Living La Vida Poker

Once just a hobby, it's become a lifestyle and career for many people, sparking moral concerns and fear of increased addiction.

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The company's answer was "

Faith Chips

," Vegas-weight poker chips printed with slogans like "Jesus went all-in for you…so ante up and give your heart to him," and "Don't gamble with eternity... accept Jesus before you cash in your chips." Customers include poker fans, such as a Texas pastor whose Bible-study group plays Texas Hold 'Em now and again, and poker foes, who use the chips as novelty tracts to preach against gambling. "Others use them to minister to people with gambling addictions," Rainey says.

By some estimates, 100 million people in the U.S. now play poker regularly, about twice as many as two decades ago. And while experts say it's difficult to figure out the number of people who claim to make a living playing poker--both because of the unreliability of Internet poker statistics and the fast-growing number of tournaments--the paychecks are definitely getting better: The most recent World Tour of Poker is expected to award nearly $100 million in prize money. In just four seasons, the tour has created 27 millionaires.

And poker is increasingly a young person's game, with many of the top players in their 20s and early 30s. That's one reason colleges, which have long fretted about the best ways to protect students from gambling on everything from sporting events to fantasy leagues, are struggling to tame the poker powerhouse. Increasingly, schools that once banned gambling outright are becoming the house, sponsoring their own tournaments in order to compete with the private high-stakes games that can quickly get kids in trouble back in the dorm.

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"Poker is just so pervasive in our society now," says James Caswell, vice president of student affairs for Southern Methodist University, Dallas, "that many schools--including us--have adopted a 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em,' attitude, sponsoring tournaments. Even though no money is exchanged, in a way, we're giving a nod to kids' playing poker." (For the record, the Methodist Church is strict in its antigambling views. One of the hottest young poker stars, however, was until recently a student at SMU: David Williams won $3.4 million in the 2004 World Series of Poker.)

Caswell says SMU hasn't seen a rise in gambling problems at its counseling center, but worries that may change: "I have to believe that for people who are vulnerable, this poker craze will be much more dangerous."

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