Mention "poker night" and what comes to mind? Aging men sitting around a card table smoking cigars and drinking beer? These days you're as likely to find kids dealing stud while eating pizza and downing soft drinks.
Poker, particularly a variant called Texas Hold 'Em, has become a pastime as popular with some teens as video games. Poker parties are now common among high school and college students. During its 2004 pre-semester orientation, UCLA even offered a poker night for its incoming freshman class.
In 2002, the National Annenberg Risk Survey of Youth began tracking gambling among young people ages 14 to 22. Based on its 2006 survey, the organization reported that more than one million young people use Internet gambling Web sites every month. And for males ages 18 to 22, Internet gambling doubled in 2006 over 2005 results. While the overall percentage of 14- to 22-year old males who reported playing cards for money on a weekly basis dropped slightly for the first time since 2002, the percentage still increased among 18- to 22-year old males.1
Helping to fuel card playing's increased popularity has been the rise of televised poker. Ever since The Travel Channel first aired the World Poker Tour in March 2003, other broadcasters have jumped into the fray. ESPN now airs The World Series of Poker, while Bravo, Fox Sports Network and Spike TV have their own poker shows, all with sizable ratings. Beyond watching people place $10,000 bets and greater, the televised games serve as learning tools. For example, ESPN lets viewers see what cards each player is holding, and commentators give advice on betting strategies.
"It's fun. It's exciting. ... But randomness is always going to have a bigger factor in determining the outcome than your skill," says Keith White, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "Unfortunately, that's not the message these kids get."
Some parents see no problem with the current craze. In an article in The Boston Globe, one mom told her 15-year-old son, "At least I know where you are. You're not out doing drugs, or drinking and driving."
Ken Winter of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at the University of Minnesota said of poker mania, "Some of it is actually favorable, very pro-social." He believes it gives teens a chance to exercise math skills and learn to control their emotions. "It's a lot better than sitting and watching TV. Your brain is getting strengthened, although it would get more strengthened by reading."
Granted, most young people are playing for small stakes. And for some it may be a recreational activity more than a cash grab fueled by greed. But it's the habit that's dangerous. The 2006 National Annenberg Risk Survey of Youth found that the symptoms of problem gambling parallel card-playing trends, especially among older male youths.
Despite the "good" things being said about young people betting on poker, a certain percentage of teens will develop into hard-core gamblers. For example, counselors at a summer camp in Illinois found that teens were skipping traditional activities such as swimming and sports while they played poker in their cabins. Counselors put an end to it when a teen was caught stealing from other campers to feed his gambling addiction.
More dangerous, once the habit is developed, things can only get worse. It's not unusual for teens to get their own credit card when they go off to college. That card gives them access to a host of Internet poker sites that are happy to take their money as the stakes climb much higher. Some Internet gamblers quickly find themselves in debt to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
Some of the excitement of poker comes from the inherent combination of chance and skill. Other games rely on this formula. Yahtzee. Scrabble. Hearts. Betting isn't part of these games. But suggest that teens play them instead of poker and just wait for the rolling eyes and groans. That reaction is proof that the primary allure of poker is the wagering. For that reason, parents should keep the habit from gaining a foothold in their home. It's simply not worth the gamble.