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Growing Up on a Steady Diet of Poker

It's pretty much impossible to know accurately how many underage gamblers there are out there, mainly because they're logging on with false identities. But the national helpline, 1-800-Gambler, told us that the number of adolescents calling them for help has doubled over the last three years.

The evidence suggests that youth gambling addiction is becoming a real social problem in America. Technically, Internet gambling, like any other form of telephone betting, is, in fact, illegal under the 1961 Wire Act. But David Schwartz, director at the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says the law, and its interpretation, are complex.

"The Wire Act was passed in 1961 and it was done at the behest of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy who wanted to crack down on organized crime," Schwarz says. "According to the letter of the law, anyone who was involved in placing or helping the placing of bets is guilty of a crime, can be sent to prison and fined for that."

But Schwartz says the spirit of the 1961 law is a different matter.

"Robert Kennedy gave it deliberately broad scope so bookmakers couldn't say, 'We're not really running a business, just accepting bets from friends.' But the Wire Act was never intended to be used to prosecute individual bettors, just people who were profiting off of large-scale gambling operations."

Successive administrations have made it clear they won't prosecute any individuals placing bets over the Internet. Hence some 20 million Americans freely gamble online. But the Internet companies are banned from operating on American soil. Nevertheless, to date, there's been little public debate or apparent concern about the proliferation of gambling sites available to American citizens. David Schwartz says there are many cultural reasons for this.

"The United States has traditionally given its citizens, and its citizens have demanded, a great amount of privacy and a great amount of freedom and choice and consumer choice about how they spend their money," Schwartz says. "Many Americans feel what they do on the Internet is their own business. And in order to police the Internet and to prevent people from betting online, you'd have to have someone monitoring every computer in the United States, making sure people aren't going to sites they aren't supposed to. There's been a great outcry against phone-tapping domestically with the 'war on terror' and I can't imagine people would accept government watching their Internet use of gambling which most people think is a harmless diversion."

David Schwartz also says gambling has a unique place in American history and culture, which explains why Internet poker has been allowed to flourish here, unchecked.

"Gambling has always been a part of U.S. culture," says Schwartz. "Gambling's part of our history. Early colonies were financed in part by lotteries. Presidents have gambled. Gambling is a huge part of U.S. life. Poker is a U.S.-exported game. Recently, with television coverage of the World Series of Poker, it's become mainstream. It's become an inextricable part of American culture."

Today, a generation of Americans is growing up on a steady diet of poker. The cards are being dealt 24/7 at home, in school, on television and online. At any given moment, thousands of adolescents are logged in and losing money. The lack of political will to regulate gambling, and the lack of awareness about its hidden dangers, means that America faces a vast, uncontrolled social experiment. Many young poker players will carry a pathological need to gamble into adulthood. So we won't know the full social cost of the Internet poker craze until this generation grows up and has real responsibilities - homes, jobs, children - and much more to lose.

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