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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 June 2005, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
The growing allure of online poker
By Ben Richardson
BBC business reporter

Poker player Dave Ulliot, aka Devilfish
Do you fancy staring down poker players like Dave 'Devilfish' Ulliot?
Paul is a currency broker who plays poker to relax when he gets home after a hectic day at work in London.

The 26-year-old logs on most nights of the week, sitting down at a virtual card table and battling opponents for up to four hours at a time.

As a hobby it is not unusual and poker is one of the UK's fastest growing ways to gamble.

"I've always loved card games, and played things like whist when I was younger," he explained as colleagues shouted euro prices in the background.

"I don't find it stressful, it's just a bit of fun."

Ace in the hole

The British - supposed champions of the underdog and defenders of the fair fight - have always loved a flutter.

Now they are gambling online in increasing numbers and companies are looking to cash in.

Online gaming firms PartyGaming and Empire Online, which both specialise in poker, announced plans on Thursday to sell shares on the London Stock Exchange.

So what is it that makes the pastime so attractive and why has the value of the global market more than tripled in size to close to $1.5bn (827m) over the past two years?

Why we gamble
Poker player with full house
A way of escaping from stress or problems
Lure of the buzz, excitement, high adrenaline release
The competitive element - trying to beat other players, the bookie, or the dealer
The thrill of risk taking, placing large bets

One reason is that poker is seen as a game of skill rather than luck, where one player is pitted against another and as Paul puts it, "the cream always rises to the top".

Another is the spread of the internet and our increasing confidence in the safety of online businesses.

On top of that, gambling is becoming an increasingly hip and accessible means of entertainment - just look at the resurgence of Las Vegas in the US and plans to build massive casino complexes in the UK.

Bookmakers no longer have blacked out windows, the lottery and its multi-millionaire winners are part of everyday life, fruit machines are in pubs and chip shops across the country.

Betting nation?

According to research group Forrester, 76% of the UK's 29 million adult internet users admit to regularly placing a bet either online or offline.

The Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas
Turn on your computer and you can be in Vegas in seconds

Demand for PartyGaming shares is expected to be strong and early estimates suggest the firm could be worth more than 5bn.

Let's just put that into perspective - that would make PartyGaming bigger than stock market stalwarts British Airways and Sainsbury's.

What makes the internet such a good medium for gambling is that the computer, or the front door into the casino if you prefer, is often sitting somewhere in our house.

To get the buzz, you no longer have to put on a dinner suit or glamorous frock, sip martinis and bet your shirt on black. Nor do you have to brave a smoke-filled room full of people called the Devilfish and Amarillo Slim.

Today, you can make a nice cup of tea, stack a plate with biscuits and try to beat the odds in your pyjamas.

And that is what has got a lot of people very worried.

'Addictive qualities'

Previously, there was always a chance that your gambling urge would come at a time when there was nowhere open to place a bet.

Now "it's a problem 24-7", said Adrian Scarfe, clinical practice manager at gambling addiction counselling and advice service Gamcare.

"In the last three years we have seen a change," he explained from his office near London's financial centre. "Internet gambling has risen steadily and in my view it will continue to rise."

Poker player with stack of chips
It's not the taking part that counts, it's the winning

According to Gamcare's latest report, of the 4,452 first time callers that provided details of their gambling experiences, 9% stated that the gambling was taking place on the internet.

Interestingly, in a world where gambling addicts are predominately male, more and more women are signing up for online gaming services.

"The internet has its own addictive qualities," said Mr Scarfe.

"Combine that with the thrill of playing cards and large sums of money and you have an extremely complex but dangerous environment."

Despite the concerns, online betting and games such as poker cause far fewer problems than the more traditional method of popping down the bookmaker or hitting the slots at the arcade.

And it would be unfair to blame the internet for the emergence of gambling addiction, which one analyst called a "hidden problem that has been around for years".

Observers will be hoping, however, that a boom in corporate profits does not mean a harmless bit of fun has to turn into a national obsession.

Are you addicted to online poker? Or is it just a busted flush? Here is a selection of views on the pastime that's supposedly sweeping the nation.

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

I play for fun on low-stakes tables, the buzz being the competition and occasional player chat.

The key is to never bet more than one can afford to lose, but I think that when you sign up to these companies with one's credit/debit card, one should be able to specify a maximum amount which can be debited in any 24-hour period. In this way, there is some control against any impulse to dip back into funds.
Stuart, Bolton

I cannot understand why we continually glamourise gambling. Online gambling is a quick way to lose your money, then your home, then ultimately your family. In extreme cases it results in people losing their lives!

Every penny of the money made by the online gambling companies has come from someone's hard earned cash. Money that is needed in most families.

I've been there and almost lost everything many years ago - I haven't gambled for over four years now and I haven't looked back.

Peter McClurg, Coatbridge, Scotland

Gambling addiction is, in its own way, unique. Whereas alcohol and substance abuse has a chemical addiction, the buzz from gambling is a mental state of mind which is desirable.

I am a law student, who works in the gambling industry, plays online poker, bets online, regularly attends sporting events, bets on said events and thoroughly enjoys it. I also trade in shares, currencies and bonds. The difference? None. Financial trading is, at root, no different from betting on horses, cards or football. You take the information, assess the probabilities and make a financial investment based on those probabilities. The only anomaly is that financial trading is socially acceptable, and, despite your correspondent's assertions, gambling still is not. The social stigma attached to gambling is still strong, despite the change in business practices over the past decade.

The government is clearly committed to further deregulating the industry and I for one welcome this. Seeing an addict gamble away money they do not have is one of the saddest things, but, as with everything else in life, responsibility is the key word.
Sam Burrows, Southampton

I've been addicted to poker for 10 years. I just quit again a few days ago. People don't realise this but gambling addiction doesn't happen overnight, it's slow and progressive, and takes years to fully develop.

You reach a point where little else in life is as enjoyable or meaningful. I believe nearly everyone who gambles regularly over an extended period will become addicted - so BE WARNED this will happen to you!

Gambling causes you to literally lose your mind slowly and progressively, your motivation changes subtly almost unnoticably at first, eventually there's nothing else you really want to do except gamble, not even wash, eat or sleep. It sucks your soul. The conservative US government rightly recognises these risks, but unfortunately now the genie is out of the bottle, and market forces are more powerful than all the world's governments combined. There will likely be a regulatory backlash in 10-20 years.
Martin, USA

I pay $1 or $2 for entry to multitable tournaments where several hundrd players at a time compete to win a percentage of the total entry fee pot. Winning is achieved by gambling only with the sum of around $1,500 in virtual money which your real money entry fee entitles each player to. Thus you get all the fun and adrenalin rush of poker but can never lose more than the entry fee. I get an hour or so of entertainment for the price of a newspaper - I call that good value! And occasionally I even win a small amount!
Hugh, Edinburgh

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