Poker erodes savings, ambition

By Patrick Kerkstra KRT

PHILADELPHIA – Ari Paul’s dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania has the trappings of the contemporary collegiate male: guitar, Hooters calendar, bag of chips on the floor, and dual computer monitors at which he’s playing three simultaneous hands of online poker.

The game is Omaha high, close to Texas hold ’em. Cards flick across the screens at a speed no casino dealer could match.

The stakes are low by Paul’s old standards, a total buy-in of just $500 at the three virtual tables. A political science major in a grueling senior year, he has reined in his game since last summer, when he routinely logged into online poker “rooms” with $3,000 and stayed 12 hours. His win rate has tumbled from $150 an hour to $30.

Still, he claims to be up about $30,000 over two years.

But Paul is far more skilled and certainly luckier than most of the estimated 1.6 million, overwhelmingly male college students nationwide who have become regular – some admit addicted – players of Internet poker.

Twenty-six percent of college men gamble in online card games at least once a month and 4 percent once a week or more, up from 1 percent a year earlier, according to a 2005 survey by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. The vast majority are betting on poker.

“We keep waiting for it to peak,” said Dan Romer, director of the Risk Survey of Youth. “So far, it hasn’t.”

For generations of college students killing time, penny ante was a staple of dorm life. Then along came television’s million-dollar prime-time tourneys about five years ago to gild poker in trendiness.

By 2003, the fever was sweeping the Internet.

The Justice Department considers Internet gambling illegal at any age. So the online poker rooms are based outside the United States, with many in Canada but the largest in Gibraltar. Their profits come from raking in a very fat pot: $60 billion bet worldwide last year, according to London analysts who research the online poker industry for investors.

At any given moment, the rooms are filled with thousands of players seated up to 10 per table and known to one another only by handles such as ElDonkerino and Chiptaker32.

All it takes to get in the game is a computer and a credit card. And what college student doesn’t have those?

Greg Hogan did.

The 19-year-old son of a Baptist minister from Ohio, he was president of his sophomore Class of 2008 at Lehigh University. He also was an avid online poker player, although not quite as good at it as Ari Paul.

On Dec. 9, he walked into an Allentown, Pa., bank, handed a teller a note claiming he had a gun, and left with $2,871. The young man’s motivation, his attorney said, was $5,000 in poker debts.

Now in a gambling addiction program in Louisiana, Hogan faces a preliminary hearing early next month. A guilty plea or a conviction could land him in prison for up to 20 years.

Romer, of the Annenberg Center, said he hoped the bizarre heist would make colleges and parents notice what’s going on.

“The awareness is just not there yet that some kids who are exposed to this are going to get hooked,” he said.

Colleges have done little to break up the game.

“I’m sure students are playing it,” said University of Pennsylvania spokeswoman Phyllis Holtzman, “but it’s not on anyone’s radar screen administratively.”

Some schools are even playing along.

At Lehigh University, students in one course are instructed to create a “bot” that simulates a human poker player. The class features $13,000 worth of software donated by a firm called Poker Academy.

Federal prosecutors and state attorneys general, among them New York’s Eliot Spitzer, have made sporadic attempts to curb online gambling, principally by pressuring banks to decline credit-card charges made at poker sites. Many banks went along, but it didn’t matter much: Middlemen sprang up to take charges and transfer funds to online rooms.