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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 September 2005, 07:01 GMT 08:01 UK
The youthful lure of online poker
By Mark Alden
Producer, Place your Bets

From smoky back-rooms to suburban craze, internet poker is taking the world by storm. This business is worth billions, but is it doing enough to stop underage gamblers logging on and losing out?

Poker table
More young people gamble once a week than take drugs
Ian More is studying for a post graduate degree at the University Pennsylvania, one of America's Ivy League universities.

He is bright, computer savvy and, like many students, spends most of his leisure time playing poker.

"When I first arrived at Penn, I was living with people in dorms and everyone was playing poker online. It was exciting because they were winning really big. Some of them would post on their door how much money they won.

"They spent $25 on a tournament and brought home $1700 that night. And so you wanted to be a part of that as well."

Ian is one of around 20 million Americans gambling online today, half of all those playing around the world. A staggering figure considering 10 years ago the industry did not even exist.

It is a boom being driven predominantly by young people, drawn to game by the hugely popular poker shows on cable TV offering the chance to become millionaire celebrities overnight.

Surprisingly, it is on college campuses like Penn University that online poker fever is really taking hold. A recent study across America found that the number of high school and college students playing poker for money has doubled in the last year.

Adolescents calling

Today more young people gamble once a week than smoke, drink or take drugs combined.

"Poker playing seems to have grown to the point where now you've got about 20% of young males, who are either in high school or in college playing poker with their friends on a weekly basis," says Dan Romer, who runs the Annenberg Adolescent Risk Communication Centre at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Of those at least a quarter of them would be exhibiting some form of problem gambling symptoms."

I know it's hard for people to believe but people die from compulsive gambling
Terry Elman, Council on Compulsive Gambling
The statistics leave you in little doubt about the flipside of the online poker boom. Across America, the number of people under the age of 21 calling gambling help lines has doubled in the last two years.

In the state of New Jersey alone, those adolescents actually in treatment for gambling problems has risen by 30% in the last 12 months.

Terry Elman, education co-ordinator for the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, says more and more kids are getting sucked in over their heads by the online poker boom.

"I was invited to go to a school the day before Christmas vacation and I got there at 7 o'clock in the morning and they were wheeling a boy out in a body bag," he says.

"He had hung himself the night before because he had lost on a bet. I know it's hard for people to believe but people die from compulsive gambling."

Around 5 to 6% of adults become what's called "pathological gamblers". That means they exhibit severe addictive behaviour. But that figure doubles among young people under 24.

Strict door security at land casinos means that few if any underage kids will be able to gamble. But the cyber world, of course, is far harder to police.

New frontier

John Anderson, chief executive of the internet casino group, 888.com, says he is confident that the safeguards he has put in place to prevent underage gamblers are effective.

"We have lots of systems in place which can actually tell if you're a teenager of not," he says.

"I don't want to go into what the systems are, but these are systems that are 99.9% certain that we can actually catch you and stop you playing if you're underage."

However, in a BBC test on another popular internet poker sites, there certainly did not appear to be too many security systems in place.

As long as you are prepared to lie about your age and enter a false date of birth, which most youths are, and you have access to a credit card with the correct billing address, you can get online straight away and start gambling.

The internet poker craze has taken everyone by surprise. Suddenly you can visit a cyber casino or play a hand of poker with people on the other side of the planet without leaving your sofa. You can win or lose $1,000 at the click of a mouse.

This is the new frontier of gambling. But with it comes a whole new set of problems which the authorities have to work out how to solve. And fast.

The World Service radio series: Place your Bets can be heard online at the World Service documentary archive.

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