“On a typical night online I’ll start out with $100. I’ll play until I lose. I’ll look at the screen, tears in my eyes, and think of all the things that I need money for. So I play again, put in another $100.” So says a college junior who has lost more than $100, 000 playing poker since his senior year in high school (Walters, 2005). He gambles on average $400 a day playing poker online for twelve hours at a time and disregarding life routines such as eating, having visitors, speaking on the phone, or even using the restroom. Play casino games for real fun!
On another campus, one male student admits he kept money intended for textbooks and instead used it for online poker tournaments as well as card games around campus. He is now in debt and behind in some classes. He begs friends for money to play in the hope of getting even.
Another male student on the same campus mentioned spends ten hours a day playing poker and skips a lot of classes because he is too tired from staying up all night playing poker. He mentions the time he is skipping class is also time he can play in a couple of online poker tournaments. He does not feel addicted and says no harm has been done (Gooley, n.d.).
Although most will not take playing to the extremes these students have, many students on our campuses are involved in playing poker, live or online. The behavior may be legal and appropriate for some, and it may be illegal and problematic for others.
This chapter opens with information about poker and about the current popularity of poker. The wide access to the game enjoyed by many college students, the intensive marketing of poker to college students, and campus responses to the poker phenomenon are then addressed. Finally, recommendations are presented for practice and research related to the popularity and potential problems of poker on the college campus.
A Bit About Poker and Its Popularity
The game of poker is traditionally associated with the riverboats of the nineteenth century or the dusty saloons of the Old West (see the work of McClellan and Winters earlier in this volume for a broader discussion of the history of gambling in the United States). There was a stigma attached to the game; respectable people were not ones to play it. That stigma is all but gone, and players are found everywhere. The most common form of poker played in the United States today is called Texas Hold ?m and is the one focused on in this chapter.
In Texas Hold ?m, each player is first dealt two cards face down, followed by a round of betting. Three community cards (called the flop) are then placed face up in the center of the table, followed by a second round of betting. Then the fourth and fifth community cards (called the turn and river, respectively) are placed face up on the table, each followed by a round of betting. Players use the two cards in their hand and the five community cards to make the best five-card poker hand possible. There are various forms of betting rules for Texas Hold Em, but the most popular and glamorized form is no-limit betting, in which a player may bet all of his chips or money at any time in a hand (called going all in).
Texas Hold ‘em is a relatively simple game to learn but a difficult one to master. In addition to a bit of luck, playing poker well requires skill in picking up on subtleties of human communication (called reading tells by poker players), reasoning, and money management. Though these are skills that many of us would be happy to see college students develop, they are a skills set that is still to be mastered for most students on our campuses. Learning them at a poker table could be an expensive lesson, in many ways. Whatever, you should definitely try to play Texas Hold’em if you’re a fan of poker.
How popular is poker today? One need only turn on the TV and flip through the channels to get a sense of the answer. There is a strong possibility that the shows you run across on ESPN, Bravo, and the Travel Channel are high-stakes poker games, because such programs have been a rating bonanza for the networks. Watch the show go to commercial break; how many ads tout online poker locations such as Partypoker.com (which bills itself as the world’s largest poker school), FullTiltPoker.com, or Pokerstars.com? Then go to the computer, browse www.thefacebook.com, and do a search to see if any poker recruits are being sought in the residence halls, fraternities, or other areas of your campus. Finally, while at the computer, use Google to perform an Internet search for “poker.” As of July 22, 2005, there were 15.5 million hits for the term.
The winners of major poker tournaments are touted in the media frequently. Chris Moneymaker, a Tennessee accountant who had never played in a live tournament, entered an online tournament for a seat at the World Series of Poker and wound up taking home the top multimillion-dollar prize. The general population, including college students, can and do look at the aptly named Moneymaker and others like him and rationalize anyone can truly win big at poker.
Did you recognize Moneymaker’s name before it was explained in the preceding paragraph? How about the names of Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Daniel Negraneu, Phil Ivey, Annie Duke, or Kathy Liebert? They are all poker professionals who have become media celebrities. The reverse is also true. Media celebrities such as Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire, and Meg Tilly have gained further celebrity through their poker play.
It is not just tournament winners, media-savvy poker professionals, or poker-friendly media professionals that get attention. The press seems full of mentions of college students making tens of thousands by playing poker. One example is Michael Sandberg of Princeton, who made more than $120, 000 playing poker online and in the casinos of Atlantic City in a six-month period of 2004-05 (Cheng, 2005). Another is David Williams, whose story was discussed by Jim Caswell in the preceding chapter. The Massachusetts Daily Collegian of the University of Massachusetts describes one senior who makes $120-140 a week in earnings from poker playing with friends and another senior who plays three times a week and “has acquired the talent necessary to win enough money to get by at school without a job” (Bergeron, 2005). Faraz Jaka, a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, notes he has made $120, 000 playing poker online this past year (Needham, 2005). He stated that he plans to play professionally one day; poker is his new passion in life.
All of this attention on poker has translated to poker playing in informal settings such as bars, homes, and residence halls across the country. One indicator of the widespread nature of poker playing is that poker sets are available everywhere, from Toys R Us to supermarkets. Poker is so popular that playing card manufacturers doubled production of poker sets, and poker paraphernalia were among the top-selling December holiday gifts in 2004 (Smith, 2005). Teen playing seems to have fueled most of these sales. A card manufacturer survey revealed that on average teens play cards four times a month; 23 percent of the sample identified poker as their favorite game, and 39 percent watch poker tournaments on TV. Most states have laws expressly prohibiting teen gambling, but they are rarely enforced. Regardless of the legal issues, some parents see poker playing as a healthy recreational alternative for their children. One high school student’s father plainly stated, “I would rather have my son playing poker here with his friends or at one of his friend’s homes than being out drinking and driving or doing drugs” (Smith, 2005, p. 1).
Access to Poker Among College Students. If poker is so popular among college students, where are all these games taking place? Some of them are taking place in legal brick-and-mortar casinos near campuses in areas where such games are legal. It seems likely, however, that this activity makes up a modest proportion of the poker being played by students. It is reasonable to assume that a far larger proportion of the college poker playing is taking place on the Internet, in off-campus home games (which may be legal in some locales depending on the size of the bets and the age of the participants; see Chapter One), campus residence halls and Greek-letter living units, and in campus programming. Readers are referred to Stuart Brown’s chapter in this volume for a detailed discussion of Internet gambling activity. This section of this chapter will focus on poker playing on campus grounds or on campus-affiliated grounds.
A quick review of campus newspapers provides evidence that poker is indeed being played on campus or campus-affiliated grounds. According to their student newspaper, most of the tournaments at Murray State University can be found in the residential colleges (Fields, 2004). One resident assistant noted that a poker game is in progress almost every night on his floor and, if the residents are not playing together, they are playing PartyPoker.com on their computers. Duke University’s Wayne Manor residence hall hosts a weekly $100 buy-in game. The Wayne Manor website shows pictures of their weekly games (Duke University, 2005). A sorority at Columbia University recently held a $10 buy-in tournament, and Greeks at the University of North Carolina recently held a 175-player competition. Both games filled and had lengthy waiting lists (Cheng, 2005).
These are but a few of the stories on campus poker games that have appeaied in campus publications over the past several years. They are shared simply to point out that, if students are looking to be involved in poker play on campus, they probably will not need to look far.
Marketing Poker to College Students
Student interest in poker is fueled by the steady drumbeat of marketers to get college students interested in poker. The television programs have been mentioned previously, but it goes further than that. The College Poker Championship (2004) is a prime example. It is hosted by Lou Krieger, a widely read gambling expert. Krieger states in the publicity for the tournament that “the interest in poker seems to be taking hold among college students faster than any other segment of the population” (Krieger, 2004). The tournament has students competing against one another for large scholarship awards. A person playing has to be enrolled in a college or university and must name the institution and list a student ID number as part of the registration process. There is no entry fee. Each week $500 in scholarships are awarded, $5, 000 in scholarships are given in the semi-finals, and $50, 000 in scholarships in the finals. Some moneys are also donated to charity. The tournament is supported by and uses the Same software as roy-alvegaspoker.com. In fact, to play in the tournament you must download the royalvegaspoker.com software on your personal computer.
The championship has not gone unnoticed on college campuses. At the University of Illinois at Springfield, a nineteen-year-old female freshman was one of the forty-five hundred students nationwide who signed up for the tournament in 2005. She was quoted as saying, “I’m not obsessed like some of the students I see playing all the time, but I could sure use the scholarship” (United Press International, 2005).
College Poker Championship is not the only organization using tuition dollars as a lure for marketing purposes. Absolutepoker.com sponsored a win-your-tuition tournament for all university and college students in May 2005, and All N Poker, an apparel company that includes college students among its targeted client groups, sponsored a touring charity poker tournament in fraternity and sorority houses in 2004, even inviting other marketers to join them as partners in a press release (Hunt, 2004).
Casinos have also started to recruit college student poker players into their establishments, especially when situated near a college or university campus. At San Diego State University, there are several nearby Native American casinos. The Barona Casino poker room manager was quoted in the SDSU student newspaper in April 2005 as saying, “The poker industry has gotten a boom over the last few years and younger players are looking for places to play” (Shore, 2005).
Campus Responses to the Poker Craze
So what has been the response of student affairs professionals to the growing popularity of poker on the college campus? There is little in the literature to indicate any response at all. It appears most schools do not sanction or even condone gambling on campus, but there also appears to be little enforcement of those prohibitions. According to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, gambling is almost omnipresent for the college population, and “administrations don’t do a good job of telling students how to get help, the same way they’re sending the ‘prevention and responsibility’ messages for alcohol, substance abuse, and date rape” (Cheng, 2005, p. 1).
Some colleges have yet to engage the issue of campus gambling (including poker play), as demonstrated in a couple of examples. At the University of Illinois (student Jaka’s home campus), the dean of students office determined in 2005 that they do not permit gambling on university property (Needham, 2005). Princeton, the home campus of Michael Sandberg, has no explicit rules about gambling. They are planning on determining a policy if needed. The associate dean, who handles disciplinary issues on campus, was quoted as saying, “Were I to discover that a student was gambling online, I would probably tell them to stop and give them a warning” (Cheng, 2005, p. 1).
At Syracuse University, The Daily Orange reported in October 2004 that, although New York law forbids private gambling, as does the Syracuse University code of conduct, some of the residence life staff saw this as a gray issue and stated it “hasn’t been on our radar” (Poster, 2004). At Boston University, a judicial affairs administrator noted, “We have not seen any trends of gambling here. There doesn’t appear to be a problem at the university,” and a colleague added, “It has never been brought to our attention” (Atiyeh, 2004). These quotations appeared in an article that also highlighted the many ways Boston University students gambled; the article included mention of many students playing poker and their wins and losses in online poker. At the University of Texas, Austin, the Daily Texan reported in a February 2004 piece that despite the Housing Department’s explicit rules against poker playing students report: “Our RA says we can play cards, but we can’t play for money. As long as no one acts as the casino or house (and gets a portion of the pot), it’s OK and it will satisfy the players and the RA” (So, 2004).
Seventeen Virginia Tech undergraduate students were arrested in May 2005 for running an off-campus poker house. An undercover sting caused police to raid the house and seize more than $2, 000 in cash and poker playing equipment. After the arrests, a Virginia Tech administrator was quoted as saying, “We are not hearing much of that (illegal gambling on campus) here. We are hearing that from colleagues around the country” (Miller and Eaton, 2005).
At other colleges, the poker craze has prompted action to limit the behavior on campus. As an example, at the University of Chicago the Resident Student Organization denied university status to a poker club, citing legal department concerns. The Housing Office is also revising the permissibility of poker in the halls (Moesel, 2004).
Still other universities have turned to poker as part of their campus programming. The Penn Poker Club at Penn State is an officially recognized student organization that receives $1, 000 a semester in student fees and has regular games and tournaments on campus; sometimes the games are twice a day (Walters, 2005). One resident adviser in Elizabeth College noticed an increase of interest in the game and hosted a residential college Texas Hold ?m tournament. The tournament was for charity from the entry fees, and the winner got a retailer gift card.
Some Iowa universities have legally sponsored intramural poker tournaments under a special license from the state (Campbell, n.d.). At Utah State, the student government hosts a Mardi Gras event every year, and the Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter hosted a charity poker Tournament in 2005 in conjunction with the event; it attracted 120 players for a $15 buy-in (Wilson, 2005).
Implications for Practice
As Chapter Seven, by Jason Laker, on ethical considerations for institutional gambling policies, will show, student affairs administrators ind others in higher education need to ask questions about current campus poker playing and gambling behavior and the appropriate support mechanisms for students who go to extremes in the activity. Are casino nights an appropriate way to do fundraising on campus? Should poker tournaments be used for intramural entertainment in campus recreation? Are poker showdowns between residence halls and within residential colleges a suitable extracurricular activity?
Student affairs professionals need to identify if there is a growing incidence of poker playing on their campus, and if so recognize the fact that this is indeed a risk-taking behavior that could have addictive qualities. The vast majority of the College-age population will try poker, play for a bit, and then abandon the activity and move on to some other pastime. However, as Chapter Six on problem and pathological gambling will demonstrate, a small percentage-5 percent or so–will become problem gamblers and have an addiction to the activity. Takushi and others (2004) highlighted the development of an integrated prevention intervention for college student gamblers. The proposal drew heavily on integrating another risk-taking behavior, alcohol prevention. The intervention combined cognitive-behavioral skills training, motivational interviewing, and personalized normative feedback, among other strategies.
Student affairs professionals should, give thought to the goals and purpose of using poker as an approved programming tool on campus. It is important to plan programming more effectively in regard to gambling and poker in general. It is not a healthy assumption to have college students abstain from poker, any more than the “just say no” campaign of the 1980s solved all of the illegal drug usage problems in the United States. Some experimentation and risk taking is clearly going to occur, and this is accepted as part of the college experience. The question becomes, How much is too much, and what mixed messages are we sending?
It is left to the profession to determine to what extent we need to address the issue. Is poker simply a current fad, to be committed to the ash heap of fads such as the Pet Rock or Rubik’s Cube in a few years and we should simply let it pass? Or is it something more? I believe this chapter has explored how fad or not the problems encountered in poker playing have the potential to be serious if not acknowledged, and the tenets of our profession demand that some attention be paid to the issue.
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