The One-Minute Guide to Poker
• Splash the pot.
• Ask if it's your turn.
• Ask to see a losing hand.
• Ask for advice.
• Offer advice.
• Suggest a round of shots.
• Blame the dealer.
• Throw in your watch.
Poker has become a game of the young. The last three winners of the annual World Series of Poker “Main Event,” poker’s top tournament, were 22, 21 and 23 years old, respectively, and males. A 2010 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found 16 percent of college-age males — 1.7 million young men — gambled on the Internet at least once a month, primarily by playing poker. A 2008 Florida study found college students twice as given to gamble as older adults. Poker sites cater to college students. One promises: “$30,000 guaranteed! You’ve been studying, this is the exam!” Another asks, “How would you like to have $10,000 shaved off of this year’s tuition?” To those who study gambling as an addiction, this predilection for poker puts thousands of college students in peril. Students with gambling problems are more likely to run up credit card debt, take drugs, get bad grades and steal, studies have found. “It doesn’t just mean money,” said Jeffrey Derevensky, a youth gambling researcher at McGill University in Canada. “It can mean time. It can mean theft. It can mean kids dropping out of school.”
The past decade has seen an evolution of gambling to “gaming,” a triumph of euphemism amid a wave of legislation to legalize and destigmatize wagering. Forty-eight states and the District now permit citizens to gamble legally, according to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington. Utah and Hawaii are the lone holdouts. Poker, in particular, has become viewed as a sort of athletic event, although the U.S. government still views online poker as a crime. “There’s been a massive cultural shift toward acceptance and accessibility and availability of gambling in America,” Whyte said. “And that certainly filters down to the kids.”
In this climate, some gambling experts say legalized online poker is inevitable. Supporters say legalization would cleanse an industry tarnished by scandal. Because online sites operate outside U.S. law, they are largely unregulated. “Those people who got swindled by Full Tilt, they’d be much less likely to be swindled if it was legal,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a prominent supporter of legal gambling. But some veteran players say online poker will never be safe. They point to the ease with which poker sites have been hacked and the outcomes manipulated. “The poker sites up to now have not had the software capability to detect collusion,” said Robert Turner, a professional player and poker security expert based in Downey, Calif. Turner said he supports legalized poker, but not until the industry can catch cheats. Many fewer students are playing poker online since the federal crackdown. “Poker’s already risky,” said Matthew Baker, 22, a graduate student at Virginia Tech. “Now, whether you win or lose, you still might not get your money. And it’s really hard to say which site is going to be trustworthy.” But Baker wouldn’t bet against the online poker industry. “I feel like somebody’s going to fill the void,” he said.
The two survivors couldn't be more different. Cada, 21, is a brash Internet poker whiz who began learning the game online as a teenager; he has already had enough success playing cards that he's been able to buy his own house. He looks like he just swept in from an Abercrombie ad shoot, and he's in line to become the youngest champ in Main Event history. He'd probably be the first winner, too, to have worn a watch with a king-of-hearts card on its face during the final table. Moon, 46, is a laconic poker hobbyist who plays in low-stakes tournaments at the local Elks Lodge and American Legion. He doesn't use the Internet, doesn't have an e-mail address and keeps telling everybody he's dumb. He looks like a redheaded fire hydrant with meat hooks for arms and swears he's returning to the woods to work once he's done at the World Series. He's the accidental folk hero baffled by his own celebrity. "The last time I signed an autograph, I was getting out of jail," he said Saturday night, after signing a dozen of them for fans. "That part is weird to me. I'm no different than them." Sure enough, there was Moon rubbing elbows with his people, hoi polloi (Greek for "hillbillies"?), at the Hold 'em Bonus table game early Saturday, when he woke up at 3 a.m. after going to bed too early the night before. He stopped in the casino again during the final-table dinner break, and passersby were incredulous that somebody sitting at the Main Event final table would be sitting there, placing $15 and $20 bets. He almost stopped in the casino again Sunday, after the epic overnight marathon. Instead, he kept on going, to the 1,100-square-foot suite with the Jacuzzi and the two-sink bathroom and the flat-screen TVs and the bed that was calling his name. "My head is spinning," he said. "I could sleep for two days." If he does, he just might awaken as the new world champion of poker.
Then along came Chris Moneymaker. While the name helped, Moneymaker's Cinderella journey from a $39 online satellite tournament to a $2.5 million payday for winning the main event in 2003 latched on to America's imagination and jump-started the poker craze. TV ratings were the highest ever, sparking numerous poker shows and hordes of poker websites. The WSOP's entrants jumped, too. Moneymaker, a former accountant, beat 838 players. The following year, 2,576 showed up, then 5,619 last year. "Moneymaker caught a lot of people's attention, and they discovered that you don't need exceptional physical skills to play poker," said poker pro Lyle Berman. "I can't dunk a basketball; I'm just not big enough. I can't beat Tiger Woods in golf. But in poker, in the WSOP, you can beat the best players in the world. "And poker is such a great game," Berman added. "It's you and your brain against everybody else. The deck doesn't know who you are."