Internet gambling:A whole new game - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

By any measure, poker is hot, with the lexicon of Texas Hold 'Em the flop, the turn, the river becoming standard vocabulary on college campuses, even in some high-school corridors.

Televised poker tournaments are drawing impressive ratings, and the availability of more than 100 online poker sites means a would-be player no longer needs to round up a group of friends, or even go to the local card room.

While some worry the game is attracting ever-younger players and that the nation is ill-equipped to deal with problem gamblers, and while the legality of online gambling remains a subject of debate, the poker craze is expanding exponentially.

Just two years ago, the main event at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas drew 839 entrants. Last year, that jumped to 2,576 and this year backers are preparing for 4,000 to 6,600.

Meanwhile, the World Poker Tour, now in its third season and airing Wednesdays and Saturdays, is the most-watched show on the Travel Channel, with an average audience of more than a million households.

Although authorities aren't targeting patrons of online casinos and card rooms, that doesn't mean the operations are considered legal.

A fact sheet on the Web site of the Washington State Gambling Commission says gambling online violates state and federal law against transmitting betting information by telephone or similar means. But a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office said she knew of no one in Washington prosecuted for gambling online.

Many online gaming operations are based in Caribbean countries with more liberal gaming statutes. PokerStars.com, for example, is based in Costa Rica.

Even so, federal prosecutors have opposed them. In 2000, the operator of an Internet gambling site based in Antigua was convicted in a U.S. federal court of accepting sports bets online and sentenced to 21 months in prison.

But operators of online casinos and cardrooms point to a 2002 ruling by the 5th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which said that federal laws banning online sports bets don't cover casino-style games.

And last year, the World Trade Organization weighed in on the topic, supporting Antigua's position that U.S. prohibitions against Internet gaming violate global trade agreements.

 

Legal or not, Internet-based gaming creates concern among those who see ever younger players participating.

A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that the number of young men in high school and college who bet on cards at least once a week rose from 6.2 percent in 2003 to 11.4 percent last year an increase of 84 percent.

"We don't believe that parents and teachers are talking to their kids about gambling or really are even equipped to talk to their kids about gambling," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

About 1 in 25 Americans will develop a gambling problem at some point, said Whyte. The council, partially funded by the gaming industry, doesn't take a position for or against gambling forms, but presses for greater awareness of the risks and treatment for problem gamblers.

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