Originally created 03/27/04

Letting the chips fall



ATHENS, Ga. - There's often a full house at Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity - in more ways than one.

At any time, day or night, the University of Georgia fraternity brothers and their friends are playing poker, putting aside studying to learn the tricks of Texas Hold'em and other games.

"If everybody has nothing to do, we've had seven- to eight-hour sessions. It's so addictive," said Marshall Saul, a sophomore whose room is decorated with a poster of dogs playing poker.

The popularity of television shows such as Bravo's Celebrity Poker and the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour have fueled a card-playing craze on campuses. These days, college students are perfecting their poker faces in lively games nearly everywhere - in dorm rooms, fraternity and sorority houses, and campus tournaments.

Buy-in games organized by some colleges and student groups have drawn hundreds, with prizes ranging from money to televisions.

Some online poker companies are targeting students with tournaments such as the first College Poker Championship.com, which began free qualifying rounds in January. Prizes range from $500 to $50,000 scholarships, and student winners also can donate as much as $100,000 to charities of their choice.

The creators of World Poker Tour, which kicked off a new season this month, also say a poker competition between colleges, with scholarship money and other prizes, is in development.

"We know it's become a big huge thing," said Steve Lipscomb, the CEO of World Poker Tour. "If I were in college, I'd be nuts about it."

In Athens, three fraternities and sororities and the Campus Jewish Center recently sponsored a buy-in student tournament at a bar. The $15 registration fee was used for cash prizes.

"It is crazy on campus," said Rachel Dorfman, a sophomore who often plays poker for hours with her Sigma Delta Tau sisters. "It is absolutely the thing to do right now."

In New York, the turnout at Binghamton University's free poker tournaments exceeded expectations, with as many as 260 players in a recent one. A last-minute Valentine's Day tournament drew 150 players.

"The kids stay in their ... rooms and play anyway," said Eric Zirlinger, who coordinates the events. "For them, it's a chance to play against a whole different bunch of people."

Many of the players new to the game acknowledge that they picked up some of the rules and intricacies of poker from watching it on TV.

"You mention Texas Hold'em two years ago, people maybe wouldn't have known what it was; now, it's part of mainstream culture," Mr. Saul said.

Ms. Dorfman, who also enjoys playing poker online, said all her friends watch poker on TV. When it comes to gambling, she typically plays with dime chips, losing a couple of dollars at the most, although she said other games involve higher stakes.

The fact that students are spending so much time playing poker, betting and acknowledging that the game can be addictive is of concern to gambling advocacy groups. The 18- to 24-year-old age group has some of the highest rates of gambling addictions, said Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Online tournaments such as College Poker Championship.com are "extremely troubling" because they target students and do not put out warning signs or post help line numbers for addicts, he said.

"It's actively soliciting kids to gamble, and in some states, that may be illegal," Mr. Whyte said. "You wouldn't have a college drinking championship or a college smoking championship."

His group wants Web sites and casinos, and even colleges where students are playing poker heavily, to educate people about gambling addictions.

"What I've heard anecdotally, the colleges are much more focused on things like drug abuse, date rape and binge drinking," Mr. Whyte said.

For World Poker Tour's Mr. Lipscomb, there are much bigger evils on campus than college students playing poker.

"Of all the things you're confronted with in college, this seems to me to be just about the most benign form of entertainment you'll find," he said. "The reality is that if you're actually paying attention and wanting to play poker, you're less likely to drink a lot. ... I can't feel guilty about that."