sites to be available to our students?”
Kids start playing younger today, he says, and technology makes it easier to bet. “The thirteen-year-olds are learning,” he says. “By the time they’re eighteen, they’re ready for the big leagues.”
Or think they are.
Maney organized the symposium before Congress tacked the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act onto a port security bill hours before adjourning. But he and others have their doubts the law will put a lasting crimp in online gambling operations.
“I assume the offshore casinos will figure a way out,” he says of the law, which gives the secretary of the treasury and Federal Reserve Board 270 days to regulate credit card companies from processing online gambling transactions. The law, meant to stop the flow of gamblers’ money to online sites, has led a few publicly held online casinos, including the largest, PartyPoker.com, to announce they’ll shut down their US operations.
Others have scoffed. Jay Bailey, director of development for the newly formed National Rights for Online Gambling, says bluntly that companies already are figuring out how to get around the law.
Compulsive gambling counselor Arnie Wexler, who operates a national hotline for those needing help (888-lastbet), compares the new law to “putting a Band-aid on a cancer.”
“I get emails every day from kids on these online poker sites,” he says. “A third of all my calls are coming in from young people ages eighteen to twenty-five and their parents. This is a hidden addiction. There are no track marks. No dilated pupils. No smell. You run an article about this in Westchester County and I’ll get twenty calls.”
A writing coach, blogger, and former newspaper editor, Jerry Lanson is an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College.