Monday, November 01, 2004

Allrighty then, I'm finally back at my desk after a 72 hour bender. Even though it was the right thing to do, I still can't believe I left my job. I'm still attempting to fathom it all.

Anyway, I'm gonna write up a Guinness-fueled post in a few, but I thought this next article deemed it's own unique blog. From the Sunday edition of the New York Times, here's a great article entitled:

Poker Faces, and They Haven't Started Shaving

LARCHMONT, N.Y., Oct. 28 - The table was antique mahogany. The chips were casino-quality clay in a gleaming, Bond-like steel carrying case. The game was, of course, No Limit Texas Hold 'Em, except for the players who had already lost their buy-in and joined the poker and dice games in another room. Records of earnings and losses for the 15 regulars and 7 occasional players were kept on an Excel spreadsheet on one of the organizers' computers.

After 11 p.m. or so, the winners pocketed their cash. The players snacked on popcorn and whatever else they could forage from the kitchen, argued amiably about who was the biggest poker addict, and then ran into the backyard, where the floodlights allowed for a high-energy game of midnight football, the perfect way for a group of ninth graders to end an evening out.

Do you know where your high school kids are at night? If the answer is yes, chances are it's because they're poring over poker hands, practicing their dead man's stares, and aping the big timers on ESPN sitting there with dark glasses and million-dollar piles of chips at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Some youngsters have always played poker for money. But, thanks largely to the mania for televised poker, a night out for adolescent boys (and it is virtually all boys) in nearly any suburban town these days almost invariably takes the form of a marathon game with stakes as low as the $5 buy-in at this game or considerably higher at some impromptu tournaments. The favored game is Texas Hold 'Em, where each player is dealt two cards face down and then plays a hand with four rounds of betting based on those and five communal cards dealt open-faced.

Were this "The Music Man," Robert Preston could easily proclaim: "We've got trouble, right here in River City. With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Poker." But, as is often the case, when we look at our kids, we see ourselves reflected back, so even those inclined to wag fingers are mostly keeping it in check.

Certainly, most high school students don't see playing poker for $5 or $10 a night as a huge moral issue.

"It's not much different than going to someone's house and throwing around a football or baseball," said Ben Wrobel, a junior at Mamaroneck High School, sitting with two friends outside school on Thursday.

His friend Andrew Klein makes money giving drum lessons. He has won some money at poker, too, and he figures if he loses $10 or $20 at the game - or occasionally a bit more - it's his money. As for kids getting in too deep, he hasn't heard about it, but, with the world weariness of youth, he figures you can never tell.

"Nothing surprises me anymore," he said. "Bomb threats. Middle school kids getting wasted at school dances. You never know." (There was a notorious drinking incident at a middle school dance last year.)

Pick a town, any town, and you'll find kids more often than not who know the difference between the flop (first three communal cards in Hold 'Em), the turn (the fourth) and the river (the fifth). The World Series of Poker, which draws more than a million viewers per episode on ESPN has made poker stars like Doyle Brunson and Chris Moneymaker as familiar to adolescent boys as Kobe and Shaq. (And if the pot bellies and sallow visages of the supremely unglamorous poker elite aren't typical celebrity profiles, their air of eccentric inscrutability does have a certain middle school appeal to it.)

The Travel Channel's World Poker Tour and Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown have also been enormous cable hits, spawning other imitators.

At East Hampton High on Long Island, the principal, Scott Farina, said he hadn't heard about kids gambling on poker. "It has never been brought to my attention," he said. But of a handful of male students interviewed, all said they played.

Kevin Gomez plays once a month or so, Robert Dayton and Noah Kouffman usually play two or three times a week, and James Westfall, likes to play in "block periods" - he doesn't play for a few days and then plays for several days, sometimes from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

"Everyone has chips and decks," he said, adding that most games are for modest pots, although he once won a pot of $230. "I usually win, but when I lose I walk away."

His mother, Daryl Westfall, said she could tell there were days he was happy because he had won, but poker was mostly a mystery to her.

"It's like a secret club being a teenager," she said. "As long as we don't have to create a new 12-step program for teenage poker players, let's be happy they're doing something. I'm not going to worry until they're booking Las Vegas junkets through East Hampton High."

Poker begins well before high school these days. John Nakashian, who owns Creative Entertainment Associates, which arranges parties and other events, said he now regularly brings poker tables and dealers from casinos to bar mitzvahs, where kids don't play for money but often can win prizes, usually modest, sometimes as pricey as an iPod.

"I started with three Hold 'Em tables; I just had to order six more," he said. "The 13-year-olds know more about it than I do."

For almost all parents, the calculus of teenage poker begins with the alternatives. What's worse, they say, kids playing for a few dollars with friends at someone's house, with parents around? Or in cars, drinking on a golf course, or tempted by drugs? For most, it's an easy decision.

"My initial reaction was concern that it's gambling, but with parental restrictions, I'm comfortable with it," said Lori Brandon, whose son, Matt, 13, was one of the group of youngsters whose poker evening culminated in the football game. Most are good students and athletes at Mamaroneck High School.

"They play for $5, so when it's gone, they're done,'' Mrs. Brandon said. "The risk of losing more than $5 is zero. They're together with friends I know. There's a parent around. I know where he is. He'd spend more money going to the movies."

Some fathers with fond memories of their own youthful poker days not only are comfortable with the games, but like sitting in sometimes. And for some parents, there's the ancillary benefit that the game takes concentration and math skills, so it's not true slackerdom.

"Someone said that the kids usually left at the end are the ones with the highest SAT scores," one Larchmont mother said.

Helene Fremder, the social worker at Mamaroneck High, and experts elsewhere say for some youngsters gambling at a young age will lead to addictive gambling. Experts say parents should be aware if youngsters play too often, become obsessed, or start letting poker crowd out other activities. (It's probably not a great sign, for example, that some Mamaroneck High students play at restaurants, the school steps or at someone's home during lunch.)

"Most of it's harmless," said Nancy Petry, a professor of psychiatry and an expert on gambling and addictions at the University of Connecticut. "But parents should know that it can become a problem, and I think a lot of them don't know that."

Still, she and experts at Harvard and the University of Minnesota were all quite sanguine about poker's hold on America's youth. They note that the country is in the midst of a revolution in its view of gambling - now a $70 billion annual business, excluding Internet gambling - from casinos to lotteries to sports betting to poker on television, and that the young are part of that shift.

People can make different moral calculations about how good or bad this is. But Ken Winters, of the department of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, said that despite real risks of addictive gambling, so far the spread of legalized gambling has not sent the country hurtling toward perdition and probably won't send its youth there either.

"I worry about sexually transmitted diseases and drug abuse a lot more than I worry about gambling," he said. "I really don't think the sky is falling with Texas Hold 'Em. My parents' generation said the Beatles would be the beginning of the end. I don't think it really led to all that much trouble."

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