More at stake than money

Anniston Star

College students risk addiction and financial woes as betting grows Sunday, April 02, 2006 THOMAS SPENCER News staff writer TUSCALOOSA - On a break from international poker tournaments, Shannon Shorr plays four games of poker at once from the couch in his off- campus apartment, using a wireless keyboard to navigate the Internet games projected on his big-screen TV.

After winning $100,000 from online games last year, the 20-year-old University of Alabama civil engineering major put his education on hold to play in live tournaments. He made almost $300,000 in his first couple of outings but has sputtered lately. In March, he lost $25,000 of his winnings, but he's still confident he'll make it as a professional player.

"In the long term, I know I am very good at poker," he said.

Shorr is living the most recent version of the American gambling dream at a time when the popularity of poker has exploded on college campuses nationwide. With the proliferation of state lotteries, the expansion of casino and Internet gambling, and the popularity of televised poker tournaments, gambling has grown in social acceptance and popularity across the United States.

The poker phenomenon has provoked particular concerns about the effects of gambling on college students. They are effects Shorr has witnessed personally as friends in Tuscaloosa and opponents online have descended into debt. Students also can face problems with gambling addiction and criminality as a result of their gambling habits.

"Most people will chase their losses when they are down. They play bigger stakes and get in bigger holes while trying to make it back quickly," Shorr said.

With time on their hands and a sense of daring and invincibility, many college students are natural gamblers. They live off money provided by parents and haven't developed much skill at managing it.

In general, they don't think much about the potential consequences, said Chris King, a UA associate athletics director for compliance and chair of the UA Gambling Action Team.

Recognizing the vulnerability of students as gambling grows ever more popular, King's team has launched a campus education, awareness and assistance initiative to address problem gambling and related issues.

"The students see this as instant money or instant thrills," King said. "On any given night, in 50 percent of the student apartment complexes, there are poker games going on. It is very scary. You are talking about 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds; they don't know they are getting involved in something that can be an addiction."

George McClellan, a vice president for student development at Dickinson State University, in Dickinson, N.D., is the co-chair of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators' Gambling Task Force. Across the country, he said, college administrators are grappling with how to deal with the gambling phenomenon.

Prevalent and persistent

About 75 percent to 80 percent of college students have gambled, McClellan said, and about half say they've gambled at least once during the past year.

Americans in general, and college students in particular, have always gambled. Historians note three historic waves of gambling, each of which was followed by a push back against gambling.

"This isn't new," McClellan said. "Gambling has been a part of the American culture. You look at the people that came over, that was a risk."

The card-dealing cowboy, the riverboat gambler and, more recently, the lottery winner undergoing a major life transformation are American icons. McClellan said it's obvious the nation is experiencing a fourth wave of gambling.

"It's amazing the kind of cultural changes that are going on," he said. Gambling "is so commonplace and so socially acceptable. It's not an accident that Las Vegas is the fastest-growing city in America.

"It's also big business," McClellan said. "Two years ago, Internet gambling surpassed pornography as the biggest single sector of the Internet economy."

With "Ocean's 11," about a heist in Las Vegas, and its sequel on the big screen and series such as "Las Vegas" and poker tournaments on the television screen, popular culture is saturated with gambling glamour.

"College students are at once the market for and the creation of popular culture," McClellan said. "Casino and poker marketers see two big growth areas: college students and women."

The problem is that college students -particularly males - are at an age where they are particularly vulnerable to falling into problem gambling. McClellan said some experts estimate that up to 9 percent of college students in the United States are problem or pathological gamblers. And in that population, the rate of pathological gambling three times higher than in the general population. Problem gamblers gamble frequently but maintain a regular lifestlye. Pathological gamblers are unable to control their gambling addiction. So college administrators must consider whether it is a good idea to sponsor student poker tournaments; whether they should train administrators and staff to recognize students with gambling problems; and if they should enforce gambling bans and block access to gambling sites from university computers.

McClellan praised the University of Alabama for its efforts to address the gambling problem. "They aren't waiting to have a problem," he said.

Shannon Shorr said he learned early on that poker skills are only half the equation. Equally important is being able to manage your "bankroll," the amount of money you devote to poker playing and how you play it.

"There are a lot of guys that are really good at poker. But you have to select the right games, you want to play the games that you can beat," Shorr said. "And you have to know when you are done."

Don Ross, a gambling researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said his work indicates that certain forms of gambling are more likely to lead to problems, something that needs to be considered as governments and universities craft responses to gambling's rising popularity.

Ross said there should be distinctions between Internet gambling and social poker games. "My view is that face-to-face poker is not as dangerous," he said.

Face-to-face games are an organizational challenge, and social conventions can act as a check on behavior in such a setting. Unlike slot machines and other forms of gambling that are based purely on chance, poker does involve skill, he said, and there are some people who can win. At least for a while. "Hardly anyone is good enough to keep winning over time," Ross said.

The other key difference between face-to-face and online gambling is that the physical act of online gambling is more likely to trigger an addictive response, he said.

By playing multiple games, the gambler can get the gratification faster. The ability to control the pace of the game allows the player to "tickle that addiction," Ross said, revving up the desire and reward system, and shutting down attention to everything else.

But Ross concedes it's a lot easier to restrict opportunities for face- to-face poker than for Internet gambling. And restricting face-to-face games "can drive all the poker-obsessed kids to the Web, where things are worse," Ross said.

Johnny Kampis, a UA graduate who is taking a year off for poker before starting on a master's degree in marketing, said there's a lot more poker around the university than during his days as an undergraduate.

"There has been an influx of younger players," said Kampis, 29. "There are some of them that play almost every night. They all play No-Limit Texas Hold'em. They play what they see on TV. They are using their parents' money, so they don't mind if they lose it all."

If the professional gambling lifestyle is alluring for college kids, Kampis warns, that dream fades fast.

Kampis hasn't had the big break that propelled Shorr, but he's getting by playing tournaments across the country. He's looking forward to returning to school in the fall.

"Playing poker for a living is not what it's cracked up to be," he said. "It's a good hobby and fun game. Don't make it your life. It becomes a grind and is less enjoyable than it used to be."

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