Ante Up

Adam, an 18-year-old college student, got hooked on playing poker after watching it televised on ESPN. He began playing with friends for $10 buy-ins. Then he got his fix online, winning as much as $12,000 and losing as much as $7,000 in one session.

Adam requested that his last name be withheld because some of his family members do not know that he played the game or that his addiction forced him to join Gamblers Anonymous.

"I realized I had a problem," he said, "when I'd be playing 10 hours a day, not getting any work done and doing all my homework two minutes before class, and pretty much sleeping through class and thinking about how much money I won or how my life was over because I lost thousands of dollars the night before."

Poker is getting huge ratings on television networks like ESPN (which, like ABC, is owned by the Walt Disney Co.), Bravo, Travel Channel and Fox Sports, and it's accessible at all hours via the Internet to anyone who claims to be 18 and has a credit card. At-home tables and chips are for sale in family-friendly retail stores and catalogs. And many parents enjoy playing poker themselves.

But those who treat gambling addiction are concerned that what starts as innocent fun could lead to serious problems for some of the young people caught up in the latest craze.

Arnie Wexler, for one, is alarmed. A certified compulsive gambling counselor and former head of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, he said interest in poker has exploded among teens and younger kids.

"[This is] the biggest phenomenon I've seen," said Wexler, who recently addressed young people at a conference in Las Vegas. "Eighty percent of the kids [who gambled in] the last couple years were betting on sports. Eighty percent of them now are betting on poker, which blew my mind."

Through his business treating gambling and other addictions, Wexler regularly hears from parents whose middle-schoolers fight to watch poker on TV. One father told him that teens at an Illinois summer camp skipped playing baseball and swimming and whiled the hours away playing Texas Hold 'Em. The fun ended when two kids were caught stealing from other campers. The culprits said they needed money for poker.

How Big Is the Problem?

While the evidence of poker's prevalence among teens is mostly anecdotal, there are indications gambling is a popular pastime for many young people. According to the Annenberg National Risk Survey of Youth from October 2003, more than half of young people aged 14 to 22 said they gambled in an average month, and nearly one in six said they gambled in an average week, with "private" forms of gambling — card games, sports betting and bingo — their main activities.

The study found that more 14-to-17-year-old males have tried gambling than cigarettes or alcohol. In addition, about 8 percent of those surveyed gambled weekly and reported one or more problems associated with gambling, like spending more than they would like to and being preoccupied with their habit.

"Typically, poker's done because they have friends that do it," said Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Risk Communication Institute at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. "Now that poker's being done on TV and everybody's doing it, kids are more likely to do it, and greater the chances are that kids are going to be attracted to it."

While that does not necessarily translate to an increase in addiction, Romer said, it could form some early habits. "Part of it's a little bit of a fad — it gets hot for a while and then the kids move on to something else," he said. "What's a problem is if the kids are prone to getting hooked on gambling, this is a way to get them into it." Parents Face Choices

For parents, this means a delicate balance between allowing their kids to have fun and preventing a compulsive gambling problem from developing. Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston, a primary care pediatrician who is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, has handled the issue both as a parent of a 15-year-old who loves poker and as a physician.

When her son first became involved in the game, she said, she recalled earlier hobbies, like collecting Pogs and Magic cards, that he quickly outgrew. "As a mother, I was afraid of this one as opposed to some of these others," she said. "I was afraid that this might turn into something more chronic."

She and her husband became worried last year when the cafeteria at her son's suburban Philadelphia high school became a virtual casino. Texas Hold 'Em was the game of choice, and though no money exchanged hands, debts were recorded for later collection. Stakes were high — some kids even bet their laptop computers — before the school stepped in and banned the games.

Her son played in tournaments with friends for small amounts of money — about what they'd spend to see a movie — over the summer. And though she'd prefer he do more constructive activities, she said, "relative to a lot of other things they could get involved in, it's one of those things that they can experiment with without it really causing any harm in my mind."

Similarly, New Jersey resident Michael Keats says he has an 11-year-old son who plays poker with friends during lunch at school. The games there are not for money, but those at home often are, he said, and this has him concerned, especially because they watch the high-stakes games on television. "The boys are young and haven't learned the nuances of betting, but still they play for money," Keats said, adding, "How can I teach him to earn his allowance of $10 per week when he sees people betting tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars?"

At the same time, Keats said, he plays in a monthly low-stakes poker game, so he feels he can't stop his son from doing the same. "I can't exactly tell my son that he can't play poker because I do," he said. "He sees poker on TV, knows that I enjoy the game, and he thinks if it's good for Daddy that it must be good for him."

Some parents feel that, although gambling can become a problem, they know where their kids are while they're playing and it is safer than if they were drinking, using drugs or otherwise getting into trouble.

Lee Ann Ciarlo of St. John, Ind., said her sons, 19 and 11, both play Texas Hold 'Em and have tables chips, decks, tapes and books about poker. "They have tournaments that last day and night," Ciarlo said. "My husband and I keep a limit on the money and watch grades and activity to make sure that problems won't develop — but it's better than drugs and alcohol."

Winston said the key to kids playing poker safely, as with most teen activities, is for parents to be aware of what they're doing and offer their guidance.

"You have to monitor it and have to stay involved in your son's or daughter's lives," she said. "I think that's a fine line for parents. I don't have a crystal ball. I think my son's a really good guy. He doesn't cheat, he holds down a part-time job and has good grades, and he volunteers and is good to his friends and good to his family. … All I know is along the way my husband and I are there to monitor him and to gently guide him into making the right decisions."