Teens catching poker fever

By Josh Duke

A beam of light shines like a spotlight on a green-felt table.

Sitting behind stacks of red, white and blue chips in a basement in Lawrence, players intently study their opponents.

Slowly raising the corner of their cards, each takes a quick peek but shows no emotion. The intensity grows as the stakes get higher. A few chips expand into a sea of chips in the center of the table.

Then, with the reflection of players in his yellow-tinted sunglasses, Andy Price makes a bold move. "I'm going all in," he says, pushing his pile of chips to the middle of the table.

At this Friday night poker game, you won't find beers or mixed drinks. No cigarette or cigar smoke, either. This group of devoted poker gamblers is barely old enough to drive.

Price, 16, and his sophomore peers at Lawrence Central High School are among a growing number of teenagers regularly playing poker for money throughout the nation. Price and the other players put up $10 to play.

Much of the boom in youth gambling began after ESPN expanded its coverage of the "World Series of Poker" more than a year ago. As poker on TV spread -- at least five networks now air some form of the card game -- the craze caught on with young teens, too.

Teens say they see poker as a way to get together with friends for some friendly wagering, an activity that keeps them home and out of trouble. But some adults are concerned that this is another form of risky behavior that could result in gambling addictions later in life. They also see a distinction between playing for fun and playing for money.

Poker among teens has exploded so quickly that researchers lack data on the subject, said Ken Winters, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has researched the effects of adolescent gambling. But Winters said poker's popularity has become a common topic among his colleagues lately.

Neal Hennessy, a 15-year-old Lawrence Central sophomore who plays weekly with Price, said, "I don't know any guys at our school who haven't played. It's extremely prevalent."

Even if the guys in the basement of Price's home hadn't admitted that ESPN sparked their interest, their habits and actions would have given it away.

Matt Wood, 15, shuffled his chips like his favorite professional poker player, Russ "Dutch" Boyd. Instead of cigars, some of them played with pretzel logs hanging out of their mouths. Even Price said he likely wouldn't wear sunglasses at the table had he not seen it on TV.

"I like to copy (professional) players I like," Wood said. "I am attracted to certain ways of playing."

The same weekend the Lawrence Central sophomores played at Price's house on the Northeastside, a group of teens in the western suburbs organized a $50 buy-in tournament in their community.

Alex Coers, 18, a senior at Avon High School, said he plays poker every weekend with a group of five to 10 friends. He said they started playing regularly after seeing it on ESPN.

They pay a $5 or $10 entry fee, and the winner takes the pot.

"It's something that keeps us out of trouble," Coers said. "As long as it doesn't get out of hand, I don't see any problem with it."

Some adults find value in the game, especially considering how children could be spending their time.

"I know it's gambling," said Coers' father, Frank Coers. "But all the kids involved with Alex are good kids who make good grades. It's really just another game for them to play. They could be doing much worse."

If teens are at home playing poker with friends, parents feel they have some control over the activity and know what's going on.

Price and his buddies consider playing poker a social activity. They say spending $10 to play poker for a few hours on the weekend is no different from spending money at the movies.

Some aspects of the game -- strategizing and social skills -- encourage Winters, who has seen and studied the negative aspects of gambling.

He said card playing among young people was popular even before ESPN's coverage came along. Yet the rate of teenage problem gambling stayed fairly steady.

"If this new fad would have triggered an increase, we would have seen it already," he said. "But we haven't."

Risky behavior

But Jeff Derevensky, co-director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors at McGill University in Montreal, said those who think gambling in any form is less problematic for teens than alcohol or drugs are mistaken.

He said he thinks parents should view poker like any other risky activity.

"If they want to play poker just for fun, that's great," he said. "But they don't have to do it for money."

Angie Creed, a Brownsburg High School guidance counselor, said her 10-year-old son, Blake, plays poker with some of his buddies at a YMCA program every day before school. He even wants a poker party with friends for his 11th birthday. But Blake never plays for money.

Creed said the social aspects and strategizing provide healthy learning experiences for her son.

She realizes innocent fun can quickly turn into gambling. If that ever happened, she would put a stop to it, she said.

"I don't gamble, and I would rather my kids not gamble," she said. "So, if it crossed that line into money, I wouldn't be real happy."

But high school students say that when money isn't involved, everyone plays differently and they lose the competitiveness because the risk isn't there.

For those who do play for money, many can play periodically and be fine, Derevensky said. But it could turn into an addiction for others, and there is no way to know how it will affect each child.

The hidden addiction

Research has shown adolescents who are introduced to gambling are twice as likely to become addicted as adults, Derevensky said. Researchers trace those tendencies back to the brain.

The part of the brain that controls judgment and risk doesn't develop until adulthood. In addition, children don't have as much to lose as adults -- like a marriage, home or job -- and they lack a full understanding of the value of money.

Yet, parents and society in general often aren't as vigilant with gambling as with other addictions.

"Gambling is often referred to as the hidden addiction," Derevensky said. "You can't smell it on their breath or see it in their eyes."

Joanna Franklin, director of training for Trimeridian, a consulting company that provides state-funded gambling treatment in seven states, including Indiana, believes education about gambling should come at the elementary and middle school levels, as has become customary with alcohol, drugs and sex.

But she contends that funding in the United States for adolescent gambling is lagging.

"We have funds for gambling treatment in the U.S., but for adults, not kids," Franklin said. "What's up with that?"

A teaching moment

Keith Ogorek, director of family and youth ministries at Zionsville Fellowship church, said poker has become an issue with families and one the church needed to take seriously. Youth leaders make it a teaching moment.

"Poker has really created an opportunity to have that conversation," Ogorek said. "We aren't interested in just changing their behavior. We also want to change their convictions."

Greater Zionsville Area Youth Ministries recently added "intentions to play poker" to firearms and illegal drugs on its "forbidden" list that students must sign before attending a retreat.

Franklin said she hoped some good can come out of this latest poker craze. Maybe educators and society will recognize the problem and address it, she said.

"I wish parents knew more," she said. "They care enough. They just don't know."

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