Poker's Popularity Means More Teen Gambling Addicts

Whether it's Texas Hold'em, 7-Card Stud or Let it Ride, poker has been experiencing a major revival in recent years, and also reaching a younger audience that sometimes doesn't know when to walk away.

"Gambling brought me to a place where I never want to be again," said one teen recovering from a gambling addiction, who asked not to be identified. "It actually brought me to a place where I was actually considering ending my life as opposed to the reality I'd created for myself."

A recent study found that more than 50 percent of kids who gamble reported problems like over-spending. And unlike substance abuse, a gambling addiction can be tough to identify -- you can't see it, or smell it.

Playing for Money

In Long Island, N.Y., a group of teens sat around around a green felt table in the finished basement of a suburban home one recent evening, as clay chips and crisp $20 bills changed hands.

"When you play for money, there is something to win and something to lose," said Matt Bornstein. "When you don't play for money there is no point."

A recent nationwide study estimates 2.9 million young people are gambling on cards on a weekly basis. These teens say they often play more than that.

The teens say they can win as much as $150 to $200 a night, but despite the risks, they're not too concerned about getting hooked.

"You can get hooked on it," said Corey Klar, "but when you do lose a lot of money, you are usually broke at the time and then you can't play."

Some Parents Say OK

So what do parents of teens think about their children's afterschool activities?

"I find it somewhat comforting to know that any given time, if I have eight, nine, 10, 12 kids here," said Mitch Bleistern, "that they're all under one roof ... playing one game."

These parents argue it is a positive activity that keeps them off the streets and out of trouble.

"That's part of what makes it the activity that they want to do," Jeff Granat said. "Right now gambling is riding the crest of popularity."

Granat also said that with poker shows all over television and a wide variety of poker-based video games, it's hard to argue against the game's appeal.

Know When to Fold 'Em

But addiction specialist Sandy Klepner is worried about the growing number of teens she sees turning to gambling for fun.

"If you have 10 kids playing, two of them are going to have problems," she said. "So that's pretty high."

It's a lesson one father -- who wanted to remain anonymous -- learned too late.

He had no idea until months later that his teenage son had moved on from games in his Long Island neighborhood and was instead sneaking into Manhattan -- gambling at various underground poker rooms.

"We thought he was at the movies with his friend," the father said.

His concern for his son, he says, was not just for fear his gambling would spiral out of control, but for his physical safety, considering his son was playing with people who were drinking and could possibly be carrying weapons. A disagreement about money, he feared, could quickly turn violent.

The family is now in treatment through Gambler's Anonymous, the same organization that offered help to Ryan, another young gambling addict.

Losing, Then Betting More

Ryan says he had enjoyed neighborhood games of blackjack and poker, but only developed a problem when he spent a semester abroad in Monterrey, Mexico.

"I thought I could bet on sports with my sports knowledge and win the money, but I found out that wasn't the case," he said.

At first, Ryan says he just wanted to make up for money he had made in past summers as a camp counselor. But after using a credit card to place his first wager of $500 and losing, Ryan didn't stop betting -- he did more of it.

"My recourse was to bet again -- $500 and get even," Ryan said. "So I bet $1,000 on a game and then I'm down $2,000. The I was starting to get worried."

Before he knew it, Ryan says he was $20,000 in debt. But it wasn't the depth of the hole he'd dug that scared him, it was his reaction to it.

"I can't pinpoint it exactly, but I had a strong sense that I was out of control," he said. "My reason to get out of the hole was to bet more -- it wasn't to stop and find help."

Ryan finally came clean, graduated from an Ivy League college and now helps counsel other young gambling addicts.

He says the key to overcoming a gambling addiction is honesty -- with yourself.

"Not just with other people, but with yourself," he said, "and to know that to ask for help is not a problem ... it's not a weakness. To ask for help is a tremendous strength."

Sarah Wallace, of ABC News affiliate WABC, contributed to this report.