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Poker, particularly a variant called Texas Hold 'Em, has become a pastime as popular with some teens as video games. In 2004, during pre-semester orientation, UCLA even offered a poker night for its incoming freshman class. The Adolescent Risk Communications Institute recently announced that half of 14- to 22-year-olds reported gambling at least once in a given month, and those under 18 favored card games such as poker.

It's no wonder. Ever since The Travel Channel first featured 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 air their own poker shows, all with sizable ratings. Beyond watching people place $10,000 bets, the televised games serve as learning tools. 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 craze, which includes "poker parties." 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 teens 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 2003 Anenberg National Risk Survey of Youth found that approximately eight percent of the young people surveyed showed classic signs of a gambling problem.

Despite the "good" things being said about teens betting on poker, a certain percentage of them will develop into hard-core gamblers. For example, counselors at a summer camp in Illinois found that campers were skipping traditional activities such as swimming and sports in order to play 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 acquire a credit card upon going 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 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, too. Yahtzee. Scrabble. Hearts. Betting isn't part of those 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.

Published January 2005