Now that his high school football season is over, Zak Coppinger has been playing poker every chance he can get.
With his mom’s blessing, he’s turned the family dining room, complete with green walls and a chandelier, into a poker parlor for himself and his buddies. He also keeps a deck of cards at school so he can play impromptu games during class or lunch.
“It’s better than homework, I can tell you that,” the 18-year-old from Austin, Texas, says with a chuckle.
He’s just one of the many young people who have become avid players of Texas Hold ’Em and other poker games — a trend sparked, in part, by TV shows that feature tournaments for celebrities and professional poker players. But gambling opponents wonder if some teens, and the adults who let them play, are taking it too far.
“It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s glamorized on TV and in the media in a way that other addictions are not,” says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “There’s the impression that through skill you can beat the odds. But randomness is always going to have a bigger factor in determining the outcome than your skill.
“And unfortunately, that’s not the message these kids get.”
Some parents cut back
Some parents have heeded the warning, cutting back on casino nights at after-prom parties and other events. And officials at a growing number of schools — from New Trier High School, north of Chicago, to Apple Valley High School in suburban Minneapolis — have recently started banning poker-playing on their campuses.
Dave Smiley, principal at Elgin High School in suburban Chicago, began enforcing an old ban on card and dice games months ago: “We’re like church — you shouldn’t be gambling in school,” he says.
That said, Smiley concedes that his view softens when it comes to teens playing poker at their friends’ homes.
“I’m not going to be hypocritical. I think my own son has participated in some of these games — and he’s in high school,” he says, noting that he likes knowing his son is somewhere safe and supervised.
‘You’re paying for entertainment’
Teens also argue that, with the standard $10 buy-in to get into a game, the stakes aren’t particularly high.
“You’re paying for entertainment,” says Eli Goldfarb, a freshman at Columbia University in New York. “The long and the short of it is, I have fun playing poker, and when I play well, I can buy more burritos.
“What’s not to like?”
He started playing Texas Hold ’Em when he was in high school at the Field School, a private academy in Washington, D.C., where teacher Will Layman says poker’s never been a problem. But Layman also understands that some teens may not be able to control their betting.
“I would never criticize a parent who felt that poker — which really isn’t much of a game at all if you don’t bet in some form — was too tempting for their kid,” says Layman, who plays poker with his daughter and son, ages 14 and 10. “But it is not the same as, say, smoking pot because with poker, the activity isn’t harmful unless it becomes an overindulged habit — whereas pot impairs you every time.”
The instructional side
Some parents go as far as saying that poker teaches critical-thinking and math skills.
And Josh Kohnstamm, a father in Mendota Heights, Minn., says it’s become the perfect escape for his studious 16-year-old son, Josh, who “takes everything too seriously.”
Poker, Kohnstamm says, allows Josh to “whup the school’s best athletes — computer geek that he is — and allows him to come away feeling lucky when that is a sensation that rarely happens in his everyday life.”
But Dan Romer, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, worries about kids who take gambling too far.
“At a minimum, it should be monitored,” says Romer, director of research at the Adolescent Risk Communications Institute at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Survey: 8 percent of teens in jeopardy
He oversaw the 2003 Annenberg National Risk Survey of Youth, which found that about 8 percent of the young people surveyed showed signs of having a gambling problem.
Those results led him to conclude that schools should teach about the dangers of gambling, the same way they teach that alcohol and drugs can be addictive. He also says that government officials who oversee public gambling — casinos and lotteries — have a special responsibility to closely watch young people, who are allowed to gamble legally in many states as young as age 18.
Romer says Internet gambling is a particular worry because it can be done on the sly and is often less regulated.
Still, Ross Atteberry, a high school senior in Westfield, Ind., says the poker he plays with friends is not in that league of gambling.
“Obviously,” the 18-year-old says, “cops aren’t going to be kicking in doors to bust in on friendly card games.”