Stacking the Deck

October 26, 2011

A friend’s $10,000 debt was reason enough for the founder of “Your College Poker Club” to create a gaming site with minimal financial risk to offer what he calls a safe alternative for college students interested in poker.

But the site could be a “gateway” for college students, an already susceptible subgroup, to more extreme addictive behaviors, some gambling experts say.

Your College Poker Club was created by an Arizona State University student, Chandler Bator, who said "what we are doing is fulfilling that need that students have already and are providing it in a safe atmosphere where the risk is limited." Bator said that in his freshman year, a friend had to withdraw from the university after falling into deep debt by gambling at offshore websites.

Your College Poker Club currently hosts about 160 college-specific gaming sites and membership requires a $19.95 fee per month, offering Texas Hold ‘Em poker games and sports betting, among other games.  The site, targeted at college students, states that there are no cash buy-ins or any real cash betting. Students can use credits to buy in to tournaments that offer daily and weekly cash prizes, Bator said.

He said the main draw will be a World Series of Poker tournament seat worth $10,000 that users can win through the site. “Students can lose no more than $20 a month no matter how well or how poorly they perform,” the ASU junior said.

Bator said the 160 college-specific sites will fully launch in the next two weeks.

The site arrives shortly after the enactment of a new federal law, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which prohibits financial institutions, such as banks, from accepting illegal Internet gambling payments. This put several online gaming sites, including FullTiltPoker.net, out of business.

But this gaming site might not be filling the void in a positive way, said Tim Otteman, an assistant professor of recreation, parks and leisure services at Central Michigan University who studies issues related to gambling and students. "Nobody becomes an alcoholic before their first drink … and nobody has a gambling problem until they make their first bet," said Otteman.  “Well, this could be their first bet.”

According to the National Center for Responsible Gaming, almost 75 percent of college students reported having gambled in the past year, and about 6 percent have been identified as problem gamblers.  The center also found that students with a gambling problem are more likely to be binge drinkers, use drugs and have lower grades. "It’s the opportunity for you to start a very slippery slope," Otteman said. "Regardless if you are putting a dollar on the line … or pseudo credits, that rush still happens."

That rush is what could open the casino doors for some college students, said Brian Kongsvik, the helpline director at the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling. Over time, students could build a sense of invincibility — “I beat 100 different people here, why don’t I go and try that tournament at the casino down the road?” — that will lead some to chase their losses.

“This could be a gateway for some individuals that could lead them down a path to a lot of problems in life,” he said.

When it comes down to it though, “if it’s not real money, then it’s not real money and therefore is not gambling,” said Christine Reilly, senior research director at the National Center for Responsible Gaming, said.

But students could be using a site like this to get better at these games of skill, she said. Recent studies have shown that while gambling among college students is a problem, online gambling is the least reported gaming activity by the demographic.  More research is needed on the subject to get a clearer picture, she said.

Clayton Neighbors, professor of psychology and director of the social psychology program at the University of Houston, said although the site does not directly host gambling, it promotes it in other ways, most notably through the seat at the World Series of Poker prize. Neighbors said one could potentially argue that this is a substitute for gambling, just as methadone is a substitute for heroin or nicotine chewing gum is a replacement for cigarettes. 

"It might be worthy to see if [the site] would provide a satisfactory substitution for those that would otherwise gamble,” he said. “But my gut is that it’s not something I would endorse."

Bator said he recognizes the site does not hold the same allure as a regular gambling website, but it does offer a fun, competitive atmosphere for students at rival colleges to gamble. "We are just offering a safer outlet for students that already have the desire to anyway," he said.

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