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.
"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."
Compulsive Kids: Why Teens Are More at Risk
Of course, for the vast majority of poker players poker is just fun. What's more, it's arguably a better way for college kids to spend an evening than at a keg party. But for a small percentage of players, especially those in their teens and early 20s, any kind of gambling is an extremely dangerous game.
"We estimate that between 3 and 5 percent of men, who are more likely to become addicted than women, become compulsive gamblers," says psychologist Linda Chamberlain, an addiction counselor at the University of Southern Florida, Tampa. "But adolescents are more vulnerable, and with kids starting to gamble at a younger age, we're seeing that go up to 7 percent, overall."
And a study from Harvard Medical School found teens and college students are four to five times more likely than adults to develop a gambling addiction.
The biggest risks come from online poker. "There's no way for another person to tap the kid on the shoulder and say `Stop it," points out gambling expert Richard McGowan, S.J., an associate management professor at Boston College and research associate at Harvard Medical School's division on addictions.