More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
More young players skirt the rules to gamble online
September 13, 2007
San Jose Mercury News

Chris Benton's summer job sounded like a teen's dream: flexible hours, good pay, challenging, fun, no boss.

So what did this son of a kindergarten teacher do to earn a buck this summer?

He played online poker -- sometimes for five hours a day, clearing -- he claims -- an average of $40 to $50 an hour.

"It's much easier than working in a restaurant," said Benton, 19, a Sonoma State University sophomore who gave up waiting tables and instead made money over the summer by playing Texas hold' em online at his parents' Fremont home.

Benton is among a small but apparently growing group of young people who see playing poker online as a way to earn income and hone their skills in psychology and strategic thinking. They distinguish themselves from gamblers, such as Lotto players who rely solely on Lady Luck, and take a more studied approach to poker playing. Just among Benton's former classmates at Fremont's Washington High School, he said, more than a half dozen think of poker more as a vocation rather than a pastime.

But as gambling has grown more popular and accessible to young people, through Indian casinos and online games, many worry about its potential for addiction and the harm it can inflict on finances and mental health.

Federal law bans U.S.-based online gambling and prohibits banks from transferring funds to gambling sites. But players easily skirt the prohibitions by gambling on offshore sites. Teens buy MasterCard and Visa gift cards at supermarkets, then deposit the funds through small financial firms that do business with online casinos. Young players breeze past age requirements by simply checking an on-screen box stating they are 18 or older.

"A lot of kids have grown up with legalized gambling," said Kristy Wanner, gambling prevention coordinator at the University of Missouri-Columbia, one of the few universities that monitors gambling as a health concern. "College students are the most at-risk group because they have access to money and credit."

Young people, she said, want things quickly and are easily lured by the possibility of instant wealth.

"There's an addictive quality to it," Wanner said.

Teens like Benton and Erik Wardenburg of Palo Alto insist they're not addicted. When school resumes, they say, their online playing diminishes.

Wardenburg, 19, also played online poker in lieu of taking a summer job.

When he started playing as a junior at Palo Alto High, "it was something I was concerned about and watched," said his father, Mark Wardenburg.

He and his son talked about keeping poker in perspective and maintaining the right priorities -- such as doing well in school.

Good grades convinced the elder Wardenburg that his son heeded his advice, even as Erik did so well at poker that he had to file an income-tax return this year on his winnings. Erik's parents, who want their son to be discreet about gambling, don't want to publicize the amount of his winnings.

Win kindles interest
Poker's popularity, and the dreams of millions of players, took off four years ago, after the aptly named amateur Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million in the televised World Series of Poker. Now, both online and live poker remain popular on many college and some high school campuses. At Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, for example, poker games are part of the lunchtime scene.

A national survey last fall indicated that 8.9 percent of men ages 18 to 22 gamble online at least once a month. About 1 million young people -- some as young as 14 -- gamble on the Internet monthly, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

And those who put money down appear to be playing more frequently. The percentage of 18- to 22-year-old men who gamble on the Internet at least once a week more than doubled from 2005 to 2006 -- from roughly about 3 percent to 6 percent, researchers found.

Chris Benton and Erik Wardenburg say their studied approach and skill differentiate them from millions of teens who simply dabble in poker.

"I've read almost every poker book out there," said Wardenburg, who this month begins his sophomore year at the University of California-Davis.

Benton said he'd never play a pure gambling game such as blackjack. And he said he's learned the hard way not to be starry-eyed when he wins.

"I know a lot of people who are extremely good players but don't have good money management or discipline," he said. "They put all their bankroll on the table, then they lose it."

Simultaneous games
Over the summer, he played live poker games several times a week with as many as 30 guys -- poker tends to be overwhelmingly male -- gathered at a friend's house.

Online, Benton said, he increases his per-hour earnings by playing four or more poker games simultaneously, switching screens or using multiple monitors.

He said his "job" allowed him to pocket three times as much as waiting tables and not deal with cranky or chintzy customers.

Besides, he said, "you can make money in your PJs."

Every month, he deposits a fixed amount of winnings in a savings account, as part of his four-year plan. At the end of his first year, he said, he's on target. He hopes that in a year, his annual income will reach "five digits."

According to his plan, by the time he's earned his degree in either business management or casino management, Benton will have amassed a sizable enough nest egg to launch his career as a pro.

Benton said he's wary of poker players who boast about their winnings but rarely mention their losses.

"Most people say they win a lot playing poker," he said. "But they really haven't won anything."

Benton's mother said she doesn't know exactly how much her son makes gambling online, but she knows he's winning because he doesn't ask for money.

"He's a level-headed, smart kid," Karen Benton said. "It's not like he's hanging around with lowlifes."

More losses than wins
Most teen poker aficionados aren't as skilled. In an April survey of 7,000 students at the University of Missouri, the Wellness Resource Center found that the average college online player lost $35 each sitting.

Wardenburg and others say that Internet games are faster and trickier than sitting at a table.

For one, Wardenburg said, you can't read faces or body language. "It's easier to play against people when you can see them," he said. "You can tell how they act, how they look, the way they stack their chips, how they hold their cards," he said.

Winning at poker, he said, involves understanding human psychology. "I can play according to how they're going to think," he said.

Last year, Wardenburg placed second in two online tournaments. Although he approaches online playing as a job, spending five to six hours a day at it, he calls poker "a hobby I take seriously."

That seriousness helped overcome his parents' anxiety about his pastime.

Mark Wardenburg, an options trader, and his wife, Alana, check their son's bank account for what's coming in and going out.

Being a poker champ, Mark Wardenburg said, is "fun to do but not necessarily something you want to be well-known for. It's still gambling."
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