Online poker addiction--a losing hand


More than half of Canadians think playing Internet poker for cash is unacceptable, a new Decima poll suggests. Fifty- six per cent were against such a pastime, one-quarter had no problem with it, and the rest fell somewhere in the middle.

The poll, one of the most detailed snapshots to emerge of gambling attitudes, suggests great unease about online casinos. It also reveals a spike in public concern about addiction and lax regulation in regions where video lottery terminals are widespread.

There's no shortage of foreign-based Internet commercial casino games. But such sites are illegal in Canada unless run by provincial governments.

Politicians are leery of a potential public backlash, and have only recently made forays into web-based betting.

The Atlantic Lottery Corp. -- owned by the governments of Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland -- started selling virtual lottery tickets last year. Similar sites are now gaining popularity in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.

Ontario-based Woodbine Entertainment Group offers a racetrack betting site, but a Federal Court judge has been asked to decide whether related regulatory changes were legal.

Gambling critics fear it's only a matter of time before government-backed virtual casinos arrive and multiply.

"My concern with Internet gambling is it gives you a cloak of anonymity," says Montreal-based addiction counsellor Sol Boxenbaum.

"You can get up in the middle of the night and go into the den while your spouse is asleep and gamble. And there's really no protection against underage gambling."

Canadians are more than twice as likely to say addiction is a problem in provinces where VLTs aren't restricted to casinos or racetracks. These include Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Atlantic Canada where video slots can be found in bars and corner stores.

Overall, Decima's National Gambling Report suggests about half of Canadians think out-of-control betting is a serious issue.

More than half of Canadians think playing Internet poker for cash is unacceptable, suggests a new Decima poll obtained by The Canadian Press.

Fifty-six per cent were against such a pastime, one-quarter had no problem with it, and the rest fell somewhere in the middle.

The poll, one of the most detailed snapshots to emerge of gambling attitudes, suggests great unease about online casinos. It also reveals a spike in public concern about addiction and lax regulation in regions where video lottery terminals are widespread.

There's no shortage of foreign-based Internet commercial casino games. But such sites are illegal in Canada unless run by provincial governments.

Politicians are leery of a potential public backlash, and have only recently made forays into web-based betting.

The Atlantic Lottery Corp. - owned by the governments of Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland - started selling virtual lottery tickets last year. Similar sites are now gaining popularity in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.

Ontario-based Woodbine Entertainment Group offers a racetrack betting site, but a Federal Court judge has been asked to decide whether related regulatory changes were legal.

Gambling critics fear it's just a matter of time before government- backed virtual casinos arrive and multiply.

"My concern with Internet gambling is it gives you a cloak of anonymity," says Montreal-based addiction counsellor Sol Boxenbaum.

"You can get up in the middle of the night and go into the den while your spouse is asleep and gamble. And there's really no protection against underage gambling."

Canadians are more than twice as likely to say addiction is a problem in provinces where VLTs - dubbed electric morphine by their critics - aren't restricted to casinos or racetracks.

These include Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Atlantic Canada where video slots can be found in bars and corner stores.

Overall, Decima's National Gambling Report suggests about half of Canadians think out-of-control betting is a serious issue.

That doesn't stop them from dabbling or, in about two per cent of cases, getting in way over their heads, said Decima survey director Richard Leigh-Bennett.

"You're seeing that half the people think it's a problem, but then you've got almost 80 per cent of the population participating in it. If you look at (rates of) smoking and drinking, it's quite a bit lower.

For more than a century, men have gathered around tables to play "the cheating game." Poker.

Today, the adrenaline high that hits when dealt a pair of bullets (aces) on a big glimmer (money) pot, while masterfully picking up all the tells (physical cues) around the table, is just as commonly felt in front of a computer, while playing online poker.

As you can see, poker has its own language. For some, it's a religion. And in the past year, since maverick online player Chris Moneymaker, with alligator blood running through his veins, came out of nowhere to win the $2.5 million (U.S.) World Series of Poker tournament in Las Vegas, online poker has exploded.

Figures from the five largest online poker sites, all of which operate offshore, suggest more than 50 million people around the world now play regularly. Operating online gambling sites in Canada is illegal, but offshore sites are accessible here. National anti- gambling groups, such as Viva Consulting, have called for investigations into the legality of offshore sites operating in Canada.

Projected revenue from online poker operations this year is expected to be more than $1 billion (U.S.), compared to just over $300 million a year ago.

The target-market is 19- to 34-year-old males, and Canadians are second only to their southern neighbours when it comes to filling tables at worldwide online poker games.

The game's come a long way from its roots on Mississippi River gambling boats, when confidence men could smell a fish (bad player) from the other side of the delta to the recent celebrity profile of A-list Hollywood players such as Ben Affleck and Christopher Walken.

What may come as a surprise is that you get the same rush from a pair of cowboys (kings) at a casino table as you do online.

"If you know what you're doing and you know your opponents better than they know themselves, you can do well," says 31-year-old Greg Macklin of Toronto.

He's sitting in front of a laptop that's on a boardroom table at a public relations office where he's been invited to play at one of the largest online sites in the world, www.pokerroom.com.

The Swedish-based site was started in 1999 by two 27-year-old med school buddies who dropped out after realizing they could make more money playing poker at casinos around Europe - until they were banned from most of them for counting cards, a common technique not allowed at most casinos. The site has 2.5 million registered players worldwide.

Macklin is one of about 150,000 pokerroom players from Canada, which produces one of the largest number of professional tournament players worldwide.

"I started playing last winter. It's so much more convenient than driving two hours to and from a casino, and it's a lot less intimidating."

During the winter, when he does almost all of his playing, he spends four or five nights a week on the site, for three to four hours during the evening or, if he's feeling really lucky, in the middle of the night.

Unlike Macklin, who still considers himself an average part-time player, Rob Baillie represents the growing number of Canadians who approach online poker much more seriously.

"In September I'm up about $1,700 (U.S.)," says the 35-year-old who lives in Toronto. "I used to play for a living at a live card room here in Toronto. I gave that up when online poker came around."

And he adds the income is very "tax advantageous."

Canadians have to declare all income generated from online gaming, but according to Revenue Canada, income from online gaming is not taxable as long as it remains a hobby.

Baillie is now registered on more than 20 sites and plays up to 250 hands an hour. "That's a big advantage of online poker, the speed and the number of hands you can play. I usually jump around from table to table chasing the fish.

"When you play online professionally, you keep a book on all the players you come across so you know who the weak ones are."

He's only playing about three hours a day right now because he's looking after his 18-month-old daughter, but says he usually plays about six to eight hours a day. "Right now my daughter's my full- time job and online poker is my part-time job."

Back in the boardroom, Macklin has signed in and is playing a hand, looking for telltale tells - how long it takes the other online players to make their bet, whether they fold early, or always see a hand through etc. - you realize this is no longer a virtual world for him. It's very real.

And that's what worries Sol Boxenbaum, co-founder of Viva Consulting, a national non-profit organization based in Montreal that operates as a gambling watchdog.

"We're not anti-gambling," says the gambling critic. "Online poker has become a very, very big problem on campuses among university students."

He says his organization is particularly concerned with the inability to regulate offshore gambling sites. "Young people are emulating what they see on TV - they're playing poker on the Internet at home and at school.

"Even if the sites claim they don't let minors register, how can you regulate that online - anyone can register."

Which is true. For example, to register on www.pokerroom.com, players only have to scroll through a list of terms and then click a button.

When Macklin first signed up, he began winning right away. "After a few early losses when I started, I won about $500 (U.S.)," Macklin says. "I cashed out my account and got a cheque in the mail a week later."

He says other than the convenience, he appreciates the lack of showmanship, something that tends to intimidate a lot of players who try casino poker.

"I don't think I'm good enough right now, but I could see myself approaching this as a part-time job. There's a lot of money out there."

The site makes its money off what's called the rake, a very small share, 1 or 2 per cent, of the pot. It also makes money from tournaments that are constantly being held, which cost anywhere from $5 to $50 to play in. Prizes include money and entry into some of the largest poker tournaments in the world - which is how Moneymaker got his paid entry into the World Series of Poker last year.

Recent criticism alleges that online gaming sites are plagued by a new phenomenon called "bots." These card-playing robots, which can play dozens of games simultaneously, are allegedly being used by some sites to routinely beat players of all levels.

And though such allegations could seriously hurt the red-hot online poker industry, players such as Baillie are convinced the sites are fair.

"With all the money they are making, I doubt sites would risk a misstep that could ruin them. Word would spread very quickly - the online poker community is very close knit."

Rob Davies, a 29-year-old online poker novice agrees.

"At first I was a bit apprehensive," the Torontonian says. "Giving out your credit card over the Internet has a negative connotation and you're not sure if the game is completely random. But I've had no problems. All the verification of the practices can be read right on the sites."

Like Macklin, Davies says the convenience of online poker, being able to log on any time any place, is one of the main draws. "My problem in the past is I wouldn't know when to stop, foolishly playing when I was tired. Sometimes you have to know when you're not getting the cards, but it's hard to pack them in, especially when it's so convenient."

The inability to know when to stop - the addiction - is something that Patrik Selin, an executive with pokerroom.com, says the online poker community is aware of.

"We are linked to organizations that provide support for gamblers with a problem and we actively encourage our members to play safely. There's no doubt it can be a serious problem."

He's speaking by phone from Thailand, where he's vacationing, but lives in Sweden. Asked about the growth potential of online poker, he says, "Well, we have 25,000 new players coming online each week. I don't know how big this could get."

As for the popularity in Canada, he chalks it up to our climate and "a more sophisticated history of poker, similar to the U.S.

"Canada is our second-largest market."

And with prizes such as expense-paid entries into the World Series of Poker, every player's fantasy, Selin says the online game will probably get much, much bigger in Canada.

As for Macklin, it's a dream, like his playing style, that he tries to keep in check.

"I'm not good enough right now," he says. "I'll play online all winter and see how I'm doing. It's getting to the point where I can read hands fairly well, but it's too bad you don't get many tells off people playing online."

As soon as he says that, he adds, "Come to think of it, no one can read some of my tells either, I don't even know what half of them are. Maybe that's why I like playing poker online."

In the end, poker isn't about where you play, or who you're playing with, it's all about the cards.

A growing attraction to poker may gradually lead to a gambling addiction, according to Simcoe Outreach Services consultant, Nancy Armstrong.

"It is a fact youth between the ages of 18 to 24 are experiencing increasing problems with gambling. Most youth who present to treatment indicate that their gambling began around the age of 10. It is believed that youth are at greater risk to developing a problem for a variety of reasons," Armstrong explains.

About 80 per cent of students in high school say they have gambled and, of these individuals, eight per cent will develop a serious problem.

"Youth report that the top three reasons they gamble are to experience excitement, enjoyment, and win money," Armstrong states.

Other reasons they may gamble are to reduce boredom, relieve stress, depression or chasing losses, she noted.

"Poker is a growing concern due in part to media promotion. Due to media coverage, it appears that gambling is an 'easy way to make money.' Youth tend to be drawn to the excitement and the element of chance."

Many of the youth reaching out for help at this time have concerns with online gambling problems. Gambling problems, whether they be poker or another game of chance can easily get out of hand among youths, Armstrong said.

"In the schools, 'dice' is a big problem. Youth are gambling away MP3 players, ball caps, running shoes, jackets, whatever it takes to get into the game. Many of the kids gambling online are using their OSAP or parents credit cards," Armstrong reveals.