Risks are often high for online poker fans

Your Moeny


Landing a college scholarship always has been, to some degree, a thing of chance. But funding your education by playing Texas Hold `em, a popular form of poker?

In the burgeoning online poker industry, a handful of sites now host tournaments for students, offering scholarship prizes worth as much as a year's tuition. The games don't require bets; the more hands you play, the more points you accumulate toward winning.

In return, the poker rooms hope to cultivate a loyal base of players who will return to the virtual tables - and play for cash. And when you register for College Poker Championship III, you are automatically referred to Royal Vegas Poker, the tournament's organizer.

But while the sizable scholarship money might be appealing, there are a few strong reasons not to try your luck at these tournaments or cash poker:

It may be illegal.

Federal law is unclear about the legality of online poker, largely because relevant legislation - the Interstate Wire Act - was written in 1961, long before the Internet emerged. Thus, while the act says betting on sports and other contests via a "wire," or phone, is unlawful (so long as a state law doesn't conflict), the law doesn't address online card games.

The Justice Department says that doesn't matter and prohibits all forms of online gambling. But some courts have ruled otherwise.

And while many states have anti-gambling laws, the rules are rarely enforced against individual players, said I. Nelson Rose, a gambling expert and professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Even so, as a sign of their dubious legal standing, poker rooms don't advertise. They rely on promotions, such as sign-up bonuses, to lure players and recruit students to act as reps on campus.

Although law enforcement may not come after you for betting, you could get in trouble with your school or employer if you play on campus or on the job.

There's no help if you are cheated.

Because online gambling isn't expressly legal, you have no recourse if, say, a poker room doesn't pay out your winnings, whether you're playing for a scholarship or at other times with your own money.

In addition, all of the online poker rooms are based offshore.

"If you're working with a site that cheats you, there's really no remedy," Rose said.

You may lose control.

The greatest risk, though, is developing a gambling habit that gets in the way of other goals.

Research shows that people with gambling problems start betting at an early age. A study published last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that weekly card players, whether gaming online or off, have more symptoms of problem gambling than other gamblers.

The Internet has made it easier to play. You can have hands at multiple tables, and the rate of play is often twice as fast, meaning far more cash - in some cases funded by credit cards - is exchanged.

Experts say young people are particularly susceptible because of the nature of poker: It's a game.

"College students have grown up with video games where they've learned that the more you play something the better you get at it," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "But while skill plays a role in the outcome, poker is still a game of chance."

Whyte says the most common signs of a gambling problem are preoccupation with the activity, a need to bet more money and a loss of control.

If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, log on to www.ncpgambling.org or call 800-522-4700 to get help.

Of course, not everyone who plays will run into trouble. But there are undoubtedly less risky ways to spend your time and money.

Carolyn Bigda writes for Tribune Media Services.

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