By Kerry Sanders Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/21/2004 6:21:48 PM ET 2004-12-21T23:21:48

Across the nation, it’s a “Full House.” In dining rooms, in basements, and just about anywhere teens hang out. What’s the hot game at the moment? “Texas hold ‘em style” poker.

“Every week, someone else seems to be hosting a new game. It's the place to be,” says 16-year-old Jordan Schneider. “A lot of kids play it to gamble and make money, but I see it as a social event, just to hang out with my friends. It’s fun.”

But, while many teenagers and their parents appreciate the fun of a good poker game and the safe environment most games are played in, there is still the fear that what's fun today could lead to gambling addictions down the road.  

Basement casino
The “ante” for most is emulating what they see on TV — the widely popular professional games on cable where the winner can take home up to $5 million. 

Teens say they’re hooked on watching the professionals.

“Once you're at the professional level, it's more skill than it is luck. Right now it's whoever gets the cards pretty much,” says 15-year-old Billy Blumberg.

But, for the meantime, Blumberg is happy to just be an amateur. “It’s pretty much just a social gathering for all of us to get together, and see each other on the weekends.”

Parents – know where the kids are
For some parents, allowing teenagers to gamble is an easy trade off.

“I like the social aspect of the game,” says Billy's mom Rosemary. “I think that's wonderful — the camaraderie, and how they have such a good time. They're laughing, I love the noise. And I know they're safe and that's important to me.”

Many parents agree that they’d rather have their children in a safe, controlled environment playing cards than elsewhere.

“They could be doing anything else, but they’re staying out of trouble,” says Jordan's father, Paul Schneider. “The kids are not drinking, they’re not doing drugs. They’re in somebody’s house close to the neighborhood — we know where they are and I feel comfortable about that.”

Potential pitfalls
But gambling experts warn that home-grown poker playing is not without risk for teenagers who might have trouble knowing when to fold 'em before becoming addicted. Experts estimate up to eight percent of teens who gamble are at risk of developing gambling problems.

“Teenagers gambling is exactly the same as a teenager playing with a gun,” warns anti-gambling activist Jennifer McCausland. “It's a dangerous thing to do, sometimes the gun will go off.”

Many of the teens are aware of the risks, but insist that the poker games are just a fun social outlet for the time-being.

“You can see how gambling can be addictive,” says 16-year–old Bradley Freed. “You can wind up losing a lot of money, even starting this young with petty amounts right now.”

Freed says he has a relative who had a gambling addiction and warned him of the dangers.

“He just sits me down and tells me no matter how much fun, no matter how much I'm winning, the only way to win in gambling is to quit right now,” says Freed. “He's explained the money loss that he's had — it can be devastating. Good advice. But, I don’t know — it's pretty fun out here with our friends,” says Freed. 

Teaching skills
With poker sets selling faster than a shuffle this holiday season, psychologist and toy guru Stevanne Auerbach says the game can raise the stakes in a good way for many teens.

“Poker can help kids learn math, learn strategy, learn to think, learn to get involved,” says Auerbach. “They learn probability and how to develop some strategy. It's going to help them in math, and maybe in their social life.”

But these teens know, as in grown-up poker, the limits are set by the “House.”

Kerry Sanders is an NBC News correspondent.

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