Number of Teen Gamblers in U.S. Rising Significantly

June 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


LEE HOCHBERG: A dozen teenage boys in the Seattle-area town of Snohomish gather after school and on weekends, sometimes twice a day, and the poker bets and the money fly.

They said the purse could reach $150 before long. Seventeen-year-old Seth Follis said he’s walked away from poker games with twice that in his pocket.

TEEN: In a night, I’ve lost 50 bucks. But then the next day I won close to $300, so…

LEE HOCHBERG: So you’re a net winner.

TEEN: Yeah. Since the beginning of last summer, I’ve won, like, $700.

LEE HOCHBERG: Poker has moved from the smoke-filled back rooms of yesterday to the suburban living rooms and basements of today. Many of the players aren’t roughhewn grownups chomping cigars, but baby-faced teens munching fast-food burritos. It’s all been triggered by gambling on the Internet and an explosion of poker programming on cable television.

SPOKESPERSON: Tonight from Las Vegas, the Omaha world championship.

LEE HOCHBERG: The current fad is an old game that’s been refreshed on television: No-limit Texas hold ‘em, in which a player can bet all of his money in one risky move. The game has the drama needed to hold a TV audience and to electrify thrill-seeking teenagers.

Nick Joy loved the game. An incoming sophomore at Central Washington University, he played it frequently as a high school student in the Seattle suburb of Shoreline. He liked it so much, he and a partner decided to shoot a movie about it. Through the lens, though, he saw some things he hadn’t noticed as a player.

NICK JOY: I definitely saw kids getting into it too deep…but playing so much. You know, they’d want to play every single day. You know, all the time. You have kids playing at school. I mean, that’s not even after school. That’s during school and after stool. Kids were playing just to win so bad instead of playing with their friends. So the money kind of took a step above the friendship.

LEE HOCHBERG: He filmed teens gambling in casinos near his high school. Casinos operate in about 30 states, including Washington, which sets an age limit of 18 for entry.

Joy’s movie showed younger teens being admitted. And casinos are where Dustin Waggoner’s life spiraled out of control. Now 20, he started playing poker a few years ago in the lunchroom of his high school in Puyallup, Washington, then every night at college.

DUSTIN WAGGONER: It was everywhere. That’s a good way of looking at it. It was everywhere. If the friends weren’t playing it, it was on TV. If it wasn’t on TV, it’s on the computer. If nobody is doing it, we’re talking about it. We’re talking about what happened the night before.

LEE HOCHBERG: He quit college after a year to support his newborn son.

DUSTIN WAGGONER: This is my favorite picture of him and me.

LEE HOCHBERG: But he found himself regularly at this casino in nearby Tacoma, where he began winning and winning.

DUSTIN WAGGONER: My wallet was just full of cash. I mean, what greater feeling it is when you’ve got all this money I made in two days? So the very next day I called in sick at work and did the exact same routine and won more money. You know, I had bouncers walk me out. Man, I felt like a celebrity. A teen doesn’t get treated like that every day.

LEE HOCHBERG: When his luck and money ran out, though, he felt like a desperate teen.

DUSTIN WAGGONER: I had $1,000 in my son’s bank. And I took that out and spent it. I don’t know why I did it. As I was drawing the money out of the bank, I felt like a bullet was going through me, but I wasn’t smart enough to put it back. I remember I lost that $1,000. I remember leaving the casino at about 2:00 in the morning. I was just bawling my eyes out. And I usually don’t cry, but I mean, I cried and cried.

LEE HOCHBERG: Waggoner’s family split up, and he went to Gamblers Anonymous. Waggoner is not alone, according to Gary Hanson of the Washington State Council on Problem Gambling.

GARY HANSON: The actual number in Washington State of teens that have gambling problems is 8.4 percent. I’m going to tell you, that’s way more than the adult rate.

LEE HOCHBERG: The Council on Problem Gambling estimates 200,000 American teens are addicted to gambling. Hanson travels to schools like the high school in Snohomish to warn kids about the dangers.

GARY HANSON: Have any of you seen teens with gambling problems?

TEENS: Yeah.

GARY HANSON: They’re gambling too much? They’re betting too much, getting in over their heads?

LEE HOCHBERG: But young gamblers say it’s hard for the message of caution to compete with TV shows. Like the World Series of Poker. It’s presented as a sporting event, with tiny cameras showing the competing players’ cards so the viewer can play along at home.

ESPN has hit the jackpot with the program, with ratings comparable to its major league baseball coverage. The Travel Channel, Bravo, and the History Channel also present tense poker matches with cunning, engaging contestants. Chris Moneymaker has won $2.5 million in TV tournaments.

DUSTIN WAGGONER: While we were playing poker ourselves, we would sometimes talk about the guys on TV, or give ourselves their name, you know, and say “I’m Moneymaker,” and et cetera. They made it on TV look like anybody can do it.

You can win lots of money. You can win this fame. They never show you the guy losing and walking away and is broke. They don’t care about me; they don’t care about the other people like me. They’d rather put it on TV and get their ratings and make their money.

LEE HOCHBERG: ESPN answers that in fact, its audience for poker is overwhelmingly adult. It says only 6 percent of its poker viewers are between the ages of 12 and 17.

The network notes it airs public service announcements about problem gambling. “We present all our programming, including poker, responsibly and with context,” it said in a statement. “At the end of the day, parents are responsible for raising their children – not television.”

And many parents believe the poker craze is harmless to their teens. Seth Follis’s mother, Darlene, says she’s glad just to have a full house of boys downstairs.

DARLENE FOLLIS: Exactly that. They’re not on the streets. I know where they are. I know exactly what they’re doing. And if I hear of any trouble, I know none of them were involved because they were here. I think they’re just having fun.

LEE HOCHBERG: But amidst the fun, these teens, who admit they’ve sometimes borrowed money to play, wonder if addiction may be just another hand away.

TEEN 1: Whenever I lose, I always want to play again.

TEEN 2: Yeah, he probably is addicted.

TEEN 3: He could be.

TEEN 1: Whenever you borrow money from your grandmother to play, I’m pretty sure you’re probably addicted.

LEE HOCHBERG: Nick Joy’s documentary on the risks of teen gambling was chosen to play at the Seattle International Film Festival in June. He says he’s glad he knew when to fold ‘em. The challenge will be if these kids and thousands of other new poker players show the judgment to do the same.