I Fold. Mom Says I Gotta Come Home
WASHINGTON, D.C. --As history teacher Chris Lorrain enters the gymnasium here at the Field School, he yells: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Las Vegas!" Soon the 40-minute poker study hall gets down to business: Texas Hold 'em. Seventh grader Sam Barton hopes for a royal straight just like the one that won him a big pot of chips--they don't play for money--a few weeks ago. "It is a thrilling feeling to get a good hand and see everybody else's face of dismay," says Barton, whose father thinks poker has been beneficial for his son. Texas Hold 'em "is an intense concentrated study in logic, probability, and behavior," says Samuel Barton.
Poker fever is sweeping the country. But nowhere has poker fascination taken hold with more force and more controversy than among the young. Why the craze among youth? For one, the current hot game, Texas Hold 'em, is easy to learn. And dozens of poker broadcasts show wet-behind-the-ears players winning millions of dollars. Also, the Internet has made poker far more accessible, and its fast pace is well suited to the video game generation. Parents are also encouraging the poker habit, often because it seems like a good way to keep their kids away from other activities that might involve alcohol or drugs. Wendy Moyle, co-owner of Stumps, one of the nation's largest party supply companies, says nearly half of the "casino party" kits she sells are for kids.
At risk. That's all well and good. But when youngsters play for money, it's a different story, and not just because it is illegal. A recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that the share of high school boys who play cards for money weekly has nearly doubled in the past year to 11 percent. Fully 26 percent say they have bet money in the past month.
That's worrisome, because children are less sophisticated and more impressionable. A 2003 Yale University study found that youngsters who gamble are two to four times more likely to become obsessed with betting than adults. Those most at risk are lucky beginners, says Rachel Volberg, one of the nation's leading gambling researchers. A big win "blows out their sense that this is just a game, and they start to think gambling is a reasonable way to make money."
Counselors say they are starting to see addicted teenage poker players. Jeffrey Derevensky, an adolescent gambling expert at Montreal's McGill University, says some kids have stolen their parents' ATM cards and used them to play online poker. He worries about the future implications. "We are teaching our kids two diametrically opposed messages. One says go to school and work hard," while the hope of every gambler is to luck into a jackpot.
This story appears in the May 23, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.