Senior Jay Brody has been successful enough playing online poker that he said he hasn’t worked in three years.
“I’ve done well enough that I’ve been able to get through school,” said Brody, who claims he makes about $15,000 a year. “I’m able to stay afloat.”
Whether it’s online, at home or at a casino, America’s young adults are going all in. The ramifications are affecting college campuses nationwide.
Pat Fowler, who has dealt with the ill effects of gambling addiction for 20 years, said she’s never seen anything like the poker phenomenon that is sweeping the nation.
She’s never been more alarmed, either.
“It has really shocked the most seasoned veterans in this field,” said Fowler, executive president of the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling. “It’s a red flag. We’re very concerned.”
A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania showed that more high school and college students are playing poker every year. The study investigated 1,501 students between the ages of 14 and 22 and found that, in 2003, 5.7 percent of students played poker at least once a week. In 2004, that number almost doubled to 10.8 percent.
“We see a broad range of players in here, but predominately between the ages of 19 and 27,” said Jeff Gamber, card room manager at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg. “Texas Hold’em is their forte.”
Fowler said she believes poker’s grip began to take hold when ESPN starting extensively broadcasting The World Series of Poker, a high-stakes tournament set in Las Vegas in which players play Texas Hold’em – a form of poker in which players are dealt two down cards and can use any of five community cards to form their hand.
According to ESPN spokeswoman Kari Potts, the network has televised poker since 1994, but it wasn’t until 2003 that ESPN brought the production in-house. Around the same time, Fowler said, is when she began noticing what, for her, was a troubling trend.
“The ages of the callers have gotten lower in the last three years,” she said, referring to the gambling helpline the FCCG provides. “It used to be older adults, senior citizens.”
Also, according to the FCCG, those who called the council’s helpline claiming they had a problem with poker jumped to 22 percent in 2003, compared to 10 percent in 2002.
“It would be very difficult to believe there’s no correlation between television and the escalation of the interest in poker,” Fowler said.
According to Potts, The World Series of Poker earned ESPN an average rating of 1.7 – a percentage of more than 1 million television households – making it one of the network’s most popular shows.
“I think we’ve drawn more attention to poker, but we didn’t invent the game. People have been playing forever,” Potts said. “I would credit the boom in actual playing to the accessibility of the Internet and online playing.”
Online poker is a multimillion-dollar business. A Google search of “online poker” found 28.9 million Web pages. On some sites, players can bet credit, which, according to Fowler, causes a major problem because credit card companies are quick to give credit cards to college students.
Brody, who said the 1998 film Rounders gave television “the idea,” said he makes about $300 a week and is able to support himself.
“I don’t really have a lot of expenses,” he said.
According to Fowler, Brody is the exception, not the rule.
“Very few who attempt to make a living playing poker survive,” she said. “Most can’t do it and won’t be successful. In gambling, a few win, but a lot more people lose.”
After he graduates, Brody plans to acquire a real estate license but will “never stop playing.”
Then, he said, poker revenue will be solely supplemental income.
“You hear the professionals say it’s the hardest way to make an easy living,” Brody said. “I’ve definitely had some brutal swings. It’s really tough at times.”
Texas Hold’em troubles those in Fowler’s field because it seems most appealing to males 18-24, the age group that has the highest risk of developing a gambling problem, Fowler said. He added that the FCCG has dealt with students who are forced to drop out due to financial problems.
In response, the FCCG, as well as other organizations around the country, has gone to colleges within the state to raise awareness, educate and warn students and administration about the potential pitfalls of gambling.
So far, the FCCG has implemented programs at Central Florida, North Florida, Jacksonville and Stetson. According to Fowler, the FCCG approached USF this summer about implementing a program but didn’t hear back.
Six years ago, Florida State became the first Florida college to begin a gambling program, which Fowler said is held by the NCAA as a model for other colleges nationwide.
Gambling awareness programs that the FCCG implements are unique to each school and cost nothing because it latches on to other university awareness initiatives, such as those concerned with drugs, alcohol and sex.
“The best we can do is damage control. We can see the trouble coming, but we can’t stop it,” Fowler said. “Hopefully, for those who are in deep, maybe their friends can identify signs of a problem and point them in the right direction.”
Only a small percentage of college students who play poker will develop a problem, Fowler said, but because the number of those playing is so large, that small percentage will be a significant number of people.
“About 10 percent of those who gamble will develop some level of a problem. Then half of them will develop a serious problem,” Fowler said. “We’re very concerned about the numbers participating. That’s one of the things that is so alarming.”
Brody, who started playing poker when he was 15, acknowledged the risks when someone, especially a young person, gets involved with gambling.
“You can definitely get hooked,” he said. “You don’t want to play with money that you can’t afford to lose.”
To reach the National Council on Problem Gambling call (212) 547-9204.