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."