The scourge of online poker

Playing online poker has negative social consequences, even if you are a winner.

Jason Stahl

Recently, U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, argued, “There is nothing in Internet gambling that adds to the (gross domestic product) or makes America more competitive in the world.” Likewise, a spokesman for Leach later added that “gambling from your bedroom or living room or dormitory is not a socially useful activity.” Because it is not often that I agree with Republicans, I like to highlight the times that I do. This is one of those times.

However, I should also note that while I agree with these specific statements, I disagree with the legislation Leach and his spokesman were referencing when making their comments – legislation which will soon become law. The law, according to the New York Times, makes it “a crime to use credit cards or online payment systems for Internet betting” from the United States. The legislation, designed to curb the growing popularity of online gambling (especially poker), was the wrong move for two reasons.

First, it will do little to actually curb online poker. Yes, major publicly-traded online casinos will stop accepting payments from customers in the United States (as some already have). However, many companies that aren’t publicly traded will continue to accept payments in violation of the law because enforcement is next to impossible.

Second, the way the legislation was passed was an absolute joke – as has been so often the case in this Republican Congress. It was tacked onto an unrelated port security bill in the middle of the night with no review and no debate.

The only concern seemed to be that it was passed before the midterm elections. This is the perfect way to get a bad piece of legislation. But why should you listen to me about this issue? Well, let’s just say I speak from experience.

I began gambling when I was 15 years old – mostly playing poker. I grew up in an area where nearly everyone I knew gambled. There were multiple riverboat casinos within minutes of my house. I started going to these casinos to play poker as soon as I turned 21. In 1999, I discovered online poker when it was just getting started. At first I thought, “Wow, this is great – I can play anytime from my bedroom!” However, I soon found out that it was not so great.

Simply put, there is an immense difference between playing poker in live games versus playing poker online. Playing online destroys the good social aspects of poker while

exacerbating its negative social impact. As to the latter, the possibility for addictive behavior is much more immense in online play. Whereas in a live poker game you might be dealt 50 hands an hour, online – if you are playing multiple tables on multiple sites – this number can increase as much as nine-fold.

Moreover, you can start playing any game of your choosing in seconds without leaving your house. These factors combined to produce, in my case, self-destructive behavior, which simply would not have been possible without the introduction of online poker to my life.

Clearly not everyone will have the same problems that I did. But even if they don’t, online poker destroys the positive social aspects of the game as well. Even if you are winning, zoning out while looking at a computer screen for hours on end is not fun. It is socially isolating and can easily breed depression. It can distract you from more socially engaging behavior, as it does for so many good college students who might abandon school or a career in favor of playing poker full-time. In other words, it is the opposite of live poker play, which can be a socially fulfilling way to interact with people and which is easier to do in moderation.

So, what can be done about the problem if the legislation described above is not the answer? As with any form of personal addiction, the answer must start with more money to be devoted to treatment and education, especially on college campuses where the problem is the worst.

This is what ultimately worked for me: therapy combined with learning about computer programs that block online gambling. Ultimately each person must decide for himself or herself that there are more socially productive activities to engage in than online poker and that – in the end analysis – they no longer want to play. This, not bad legislation passed for short-term electoral gain, is the only way the behavior will actually decrease.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]