"What's the Danger?"

Locust Walk, the main intersection on campus at the University of Pennsylvania
Photo by Mark Alden

The big online poker companies target students in different ways. Graduate student Eian More took us to Locust Walk, the main intersection on campus at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Right here on Locust Walk, you have students who are hired by these poker companies to give out the flyers," says Eian. "You'll get a flyer for Partypoker.com with a coupon that will match your deposit. And so the poker companies are coming to the students and saying, 'Can you interest your friends in playing on our site? We'll pay you a small hourly wage to sit on your Locust Walk and give out these flyers and coupons for our site.'"

There's no doubt that Internet gambling companies are aggressively marketing to college kids. But of course there's another, arguably far more powerful, promotional tool at work - television. It was the cable TV network ESPN's decision, three years ago, to transmit and heavily promote the World Series of Poker that really sparked America's great love affair with poker.

Other networks quickly followed ESPN's lead and today you can find poker on TV just about every day of the week. The core target audience for the poker shows are young, action-fixated males.

However, Kerri Potts from ESPN rejects links between their coverage and the seemingly unstoppable rise in the numbers of young gamblers.

"We do believe that our poker telecasts have raised the awareness of poker as a game and as a discipline," says Potts. "We promote poker as it pertains to our core viewer, our male viewer, and we trust them to a certain extent to decide what's right for them, what's right for their families. But as its connection to gambling and influencing teenagers to gamble, I think that's a big leap. I know we won't make that leap."

But that's not a view shared by recovering gambling addict Ryan.

"In my opinion, it's glorified," says Ryan. "You see the guys at the winning table, but they don't show you the guys who put $10,000 up to get into the tournament and they lost in the first half an hour there. They don't do a feature on those people, but they do a feature on the first woman to get this far or the eventual winner and the celebrities on TV; that's another glorification on poker."

This glorification encouraged Ryan, and countless others like him, into gambling. Seeing regular, everyday guys like Chris Moneymaker win millions of dollars at the World Series cemented the poker dream inside thousands of young minds.

"If he can do it, so can I," thought Ryan.

But as the numbers playing out their dream rise sharply, so too does the scale of young people developing gambling problems. That's why the big Internet companies, like Party Poker, claim they go out of their way to promote responsible gaming.

"We have a lot of people playing on our site and there will always be a minority of players who take things too far," says Richard Segal, the chief executive of the Gibraltar-based Party Gaming, owners of Partypoker.com.

"We have internal controls which are automated which enable us to identify people who may be having problems and from that point of view, we give people the ability to do things like self-exclusion where they can stop themselves from playing for a small period of time or a long period of time and if, for example, a player does restrict themselves playing for say a six-month period, even if they say they want to come back and join, we do not allow them."

Richard Segal says that if someone looks like they are accumulating big losses and could be experiencing problems with gambling, they would intervene.

"We would intervene and we would communicate to them and make sure that they were aware of the time or the sort of money that they were spending on the site," says Segal.

On the face of it, Party Poker's Big Brother policy sounds impressive. But Ryan, who played on a number of sites including Party Poker, says no site ever warned him that his losses were mounting at the time he was playing.

"In my experience, there never was a blinking screen saying, 'You sure you want to bet that much? You might want to watch it there,'" says Ryan. "They just continued to take my bets, and eventually take my money."

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