Over the past ten years, poker has become big business. An average episode of the World Series of Poker (WSoP) gets more than 1 1/2 million viewers, many of them college students who have been encouraged by the success of young amateur players. Recent studies show that roughly 10 percent of all college students have gambled online in the past year—mostly on poker. Despite the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), there are now more than 600 online poker rooms and an article in the Financial Times predicted that 2008 profits would rise to nearly $6 billion.
A number of online poker sites, including Poker Stars and Full Tilt Poker, have begun to market directly to college students, setting up tournaments like the Absolute Poker College Challenge, which pays out upwards of $40,000—their slogan: “Bluff Your Way to Free Tuition.” Colleges like Penn State and Texas A&M have established student-run gaming associations, which set up matches and determine stakes. These associations are usually run by college reps for sites like CollegePoker.com, who earn money for registering other students, and organize large on-campus tournaments. Funded by online poker rooms and entertainment companies that in part finance the WSoP, these tournaments help draw students to online poker games, where they’ve been told their chance to earn huge cash is just one more hand away—and it’s working, nearly two million college students and counting.
While it’s true that a few have made huge money off internet poker, others don’t understand the risks until it’s too late. In December 2005, a case involving Lehigh University sophomore class President Greg Hogan made national headlines. Hogan was an innocent mid-western kid, son of a Baptist minister, who had graduated top of his class at an all-boys school. It wasn’t long after coming to college that he began to play online poker. Games were cheap enough at first and the occasional wins were enough to keep him playing. Only, the wins didn’t happen often enough. In just over a year, Hogan had spent everything he had and racked up more than $7,500 in debt. On December 9, Hogan, on the way to the movies with a couple of friends, stopped by a local Wachovia just outside of Allentown, PA. He handed the teller a note stating: “I have a gun.” The teller handed more than $2,800 over to Hogan. Before the day was over, Hogan had been arrested, quickly confessing to the crime. The class president who appeared to have everything going for him would serve twenty-two months in Pennsylvania state prison.
Too many young poker players get stuck “on the tilt”—trapped in a fury of gambling, trying to recoup losses one hand at a time—a state common among online gamblers. When I spoke with an online hold-’em player from Florida who had lost a whopping $250,000 online, he told me: “It fried my brain. I would roll out of bed, go to my computer and stay there for 20 hours. One night after I went to sleep, my dad called. I woke up instantly, picked up the phone and said, ‘I raise.’ ”
A study by the University of Connecticut Health Department found that 1 out of 4 of the 160 online gamblers surveyed “fit the clinical definition of a pathological gambler.” Colleges aren’t equipped to deal with the huge rise in online gambling—legally there’s no way to block the sites, or deny students access. It is simply easier than ever for young people, on their own for the first time in their lives, to gamble away huge sums of money, and all the data suggest that’s just what they’re doing.
Zach Kaufmann is a freelance writer out of Baltimore, paying off his massive online poker debts one article at a time.