Teens learn when to hold, fold 'em

Poker: Teen players say they play only for fun, but experts fear game could lead to gambling addiction.

December 26, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Tommy Feeney pushed the remainder of his poker chips into the center of the red felt table and watched the dealer flip over the last of five community cards.

"Oh my God," he yelled as the heart he was hoping for failed to appear. Andy Gabell, holding two hearts in his hand, had already made a flush and knocked Feeney out of the game.

After watching his friends play a few more hands of Texas Hold 'Em, Feeney, 15, of Lutherville, accepted defeat and called his dad for a ride home from a basement game of poker with friends.

Since high-stakes poker has become a phenomenon on television over the past two years - drawing more than a million viewers to ESPN and the Travel Channel to watch seemingly ordinary people win millions of dollars - high schoolers have flocked to the pastime.

Games are common after school and on weekends, sets of professional-quality poker chips were a hot item on holiday wish lists and the language of raising, folding and checking is familiar to thousands of teens.

Many young people see it as an engaging and relatively inexpensive way to spend a weeknight or a Saturday afternoon with friends. But some parents and gambling experts are uneasy about seeing young people embrace a potentially addictive activity.

"If they are in my house, I know what they are doing," said Ann Hussein, whose 16-year-old son, Steve, invites his friends over for poker games regularly. But, she said, "the gambling part makes me uneasy."

Studies in the United States and Canada say approximately 80 percent of youths reported gambling in the past year, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. That includes wagering on sports, playing the lottery and other betting activities in addition to cards.

Signs of a gambling problem arose with 10 percent to 15 percent of youths, while as high as 6 percent experienced severe problems, the council reported.

"We do not believe that parents and teachers really understand the health consequences of gambling problems," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the council.

Teenagers say that they know the danger is out there but that setting limits and playing among friends keep things under control.

"I learned a lot from watching the World Series of Poker on TV," said Noah Dudziak of Towson. "It's so fun to play."

Dudziak, 15, a sophomore at Towson High School, said he played three or four times a week in the summer and now plays at least once a week.

He and six buddies - wearing various combinations of hats, sunglasses and hooded sweatshirts to hide their reactions from the other players - sat around the table for a couple of hours recently.

The young men, all 15 and 16 years old, tossed chips in the pot, slid cards across the table and knocked on the felt with the quick movements and limited conversation of practiced players.

At his school, "there are a lot of people that play," Dudziak said. "We usually play for $5, but we've played for more on several occasions."

The combination of skill in betting and luck in what cards are dealt has proven to be a big draw.

"First of all, it doesn't matter how good you are; there is always a chance you can win," said Bruce Wilson, 16, a junior at Long Reach High School in Columbia.

"There is a lot of quick math involved," he said, "and you have to be able to control yourself and have a certain amount of focus."

Also, "there is a lot of tension in it," said Wilson, who learned to play from his father. He said he usually plays two or three times a week and hopes that practice and studying will help him get good enough to play in tournaments when he is legally able. Because of ESPN's World Series of Poker, the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour, and Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown, the most common game among teens right now is Texas Hold 'Em.

Each player starts with two cards that no one else can see. Three cards are turned face up in the middle, followed by another and then a fifth. Players can use any combination of their cards and the shared cards to try to make a winning five-card hand. They bet or fold before each stage of the game.

Devin Arbogast, a senior at South River High School in Edgewater, said the pros make the game look appealing.

"When you watch World Poker, it gives you this feeling like you can get good at gambling," he said.

But, he added, when eight to 10 friends get together on a weekend, "we do it for entertainment, not for gambling."

Maryland schools already had strict rules against gambling before the poker craze, with punishments as severe as suspension. But card games that do not involve money can be a gray area. Students say short lunch periods and strict administrators have discouraged most - but not all - games on school grounds.

Most games are during evenings and weekends, with every player putting in between $5 and $20. Some players say they have made several hundred dollars over months of games. But they also say they know of teens who play for $100 or more at a time and have lost a lot of money.

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