Ray Suarez: From American Public Media, this is Logging On and Losing Out: Dealing Addiction to America's Kids, an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Ray Suarez.
Voss: We are a people who want something new and exciting. Gambling and poker is the new thrill.
Dan Romer: When you actually are sitting there at the table and you look down and you have a powerful hand, your heart starts to beat. Your blood flow increases, your face gets red. It's an exciting game.
Suarez: From TV tournaments to the World Wide Web, the poker revolution has taken America by storm. But the nation's poker obsession comes with a price.
Ryan: I felt like a loser ... And the thought of just driving off the side of the road crossed my head, just to escape the world I was living in.
Suarez: In the coming hour, Logging On and Losing Out, from American RadioWorks. First, this news update.
Suarez: This is Logging On and Losing Out, an American RadioWorks documentary on teen gambling from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez.
ESPN Commentator: Welcome to the 35th Annual World Series of Poker at this time ... Shuffle up man, deal.
Suarez: The poker phenomenon is sweeping America, and the World Wide Web. Thanks to its glitzy presentation on TV, and the millions in prize money, it's the pastime of choice for high school and college kids.
Terry Elman: Internet poker among adolescents is probably the number one form of gambling today.
Suarez: Three quarters of American adolescents are gambling today. In high school cafeterias, on college campuses or at home with friends, kids across America are playing cards for real money. As the BBC's James Silver reports, the spread of poker on the Internet makes it easier than ever to play.
Matt Murray: As you can see I have a bunch of poker sites. I generally just pick one ... log on and then ... I'll go to this one today ... PartyPoker.com. That's my main one that I like playing on the most.
James Silver: Matt Murray is one of 20 million Americans gambling online today. He's only 18, but he's at the forefront of a poker revolution that's sweeping the country.
Murray: Right now, 54,000 people are playing on 7,400 tables, about. This is the biggest site with the most players, which is why I like to play on it because there are generally more bad people playing.
Silver: And with so many bad players, there's more chance for Matt to take home the winnings. In online poker, you play against other people, not the house. You enter a virtual table with ten players. Using your credit card, each person pays a set amount into a pot. In the case of Matt's game today, $200 a piece. In addition, there's a $15 fee which goes straight to the Internet poker company. You play until only one person has any chips left.
Murray: I'm playing no limit hold 'em. That's the game most people play. Sit and go. Ten people play. First place pays $1000, second is $600 and third is $400. The rest get nothing ... I'm in the top left right here. This is me. I just bought in and everyone got their chips and they dealt for position.
Silver: His dorm room at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, is small and crowded. Windows are blacked out and socks, bedding and poker chips are strewn all over the floor. Matt is sitting on an impressive ergonomic chair watching two state-of-the-art flat screen computer monitors.
Murray: I have two monitors so I can play eight tables at a time without overlapping. If I was to play like one table, the luck factor is a lot more than versus eight tables, you know. So the variance isn't as much.
Silver: Matt's a freshman studying business management here in Duluth. He may be new to the university, but judging by the number of people crowding into his room to watch him play, he's already become something of a star on campus.
Murray: I'm now currently 33rd in the world of online poker. During the summer, I was as high as like 25, but now it's school - I'm focusing a little bit more on school.
Silver: But he's clearly still on his game. In the space of half an hour watching him, Matt's already $200 up. And this isn't unusual for him. Indeed, he's been so successful that he's been able to fund his entire college education with his winnings.
Murray: I've won around $150,000 so far playing online. My biggest win was probably at the end of summer. I won $30,000 in a Sunday tournament which is when all the big ones are. It's amazing. I'm not stressed for cash like most college people. I'm paying for college myself. I don't really have any dependence on anyone, so it's pretty nice.
Silver: To win that kind of cash, Matt dedicates anywhere between two and 12 hours a day to online poker. Friends bring him food and crowd round to see him in action.
Friend A: I've watched him play and I've tried to learn the way he plays, but I've understood that he sees concepts that are deeper than I can understand. I've tried to understand and I really can't. I think he's just really got a gift or something which makes him just a great poker player, which has obviously led to his success.
Friend B: It's fun to come down here and just watch all the different tables up on the screen, and everyone down here watching him.
Friend C: I played a little before, but then once I got to know him, I wanted to play more because I found out how much money you could actually win. He always has all the nice cool stuff that we wish we could buy.
Murray: A lot of my friends will see it and they'll think they can instantly do the same thing, which is risky at times because they think this is like easy. But it's a lot harder than they think and they realize that later on, so.
Silver: So unfortunately for his friends, Matt Murray is a highly unusual case. Few gamblers defy the grim odds of the online poker rooms. Indeed, it's estimated that about 90 percent of players end up losing money. Yet they'll come back time and again, hoping to win big like the celebrity poker players on TV.
ESPN Commentator: For 34 years, only one event has defined poker greatness ... [cheering] ... and even now with poker's popularity reaching unprecedented heights, it remains the one event that guarantees poker immortality.
Observer A: The winner of this tournament is the world champion.
ESPN Clip: We did it man!
Observer B: This event is the one event you want to win. You're called a world champion the rest of your life.
Silver: The World Series of Poker has been around since the 1970s, but the game of poker itself has been part of American culture for nearly two centuries. Mississippi riverboat gamblers helped popularize the game in the early 1800s. Warren Harding, the 29th U.S. president, played poker at least twice a week, and once gambled away an entire set of White House china. A lot of Americans have grown up playing an occasional social game with buddies. But when ESPN started broadcasting the World Series a few years ago, they transformed poker's image.
ESPN Commentator: We are down to heads up play. The money has been brought to the table and these two men are ready to compete for the World Champion of Poker title, and $5 million.
Keri Potts: We've had poker on our air since 1994.
Silver: Keri Potts is a spokesperson for ESPN.
Potts: We decided in 2003 that our ratings through the years had been strong enough and encouraging enough, and our guys felt that this was about to go big, that we decided to take it in-house under the ESPN original entertainment banner. What does that mean? It means we treat it the same as we treat all our live sporting events which is a multitude of cameras, high level technology, just the support that you'd give any other show that we want to produce with the ESPN hallmark.
Silver: The hip, slick presentation appeals particularly to young, male teens and college kids. Combine this cool image with another new and powerful force, the Internet, and small wonder it's boom time for the gambling industry. Americans spent an estimated $6 billion on Internet gambling last year. The most popular site with players is PartyPoker, a company that was set up in 2001 by a quartet of two Indian computer engineers, an American former porn entrepreneur and her husband. Four years later, the company floated on the London Stock Exchange at a value of more than $9 billion. Richard Segal is the chief executive of PartyGaming, owners of PartyPoker, which is based offshore in Gibraltar.
Richard Segal: We have, on a daily basis, about $185 million being wagered across our system. But if you look at how much of our business, for example, comes out of the United States, it is about 80 percent, in terms of our turnover, comes from the United States of America.
Silver: Though most of the gamblers are American, Internet poker Web sites are all based offshore, where it's impossible for the U.S. government to regulate them. In the past few years, more than 300 Internet poker Web sites have sprung up around the world. They receive bets totaling more than $1 million every minute.
Student A: We're in a fraternity house, and it's a good place, not just for the guys who live in the house, but for other guys to come over, because we usually have kegs of beer sitting around.
Silver: It's poker night here at the Sigma Nu fraternity house at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. For generations of college kids, playing poker has always been part of the social scene. But students at this Ivy League school say these days, it's easier than ever to find a game.
Student B: I've been playing poker since, maybe, tenth grade of high school. It was really before the whole poker craze just blew up and hit every college and every place in the country.
Silver: Is that what it's like now? Tell us what it's like now, this craze?
Student B: Now I feel like just pretty much every guy is at least familiar with the game. And a significant portion play on a regular basis.
Student C: Basically, once I got to college, it is definitely a little bigger here and it's kind of just a way to meet people and play with friends.
Silver: There's a whole poker scene here, isn't there?
Student C: Yes, there definitely is. Lately it's been sweeping across campus. I don't remember it being that big when I was a freshman. I guess I heard of poker games going on, but I wasn't part of it. Lately its been a lot more popular I think.
Silver: And when there's not a game on campus, there's always one online. All these students say they spend time and money on Internet poker sites.
Student B: I was actually up $2,000 to 3,000. But the last few weeks have not been good.
Silver: The phrase "losing streak"?
Student B: Yes, that definitely would apply to me.
Student C: If anything, that kind of pushes you more. You try to get back all that money that you just lost. You just think that you'll get the good cards and maybe change your luck somehow. Somehow, losing propels you to play just as much as winning does.
Silver: Another student, Eian More, took home the winnings from that particular frat house game. Flush with a little extra cash, he took us for lunch the next day to the student cafeteria. Like all the other students we talked to, Eian says he quickly moved on from social poker nights to playing poker on the Internet.
Eian More: In college, I was living with some people in dorms and everyone was playing poker. We would have nightly poker nights and everyone would come and bring $10 to buy into the pot. But then it turned out 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 $1,700 that night. And so you wanted to be a part of that as well.
Silver: You got sucked into the competition, the rivalry.
More: 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 on this hand with your high cards, or you can tell how good a bluff you were by taking somebody. It was so fun, this competitive edge, 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.
Silver: Despite losing money, Eian found himself irresistibly drawn back to the cyber card table.
More: When I went to friends' houses, if we were idle, I would get on their computer and sign on and gamble while we were waiting to do something. Or I would 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 listening. 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.
Silver: Experts say the highs of gambling, like drugs, are addictive. 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 Centre at the University of Pennsylvania. It's carried out extensive research into youth gambling.
Dan Romer: Poker playing seems to have grown to the point now where 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.
Silver: The numbers are quite stark. There are approximately 2.9 million young people between the ages of 14 and 22 who are gambling cards on a weekly basis.
Romer: What can I say? That tells you that this is very large 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.
Silver: What are those symptoms?
Romer: Those are symptoms like thinking about gambling a lot, being unable to stop, spending more than you 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.
Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. Coming up, the human cost of America's gambling addiction.
Terry Elman: I lost everything that I had. I lost the house, three cars, children's college fund, and eventually I couldn't borrow any more and I became a criminal. Actually I'm a seven-time convicted felon and I've gone to prison.
Suarez: And ignoring the dangers of poker.
Jeff Derevensky: I think everyone was caught unaware of the tremendous popularity of poker. I think Texas hold 'em is more popular among kids than George Bush is in Texas.
Suarez: You're listening to Logging On and Losing Out from American RadioWorks. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Suarez: This is Logging On and Losing Out, an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez. 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 getting into trouble with gambling. Across America, the number of high school and college kids calling gambling help lines has doubled in the last three years. Many parents think gambling is a harmless pastime for their kids, but adolescents are twice as likely as adults to become addicted to gambling. And since Internet poker is so new, hardly anyone is warning young people about the dangers they face as they take their seats at the virtual card table. James Silver of the BBC continues his report into youth gambling in America.
Silver: It's 7:30 on a brisk December morning in Manhattan. Office workers are scuttling past sipping their lattes. Hotel porters shelter from the wind in doorways. And on the sidewalk outside a Midtown coffee shop, we're waiting to meet a 23-year-old recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania who now waits tables for a living. He's going to be wearing a blue baseball cap and a brown jacket and he answers to the name Ryan. It's all rather cloak-and-dagger, but Ryan wants to keep his identity secret. Inside, in a quiet corner, warmed by coffee, Ryan is ready to tell his story.
Ryan: The friends in my social sphere, we all played cards, but it was a social activity that was accepted by our parents as something - they're under the same roof, we can keep an eye on them. But at the same time, there's a certain level of innocence that isn't there. Because with me, that love of action was certainly bred by playing cards when I was in high school.
Silver: Ryan is typical of a new breed of young compulsive gamblers - middle class, bright, computer literate, and from a loving and supportive family. He was no bored, aimless kid without much of a future. For him, and thousands like him, gambling on cards, especially the game of Texas hold 'em, was just something he and his friends did when they hung out together. When Ryan moved from high school to college, his love of poker followed him.
Ryan: I didn't do much gambling for my freshman and sophomore years of college, but then I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania for my junior year and that's when I initially got into casino gambling online. I remember scouring the Internet for all the potential offers that they offered and I used up every single solitary one that I could find. I'd gamble the "free money" away. Eventually, I started using my work study check from college and betting with that. I'd be betting I could turn $50 into $300, but my next thought is, "Let me turn this $300 into $1000," and I lost that bet. I was like, "Okay, we'll get even. We'll bet another $500," and then I was down $1000. I'm like, "Okay, still no big deal. We'll bet the max you can bet on a single game, and that was $1000, and we'll be even." Instead of being even, I was down $2000 and I started scratching my head. "What are we going to do now?" Before I know it, I couldn't get up from the computer and there's a zero in the right-hand corner of my screen.
Silver: In his mind, Ryan was always just one big win away from clawing his way out of ever-deepening debt. According to the experts, a typical symptom of a gambling addict. For Ryan, losing took its toll.
Ryan: My room was an absolute pigsty. How I looked - I wasn't taking care of myself because I didn't feel like I was worth much. I felt like a loser, losing each and every day.
Silver: Had you been burning up until this point to share this, tell your family, your friends, to confess?
Ryan: At that point, I still thought it was manageable for me to get out of debt myself.
Silver: Ryan spent so much time gambling that he fell behind in school. His credit cards bills made bleak reading. He had no means of paying them off.
Ryan: It got to such a point where I did something that I thought I would never do, which would be to come clean to my parents. I called my father up and I let him know how much I was in debt. I said, "$18,000," at the time. He said, "$1,800? I make that in 2 weeks," or something like that. And if it wasn't hard enough saying it the first time, I had to say it again. It hit him like a ton of bricks because they didn't see it coming. He told me to come back home, bring all my credit cards back and he would give me money in my ATM account to get a train ticket home from Philly to Long Island. He said, "Give me your word you're not going to gamble," and I gave him my word and I meant it. I was a beaten soul. So I came back to Long Island. I'm like, "Okay, I'm going to get my act together. I'm going to do the right thing." So I go back to Long Island. I have my ATM card where I withdraw money to buy food. I withdraw that money and I go to a supermarket and I get online for the Western Union and I fill out the slip and I send $50 to Costa Rica to the online casino's headquarters and I pay the extra $17 to wire it there and I call them up and I say, "Do you have my money? Put it on my account," and I go on my computer and I continue to gamble. And in my sick head, it was, "How am I going to explain this money after I win it?" because I gave my father my word I wouldn't gamble.
Silver: Ryan, in fact, kept going to Western Unions at local supermarkets and wiring money to the offshore Internet companies so that he could keep gambling. But the more he gambled, the more he lost.
Ryan: I felt bad about the money, but it was the emotional toll that was really killing me, and I remember going back to Philly and the thought of driving off the side of the road crossed my head just to escape the world I was living in, and that's something I don't forget because it's some place I don't want to go back to. It was a wake-up call to know that gambling had brought me to a point where I'd consider taking my own life.
Silver: Ryan recognized he had to stop his gambling before it was too late. He decided to admit to his parents that he'd lied about quitting.
Ryan: My mom was sitting on the bed and she started to cry. My father asked me the question, "After a certain point, don't you have the common sense to stop?" I didn't have a response to that because I certainly didn't have the common sense to stop. I had been holding so much in for so long. I remember I cried that first night, but it felt so good to just get it out.
Silver: Ryan is, in many ways, one of the lucky ones. He realized he'd reached the point of no return with his gambling and sought help by calling Gamblers Anonymous. And his family stood by and supported him. Today, he's almost two years clean of gambling. Nevertheless, the success that many of his classmates from Penn University now enjoy, success that would have surely been his too, seems like a distant dream. Many of his classmates have gone on to more lucrative professions. But Ryan is still thousands of dollars in debt; debt which will take years to pay off. In the meantime, he's having to wait tables to meet his monthly payments.
Ryan: I'm very grateful that I'm sitting here today and I'm alive and breathing, but if I go out and place another bet, that's bringing me a step closer to getting into that car and driving it into that tree.
Silver: According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, college-age students, those between the ages of 18-24, are showing the highest rates of gambling addictions. And not all young addicts manage to get help. The national helpline, treatment and awareness center, 1-800-GAMBLER, estimates that only three percent of kids with a gambling addiction call them for help. Terry Elman is education coordinator for 1-800-GAMBLER.
Terry Elman: I was invited to go to one school the day before Christmas vacation, and I got there at seven o'clock in the morning, and they were wheeling a young man out in a body bag. He had hung himself the night before because he had lost on a bet. Basically, that's the bottom line for a compulsive gambler, even as a teen and the suicide rate among teens is high to begin with, and if you add compulsive gambling to it, people die. I know it's hard for people to believe, but people die from compulsive gambling.
Silver: Terry Elman knows what he's talking about first-hand. The memory of the terrible cost of his own addiction still chokes him. He's a recovering compulsive gambler who ruined his own life and the lives of his family.
Elman: I lost everything that I had. I lost the house, three cars, the children's college funds, and eventually I couldn't borrow anymore and I became a criminal. Actually I'm a seven-time convicted felon, and I've gone to prison.
Silver: Terry Elman is in a minority of five to six percent of adults who gamble who become what's called "pathological gamblers". That means they exhibit severe addictive behavior. But that figure increases dramatically among young adults under 24.
Elman: The numbers that we get say about 18 percent of the people who are under the age of 24 will probably develop pathological gambling. Some will grow out of it. Others will have caused themselves so much damage before then that there's no way to get out of it. So it becomes a problem and it's much greater among the adolescent population than it is among the general population.
Silver: Exactly why adolescents are, as Terry Elman suggests, more vulnerable than adults to developing a gambling addiction, is a matter of great debate. Jeff Derevensky is director of the International Center for Youth Gambling in Montreal, the world's leading research and treatment center. He says gambling is just another high-risk activity that kids are naturally drawn to during adolescence, like sex, drinking and driving too fast.
Jeff Derevensky: Young children often don't have the same reasoning capacity. They perceive themselves as invincible and as invulnerable. They tend not to have the responsibility that adults do so they don't have to provide for their families and as a result are much more likely to engage in this behavior.
Silver: We were struck by how popular poker, both live and online, is on university campuses. This has suddenly become incredibly fashionable. It's gone from zero to 60 in no time at all. Do you think the authorities and the educational authorities have been caught unawares, taken by surprise?
Derevensky: I think everyone is caught unaware of the tremendous popularity of poker, Texas hold 'em in particular. I think Texas hold 'em is more popular among kids than George Bush is in Texas.
Silver: Despite the risks associated with gambling, many parents actually encourage their kids to while away their leisure time playing cards. Ryan's Mom and Dad readily opened their doors to their son's schoolmates for poker nights, delighted that he was socializing in the apparent safety of their own home.
Ryan's Mother: Well, it was good to know they were here. We could see what they were doing. They were a couple of steps away. I mean, they're not in the basement. They're right in the dining room. I'm in the kitchen, and they're having a good time.
Ryan's Father: It was a false sense of security, knowing where all your kids are. They'd come around the dining room table; six, eight, ten kids on a Friday or Saturday night. They were in clear sight. They're not hiding in the basement or anything like that. They're not drinking. They're not smoking dope. It's point blank, they're in front of us.
Silver: The dangers gambling poses to adolescents are starkly evident in a new study by Mark Potenza. Potenza is an associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and one of America's leading researchers into the brain science of adolescent addictions. He wanted to see if there was a link between adolescent gambling and other mental-health problems. He compared the behavior of gamblers against non-gamblers in three different age groups - adolescents under 18, young adults between 18 and 29, and adults over 29.
Mark Potenza: What we found was that the adolescent gamblers were more likely to report problems with alcohol and drug use, and more likely to report depression. So it suggests that there is this association between beginning gambling before the age of 18 and a variety of mental-health factors.
Silver: In other words, kids who gamble are more likely to experience problems with drugs and alcohol and suffer from depression than those who don't gamble. Most schools have programs designed to raise awareness about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases. But what about gambling?
Silver: Here at the University of Pennsylvania, this tree-lined avenue is the busiest thoroughfare on campus. It's dotted with students handing out fliers for forthcoming events, shows and pamphlets about various health and personal safety issues. It's exactly the kind of place you'd expect to see posters or information about the dangers posed by gambling. But it doesn't happen, says graduate student Eian More.
More: Gambling? I've never seen a poster. I've never seen fliers regarding this. I have seen physical fliers about drinking, about mental illness. But as far as gambling purposes, we've never been exposed to any procedure on what you would do if you have a problem or who you would seek out.
Silver: In fact we've got a flier here that we've just picked up from CAPS, which is Counseling and Psychological Services here on campus. And as far as we can see, there is no mention at all of gambling addiction. All the things you talked about are here - "Feeling shy and self-conscious. I've been sexually abused." All these kind of things are here - "Misuse of alcohol and drugs." But there doesn't appear to be anything about gambling.
More: I've never seen someone address gambling in particular as an addiction or as a concern.
Silver: Despite poker sweeping through campuses like Penn, many universities seem oblivious to the gambling bonanza that's unfolding right under their noses, and the impact it could have on their students. At Penn, we were refused an interview with the department responsible for overseeing student life. At the University of Minnesota, Duluth, it was the same story. The student health services declined to give us a taped interview, but did tell us in private that they had no treatment programs or awareness campaigns for gambling. In fact, the only person who was prepared to offer any kind of explanation for why colleges appear to be turning a blind eye was Dan Romer from Penn University's Annenberg Adolescent Risk Communication Center.
Dan Romer: For the most part, universities are concerned about behaviors that will cause a problem not just to the individual and potentially to their work, but to others around them. So behaviors that may really only impact that individual and that person's family, they just don't see that problem as intensely, I think, is the reason. But if it keeps growing the way it is, they're going to see kids who are going to have trouble getting through school because they're losing all their money and the parents can't afford to send them anymore. I think its going to get to that point. And you want colleges to be aware of the fact that they probably have a certain percentage of students who are having this problem and they're just ignoring it.
Silver: It's break time at Fort Lee High School in New Jersey. Built in 1929, this beautiful Georgian-style school sits adjacent to the George Washington Bridge leading into New York City. There are over 60 different nationalities represented among the school's 1,000 pupils. And, as on college campuses, most of the students are playing cards totally unaware of the potential pitfalls from gambling.
Student A: I don't really think it's a problem. I think it's more just a social thing, people playing for fun.
Student B: People don't see gambling as being dangerous. Because like, what's the danger? You see the outcomes of alcohol or drugs or unsafe sex. And there is an outcome there that you see in and it's like "danger danger". But gambling, you know, is just having fun.
Silver: And have you been aware of campaigns by local government or even the school authorities to make you aware that gambling can be a problem even for minors?
Student A: I haven't heard anything like that.
Student B: Honestly I haven't heard anything.
Silver: In fact, there's very little known about the dangers of gambling within the education establishment. Whenever we talked to school or college officials, it was clear no one had brought up this problem before. They were hearing it from us for the first time. Jay Burnham is principal of Fort Lee High School.
Jay Burnham: I don't really think it's out there as a professional issue for administrators of high schools. I subscribe to numerous professional journals and I attend conferences. Not one of them has ever raised this as an issue.
Silver: Is there a particular reason that you have guidance for the kids about alcohol and drugs and safe sex and so on, but not for gambling?
Burnham: I think those issues have always been on the radar screen for high school administrators because they have been age-old problems we're addressing. But I think the gambling is a new kind of addiction that we're seeing here and is becoming a greater blip on the radar screen, so to speak, and I think it's something that we do need to take a look at and see the prevalence of it and investigate and see if we do need to put some programs in place at the high school.
Silver: It's a message that Ryan, the young gambler we met in New York City, would endorse.
Ryan: If I was more educated about the potential of what gambling could do. When I was in high school, I had people come and speak about what alcohol could do to you, but there was never anybody who came and said, "This is what gambling can do to you. This is the depths that gambling can bring you to." That might have helped me in terms of educating me about the perils of gambling.
Suarez: Coming up, beating the system. Just how easy is it for underage kids to log on and gamble?
Silver: We've registered ourselves as "UnderageGuy," pretending to be a 15 year old, and all we've had to do is just say, "Yes, we're over 18." That's all we've had to do.
Suarez: And who's to blame?
Potts: We do believe that our poker telecasts have raised the awareness of poker, but as its connection to gambling and influencing teenagers to gamble, I think that's a big leap. We won't make that leap.
Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to Logging On and Losing Out. To hear more interviews about Internet gambling, see photos and learn about the problems adolescents face from gambling, visit our Web site at AmericanRadioWorks.org. You'll also find information on ordering a CD of this program. That's all at AmericanRadioWorks.org. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Suarez: This is an American RadioWorks documentary, Logging On and Losing Out, from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez. Despite the dangers of gambling, most young people have no idea that they're at greater risk than older gamblers of becoming addicted. They see gambling as fun and glamorous. That's thanks, in no small part, to aggressive marketing from Internet poker sites. Online companies claim they're only targeting people over 18, but younger kids are caught up in the excitement. And kids say it's easy to slip past security measures and start to gamble. There's little incentive for companies to be more careful. There's no regulation in the United States, and there are millions to be made by hooking gamblers young. The BBC's James Silver concludes his report on adolescent gambling addiction.
Mac: OK. She calls. James checks. So now I'm dealing the flop...
Silver: The College of St. Scholastica sits on top of a hill in the northern Minnesota city of Duluth. It's a cluster of buildings dominated by the spectacular Tower Hall. But below ground in the basement rec room, half a dozen students sit around a cafeteria table, peering at their cards and stacking their chips.
Mac: ...Now we're dealing the turn card. There's just one more card, and it's a king of hearts.
Silver: It's a regular poker game organized by DuluthPoker.com, a Web site run by St. Scholastica's answer to Donald Trump. Namely, a poker entrepreneur and 20-year-old student who goes by the name of "Mac". Mac's funding his college education by running a Web site offering help and advice to wannabe poker stars. He's also in much demand by the major Internet gambling sites.
Mac: One of the online poker rooms that has actually contacted me to be their campus representative is AbsolutePoker.com. And what they did for me was offer me free money in some poker games. But the only constraint was that we had to play against each other online. And what they would do is they would put $50 or $75 or $100 in the pot, and they would have me and my friends get together and play for this pot, but there would be no entry fee to us. And they would award the money into our AbsolutePoker accounts. And I think AbsolutePoker does this so that players will get experience on their Web site so they can get a lot of the market share for college campuses. They specifically target college kids because they know it's a good market; it's a lucrative market. There's a lot of young players who have a lifetime to play poker.
Silver: The big online poker companies target students in different ways. Graduate student Eian More took us here to Locust Walk, the main intersection on campus at the University of Pennsylvania.
More: Right here on Locust Walk you have students who are hired by these poker companies to give out the flyers. 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."
Silver: There's no doubt that Internet gambling companies are aggressively marketing to college kids. But of course, there's another, arguably more powerful, promotional tool at work.
ESPN Commentator: The lights of Las Vegas illuminate the largest cash prize of any competition, more than the Masters, Wimbledon or Kentucky Derby ... Shuffle up and deal.
Silver: 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.
ESPN Commentator: Oh and one other thing, $2.5 million dollars.
Silver: 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.
Potts: We do believe that our poker telecasts have raised the awareness of poker as a game and as a discipline. 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.
Silver: But that's not a view shared by Ryan, the young gambling addict we met in New York City.
Ryan: I see it as an unfair portrayal of gambling. In my opinion, it's glorified. 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 in the tournament, or the eventual winner and the celebrities on TV; that's another glorification of poker.
Silver: 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." 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 claim they go out of their way to promote responsible gaming. Richard Segal is the chief executive of Gibraltar-based PartyGaming, owners of America's most popular poker site, PartyPoker.com.
Richard Segal: We have a lot of people playing on our site, and there will always be a minority of players who take things too far. 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 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.
Silver: Just to be clear, you can monitor the losses that someone may be accumulating, and if it looked like they were getting into trouble, you would be able to intervene and you would intervene?
Segal: 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.
Silver: On the face of it, PartyPoker's Big Brother policy sounds impressive. But Ryan, who played on a number of sites including PartyPoker, says no site ever warned him that his losses were mounting at the time he was playing.
Ryan: 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." They just continued to take my bets, and eventually take my money.
Silver: One of the most common ways for young players, those under the legal age for gambling, to get a taste for poker is by gambling on the plethora of free gambling-for-fun sites. Many of the biggest online companies run these sites side by side with their "for money" sites. Critics however say the fun sites act as a kind of gamblers' nursery school, teaching young novices the rules of the game, while often whetting the appetite by bombarding them with pop-ups urging them to play for hard cash. But Richard Segal of PartyGaming says they do everything they can to stop underage gamblers from logging on to the real money sites.
Segal: We are very, very clear that we do not want people unless they are of suitable age to play on our sites, and we take, as an organization, responsible gaming very, very seriously. When it comes to depositing money, as an individual, you need to give us information about yourself, about your age, and in terms of making payments, about the form of payment that you're going to make. I would like to believe that as a responsible operator, that we pick up the vast majority. You know it would be foolish of me to say it is 100 percent foolproof, but we try and be as good as we possible can.
Silver: So 99 percent, that kind of thing?
Segal: I would like to think that, if not more.
Silver: Ninety-nine percent certain. Well, that's pretty effective by any standards. We decided to see for ourselves what actually happens when you register at PartyPoker.com. Once again, we turned to Penn University student gambler, Eian More to help us out.
More: Here's where you can register. So you're a new player. You want to sign up and open an account?
Silver: Yup, let's go ahead.
More: So you just make up a name. "UnderageGuy." Password?
More: "Young." Confirm: "Young."
More: And now it's registering. "Congratulations."
Silver: And you're registered? And all we've had to do is just say, "Yes, we are over 18." That's all we've had to do.
More: Yes. Now, to start playing with real money, it gives me directions on how I can sign up my credit card.
Silver: Well, it can be anyone's card now, can't it? It doesn't have to be your card?
More: Yeah, I mean they're just asking for information to register with the cashier. And they ask you what card, your card number, all your information. I would find whatever card I am using. I would correct the address to make sure it matches the billing. I would continue. It would confirm in 10 to 20 seconds and put $50 at least into my account. It was simple like that.
Silver: And then you can just join a table and be playing?
More: We'll bring in $25 ... and they sit us in right here ... UnderageGuy, little bald guy, actually.
Silver: So at the table, we've got UnderageGuy and he's ready to play.
Silver: There certainly didn't appear to be too many visible security systems in place to us. As far as we could see, all you need is access to an adult's credit card details with the correct billing address, and to be prepared to enter a false date of birth, and you're good to go. That's not the case in some other countries. In the United Kingdom for example, those registering on PartyPoker's site today are also asked to supply a passport or driving license number. That data is then cross-referenced with the credit card details supplied. But here in America, home to over half of the world's online gamblers, the adolescents we spoke to described gaining access to several of the major poker sites as "easy." A 17-year-old we'll call "Paul" was one such teen gambler.
Paul: I started playing cards with my friends about two years ago. It was a lot of fun. And I eventually moved up to playing online. I played poker mostly, on a number of sites, including PartyPoker and Paradise Poker. I found that was a lot of fun, too. So I began betting money there. I had no difficulty whatsoever in playing for money online with cards. You know, I used friends' credit cards and other methods, and overall, I probably lost $5,000 or $6,000 this way.
Silver: Despite the fact that he was 16-years-old and losing thousands of dollars, Paul says that neither he, nor any of the owners of the credit cards he was using, were ever questioned about his age.
Paul: There was no real age verification and there was no proof of anything needed. Basically, anyone at all can play poker online. I would just play for hours at a time online, and I was betting too much and I really was not in control of my gambling and it became a problem, and I'm now in Gamblers Anonymous here in New Jersey.
Silver: 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 the law, and its interpretation, are complex, says David Schwartz, director at the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
David Schwartz: The Wire Act was passed in 1961 and it was done at the behest of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who wanted to use it to crack down on organized crime. According to the letter of the law, anyone who was involved in placing or helping the placing of a bet or information about betting is guilty of a crime and can be sent to prison and fined for that. The Wire Act was never intended to be used to prosecute individual betters, only people who profited from large-scale gambling operations.
Silver: 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 themselves 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 this is not surprising.
Schwartz: 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. Many Americans have said that what they do on the Internet is their own business, and they don't think it's the government's business. There are a lot of people that are concerned about their privacy rights, especially in the current political climate and with the "war on terror," and they really resent any kind of government intrusion into what they see as their privacy. And in order to police the Internet and to prevent people from betting online, you would literally have to have somebody monitoring every computer in the United States, making sure that people aren't going to sites they shouldn't go to. And Americans are just not willing to do that at this time.
Suarez: 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, mean 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.
Logging On and Losing Out was produced by the BBC's Mark Alden. It was edited by Catherine Winter. Senior Producer Sasha Aslanian. Associate Producer Ellen Guettler. Project Director Misha Quill. Mixing by Scott Liebers. Web production by Ochen Kaylan. Research assistance from Melody Ng and Public Insight Journalism. The executive editor of American RadioWorks is Stephen Smith. The executive producer is Bill Buzenberg. I'm Ray Suarez.
To see photographs from Logging On and Losing Out, and learn more about adolescent gambling, visit our Web site at AmericanRadioWorks.org. There, you can download the program, sign up for our email newsletter and find out how to order a CD of this program. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. American RadioWorks is the documentary unit of American Public Media. This program was produced in collaboration with the BBC.
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