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Poker’s hold on teens, tweens

Times Staff Writer

Poker isn’t allowed in school, so eighth grade would-be card sharks ditch telltale chips, gather at lunch and use push-ups as currency: “I see your five push-ups and raise you 15.” Faced with the same dilemma, high schoolers bet bags of potato chips and cookies from their lunches, or toothpicks that they can quickly stuff into their pockets if the principal happens along.

Ask any teens or tweens and they’ll tell you poker is in. Ask their parents, and they’ll marvel that TVs and video game consoles are gathering dust. Over the last two years, poker has increasingly become the centerpiece of family game nights, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, post-prom bashes, even weddings.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 13, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 13, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
School location -- An article in the Sept. 30 Home section about poker playing by children said that Clark Magnet High School is in Glendale. The school, part of the Glendale Unified School District, is in La Crescenta.

Within the party industry, “casinos are the big thing,” says Tracy Nguyen, director of sales and marketing for the Sterling, Va.-based Entertainment Connection. “There are a lot of companies that do nothing but.” About half the customers booking high school-sponsored parties ask for poker, says Nguyen. Or they ask for “you know, that game they play on ESPN.”

“Most of my friends play poker,” says Mark Glicksteen, an eighth-grader at Medea Creek Middle School in Oak Park, in Ventura County. For his 12th birthday, Mark had a “casino party” -- guests played poker, blackjack and roulette. During the school year, Mark and buddies host weekly poker games at their houses, usually betting chips, but sometimes, he says, they have $1 buy-ins.

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Poker experts and middle school kids say the trend is pushed along by television shows that feature the game and aided by a renewed interest in person-to-person interaction. (Board game sales are also up 6% over last year, according to the marketing research firm NDP Group.)

The youthful penchant for poker is winning praise from parents such as Carrie Glicksteen, Mark’s mother, who says cards have supplanted another pastime with its own downside -- shoot-'em-up video games -- as Mark and friends’ favorite activity. “They actually sit down with real people and socialize with each other,” says Glicksteen. “The whole idea of playing games across the table is a really nice thing -- an opportunity to interact again.”

Yet some parents are bothered by poker’s popularity, even as they accede to their children’s wishes. One Southern California mother who let her son have a poker party for his 16th birthday would not allow him to discuss it with a reporter. “We’re not into gambling, and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that our family is,” she says. Gambling “has become almost an illness with some of our older son’s friends. It’s something you have to watch.”

The gambling helpline at the nonprofit National Council on Problem Gaming has received an influx of calls this year from people in their late teens and 20s, says Keith Whyte, executive director of the organization. “Kids have got to be aware that it’s a health hazard.... The earlier you expose your kids to gambling, the more likely they are to develop a gambling problem.” Just as parents might allow children a sip of wine at the dinner table but wouldn’t let them guzzle, children should be taught to play poker in moderation, he says.

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Mark learned to play Texas hold ‘em -- the card game that has stormed casinos and at-home tables since the advent of TV poker -- by watching the World Series of Poker on ESPN. The Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour started the trend in March 2003, and since then Bravo, the Fox Sports Network and other channels have aired their own versions.

Internet poker kindled the TV poker phenomenon, says David G. Schwartz, coordinator of the Gaming Studies Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The Web’s poker landscape is ever expanding; between January 2001 and August 2004, the number of Internet tournament players increased by 2,500% to 21,930 per hour, according to Pokerpulse.com.

“America has always been a nation of gamblers ... of risk takers,” and kids are no exception, Whyte says. Research indicates that gambling is often the earliest of the addictive behaviors. In studies of kids younger than 17, “gambling precedes almost all other risky behaviors: smoking, substance abuse, fighting and promiscuous sex. It may be the gateway behavior that we believed marijuana was,” he adds.

In a study last year by the Adolescent Risk Communications Institute, more than half of young people age 14 to 22 reported gambling in an average month. The study found that those younger than 18 favored card games, sports betting and bingo.

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At Clark Magnet High School in Glendale, kids raced to finish their standardized tests last spring, eager to play poker during the dead time afterward -- until the assistant principal caught on and banned poker in the classroom, says Chris Davis, an English and history teacher at the school. Students still sneak in hands of poker during lunch, he adds.

Eighteen-year-old Kevin Chan played poker in high school -- for toothpicks, push-ups and, yes, sometimes for cash -- but the Rowland Heights native didn’t expect poker to be an official event at his UCLA orientation last month. Chan came in second; the tournament winner took home a T-shirt.

“The person who I played against, at the very end, she had a French diagnostic test the next morning,” Chan says. “But we were still playing at 1 or 2 a.m. And there was still a crowd around us.”

This is the first year that UCLA has offered poker at orientation, and it was a major hit, says Matthew Ontell, a senior political science major who helped organize the event. Nearly everyone, young men and women, knew how to play. Throughout orientation, “they were all playing among themselves.” Poker is much bigger this year than last year, he says.

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The freshmen “will have a lot of dorm games,” says Ontell, and fuel the poker playing that’s taken off at UCLA in recent years. “Before, everybody sat around and played Counterstrike,” says Ontell of the video game. “Now people play poker.”

Instead of cracking down on gambling, many colleges and universities stage “casino nights” at which students play poker and other Vegas-style games, parlaying faux money into door prizes. There’s even an Internet-based international “College Poker Championship”: Students enter for free and compete for tuition money and donations to charities of their choice.

Away from campus, poker is “one more way to get everybody together,” says Susan Huber, 46, of Orange, whose 26-year-old son and daughter-in-law started the Orange County Poker Tour in December as a family get-together. The monthly tournament has expanded to include some 40 family members and friends.

There are men and women, college kids and retirees, many wearing good luck charms -- Members Only jackets or sunglasses or bowlers -- crowding around card tables in the backyard and living room, often until 2 a.m. Each winner gets to keep a modified softball trophy (with playing cards glued to its top) until somebody steals the title.

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With flashy wads of cash floating around -- buy-in is $30 -- this family game night is a long way from Yahtzee.

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When gambling gets out of hand

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Should parents keep their kids from playing poker? Most gambling addiction experts say no. Instead, they suggest that you make a point of knowing what your kids are up to and telling them that gambling can be a health hazard. Review with them such warning signs as:

* A preoccupation with gambling -- when gambling infringes on more important activities.

* The need to bet more and more money to achieve the same feeling of excitement.

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* Loss of control, or the inability to set limits on the amount of time or how much they gamble.

And make sure that kids know where to turn for help if they need it.

For more information on gambling addiction, contact the National Council on Problem Gaming, (800) 522-4700, or go to www.ncpgambling.org.

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-- Steven Barrie-Anthony


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