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The Poker Party

The entrance to the Sugma Nu fraternity house
at the Universita of Pennsylvania.
photo by Mark Alden

For generations of students, playing poker has always been part of the social scene. Poker nights are regular events in college dorms and at fraternity houses, like the Sigma Nu frat house at the University of Pennsylvania.

"I've been playing poker since maybe tenth grade of high school," says Sigma Nu member Nekesh. "It was really before the whole poker craze just blew up and hit like every college and every place in the country. Now I feel like just about every guy, every male, is at least familiar with the game. It's definitely a pretty popular game."

Fellow student Brendan has also noticed the recent explosion of Internet poker. "Lately it's been sweeping across campus. I don't remember it being that big when I was a freshman but lately it's been a lot more popular I think."

Graduate student Eian More took home the winnings from a recent Sigma Nu poker night. Like all the other students we talked to, Eian says he quickly moved on from social poker nights to playing poker on the Internet.

"In college, I was living with people in dorms and everyone was playing poker," says Eian. "We would have nightly poker nights and everyone would come and bring $10 to buy into the pot. But then these people started to play online and it was exciting because they were winning really big. Some of them would post on their door how much money they won. ... They spent $25 on a tournament and brought home $1700 that night. And so you wanted to be a part of that as well."

Eian More, University of Pennsylvania student found himself addicted to Internet poker.
photo by Mark Alden

For Eian, it was the rivalry that sucked him in.

"You thought, 'I can do this too.' And you'd tell stories of how you'd take $25 down from this table or you took this guy down from the table with your high cards, or you can tell how good a bluff you were by taking somebody. It was so fun because you were winning and if you lost you felt bad and you'd want to try again so you'd put more money in. You started seeing your bank account going less and less."

Despite losing money, Eian found himself irresistibly drawn back to the cyber card table.

"When I went to friends' houses, if we were idle, I'd get on their computer and sign on and gamble while we were waiting to do something. Or I'd go to my girlfriend's house and she would be like, 'Let's watch a movie,' and I'd say, 'Okay, you put on the movie and I'm going to play cards.' She'd be like, 'How can you watch and play at the same time?' And I'd say, 'Oh I'm watching, I'm listening," but I would download the program on her computer and that's how I was spending my time with my girlfriend; playing cards and gambling while we were supposed to be hanging out. And I think that's a pretty addictive personality when you go out of your way to find means to do this."

University of Pennsylvania senior Brendan's experience is much the same. He says losing money does not translate into losing interest.

"If anything, that kind of pushes you more. You try to get back all that money that you've lost. You just think that you'll get the good cards and change your luck somehow. And somehow losing propels you to play just as much as winning does."

Experts say the highs of gambling are addictive, like drugs. And with so many young people now playing poker, there's a real danger that large numbers of them will find themselves unable to stop.

Dan Romer runs the Annenberg Adolescent Risk Communication Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. It has carried out extensive research into youth gambling.

"Poker playing seems to have grown to the point where now you've got about 20 percent of young males, who are either in high school or in college, playing poker with their friends on a weekly basis," says Romer.

The numbers are stark. In his latest survey of playing habits, Dan Romer found that there are approximately 2.9 million young people between the ages of 14 and 22 who are gambling with cards on a weekly basis.

"This tells you that this is very large," says Romer. "And when we ask them about the problems they are having, about half of them are reporting that they're experiencing some problems, some of the symptoms of what we'd call 'problem gambling.' Symptoms like thinking about gambling a lot, being unable to stop, spending more than you'd want, and having trouble quitting if one is trying to do that. And this is just the beginning of it for them. And if they keep gambling, and they continue to experience these problems, then they're going to merge into that area of gambling addiction."

Gambling has always been part of the social scene for American kids. But with the explosion in popularity of poker, live and on the Internet, more young people are now getting into serious trouble with gambling.

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