Poker Face

Gone are the iconic old greasy poker players – green visors, cigars and all. Now, poker is glamorous. Heck – it’s televised, and even celebrities like Ben Affleck, Tony Hawk and Angela Bassett aren’t ashamed to say they play it. Poker is hot, and teenagers are flocking to it with open arms.

ESPN started televising the World Series of Poker a little over a year ago, and since then, poker popularity’s taken off like gangbusters. The Travel Channel, Bravo and Fox SportsNet have also taken to televising poker tournaments.

The young players on the televised tournaments are one reason the sport’s really taking off with teens and young people. Whether it’s “The Crew,” a group of 20-somethings headed up by phenom Dutch Boyd, who earned a law degree at age 18, or Phil Ivey, a 27-year-old who’s been playing poker professionally for 10 years, there are plenty of young success stories to latch on to.

Emily Biondo, a senior in high school from Maryland, says that while she started playing poker with her family when she was in sixth grade, she didn’t come out of the “poker closet” until last year, when poker became mainstream in her school. She estimates that about 90 percent of her school knows how to play poker, just from watching the shows. And, she said, about 60 percent play regularly,

Studies in the United States and Canada have indicated that about 80 percent of teenagers have reported gambling in the past year. While sports gambling used to be the most popular way to take a risk, in the past year, all that attention has switched to poker.

While many teens might not bet any money and play just to have something to do in the suburbs with their friends on a Friday night, others lay down around $20 a game. One teen told WireTap that their friend cashed their entire paycheck each week, around $200, and used it to play poker until the next check came in. The phenomenon has even sparked an urban legend in the Philadelphia area about a freshman who was so indebted to upperclassmen because of poker that he sold his laptop.

While most players are just into the game for some fun with their friends or family, some parents are having a hard time teaching their kids the value of money when millions of dollars might be won or lost on an average televised event. One parent asked ABC News, “How can I teach [my son] to earn his allowance of $10 per week when he sees people betting tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars?”

The idea that poker, or gambling in general, is a "get rich quick" game might truly be a myth, according to Jackie Lapin, media relations coordinator for the World Poker Tour. “One lesson to be learned in poker is hard work,” she said. “The guys at the top of this game work very hard. They read all the books and study the opposition. They are always, always learning. The people that we deal with are people who have done well, and it’s because they’re very serious students. It’s like anything else. If you work hard and practice long enough, you will get better.”

With so many young people spending time on the Internet in their free time, it makes sense that online poker is especially popular. Many sites offer players free credits to play against people all over the world. The last two World Series of Poker winners have qualified online. In fact, most big poker events like the World Series have seen dramatic increase in numbers of players who have qualified online, sometimes for no money at all. Because some players buy their way into the big events for fees of up to $10,000, this is an appealing option, especially for new players.

Vikrant Bhargava, general manager of partypoker.com, one of the Internet’s most popular and well advertised poker sites, says that online poker has grown almost 15 times bigger in the past 18 months. At any given time, partypoker.com hosts about 65,000 players simultaneously. “The market has just exploded with people becoming less shy about playing poker with others outside of their close friends circle,” Bhargava says.

Ideally, youth and teens getting into poker only play for fun, or they understand the value of hard work and skill in the game. Some parents see poker as something better for their kids to get into than drugs or alcohol. The World Poker Tour hopes that its younger fans will play the games with their families as a bonding activity and will be launching a family-oriented page on their Web site (www.worldpokertour.com) within a month.

At the same time, though, poker is gambling, and with gambling comes the lurking sense of possible addiction or compulsion problems. Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), says that he believes that while the number of teens legitimately gambling might not go up, the fact that people are gambling earlier and more intensely might increase severity of gambling problems, getting teens into more trouble, quicker.

One reason poker is so appealing is the “get rich quick” idea. While the chance of making millions of dollars from surprise poker skills is there, it’s not really possible for most people. That doesn’t mean, though, that millions of people don’t play poker or the lottery with the idea in their heads. “Alcoholics don’t believe the next drink is going to make them rich and famous, but gamblers do,” says Whyte.

Compulsive or “problem gambling” is defined by the NCPG as, “all gambling behavior patterns that compromise, disrupt or damage personal, family or vocational pursuits. The essential features are increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, "chasing" losses, and loss of control manifested by continuation of the gambling behavior in spite of mounting, serious, negative consequences.” Whyte says that gambling becomes compulsive because of sheer human nature. “We tend to remember our wins and forget about our losses,” says Whyte. “Gambling encourages persistence, to keep playing to win back the money you’ve lost.”

Oftentimes, a compulsive or problem gambler doesn’t recognize their problem until they’re deep in debt. That’s another thing that makes gambling different than other addictions like drugs or alcohol – there are no outward signs. Someone can hide that they’re gambling on credit, but it’s often hard to hide a substance abuse problem. “We don’t have any natural defenses for gambling addiction,” says Whyte. “If you drink too much, you pass out. If you take too many drugs you OD, but there is not enough money in the world to satisfy a problem gambler.”

It is possible to gamble safely, though. The NCPG recommends knowing the warning signs of problem gambling. “If gambling becomes the only thing in your life,” says Whyte, “if you need to bet increasing amounts to achieve the same excitement, and if you lose control, you’ve got a problem.” To make sure your poker game doesn’t get out of control, set a limit and stick to it. Don’t gamble when you’re drunk, high or stressed, and don’t gamble alone.

If you’re gambling online, as many youth do, it might be harder to keep track of your money or debts. It’s also easier to fall into the trap of gambling on credit, which is a problem that can escalate quickly. Some poker sites have checks in place, though, to make sure someone’s gambling doesn’t get out of hand. Partypoker.com, for example, takes special care to ensure that their site stays out of bounds for minors. They check with verification companies to cross check the information cited on the online registration forms, including the date of birth. They require people to sign, electronically, that they are over 18, though that’s not infallible. “We make it clear,” says Bhargava, “that winnings will not be paid out without verification, to discourage minors from trying to bet and win.”

Partypoker.com also has strict deposit limits for players, keeping people on budgets. Bhargava says, “the lifetime limit is less than what many people lose in a land-based casino in one session.” If a player loses a lot of money without having “high roller” status as a well-versed player on the site, they can have their account blocked.

Whether poker is just a passing fad, or a trend here to stay, it’s best to take the advice of actor/singer Kenny Rogers -“you’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

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