Underage and Out of Luck As Internet gambling grows, more teens are logging on — and losing it all
By Chris Lewis This article was first published in Parade magazine
Alex M. played his first hand of Texas Hold ‘Em about three years ago, in a friend’s basement on a rainy afternoon in Long Island, N.Y. It was love at first flop.
Before long he was sacrificing sleep to all-night sessions in illegal card clubs and Internet poker rooms. Barely a year later, his losses totaled more than $10,000. He was 18 years old. He hadn’t yet graduated from high school.
“Online gambling is the most vicious form of gambling,” says Alex, whose full name has been withheld to protect his anonymity. “You have no conception of what you’re doing, because you’re just clicking a button.”
Alex has been a member of Gamblers Anonymous for two years and currently goes to college. But tales like his are becoming more common as increasing numbers of young people become serious gamblers. In fact, more than 12% of American males aged 14 to 22 play cards for money at least once a week, according to a 2006 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Why the sudden boom? Experts agree that ESPN’s popular World Series of Poker program deserves part of the blame, glamorizing the game’s few steady winners and creating the impression—by allowing viewers to peek at hole cards—that chance can be overcome by skill.
“That lipstick camera has launched a thousand chips,” says Kevin Whyte, executive director of the National Council for Problem Gambling.
But if the media has helped make gambling fashionable, the Internet has helped make it possible for thousands of underage card players to log on and try their luck.
In a way, Alex was lucky. His self-destructive poker romance was relatively short-lived. But he may be in the minority: The number of college students who regularly gamble on the Internet is skyrocketing. Between 2005 and 2006 that group more than doubled in size, according to the Annenberg study. Today, about 6% of college students gamble online at least once a week.
The habit can result not only in heavy financial losses, but also in the ruination of personal relationships, educational progress and, where credit cards are involved, the credit ratings of underage gamblers and their parents. It can also lead to increased drinking, drug use, crime and suicide.
“Problem gamblers have the highest rate of suicidal behavior of all addictive disorders,” including alcoholism and drug abuse, says Whyte.
What makes the problem so tenacious—and so maddening for parents—is that it is difficult to detect. Today, it’s commonplace for teens to spend prolonged periods at their computers, says Dr. Nancy Petry, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Medical Center and author of Pathological Gambling.
“Parents just don’t see it,” Petry says. “And it’s not like you can smell it on their breath.”
Governmental attempts to stem the problem have also been unsuccessful. In October, Congress banned U.S. financial institutions from transferring client funds to Internet gambling operations. It didn’t work. Many sites simply employed third parties to broker the transactions.
"There’s always a loophole,” says Alex, who ran into similarly ineffective measures when he was gambling.
Currently pending on Capitol Hill, however, is the Internet Gambling Regulation and Enforcement Act of 2007. Sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the bill seeks to regulate the online gaming industry by licensing sites willing to comply with certain consumer protections, among them a requirement that prospective gamblers provide proof of legal age.
Regardless of legislative efforts, Petry says it’s still up to parents to be vigilant. Gambling habits may be hard to spot, but there are warning signs: a teen repeatedly asking for money without explaining “where it’s going, or where it went,” or one who “suddenly appears with exorbitant amounts of cash.”
The consequences of a youthful gambling habit aren’t just financial. Although Alex finally recovered from his problem after hitting rock bottom, he says he still deeply regrets trading the best moments of his high school experience for poker.
“Sometimes, I’ll listen to my friends tell stories from those days,” he says. “And I’m not in any of them.”