Innocent fun or high-risk thrill? - Sunday 12th of June 2005

The big-hitting gamblers in the City of London might be licking their lips at the most intriguing share-flotation bet in years — that of PartyGaming, the Gibraltar-based online casino company that is said to be capitalised at nearly £5 billion. It has come from nowhere to become

the market leader. Yet doesn’t the unrivalled rise of internet poker, with its Las Vegas-style, end-of-the-rainbow temptations, provide an all too easy route to the vice of gambling? Fuelled by popular late-night television shows and celebrity players, poker has ballooned in popularity. The spread of broadband and the aptness of the web as an anonymous gaming venue have accelerated take-up: the analyst Research and Markets reckons that the money wagered this year on online poker will top £33 billion.

With the net, you have instant access — from the comfort of your laptop — to hundreds of casinos populated by millions of poker combatants. You play against real people but, because nobody can see you, a cool-eyed poker face is no advantage. Net-based newcomers are more likely to be the young, logging on for an hour or two after work, than serious gamblers.

What’s really attracting novices and driving the boom is the ease with which you can learn the ropes on the net. “It has really broken down the stigma associated with gambling and the intimidating nature of casinos,? says Andrew Poole, education officer at the advisory body Gamcare (www.gamcare.org.uk). “You can school yourself, and there are plenty of play-for-free opportunities where you needn’t lose your own money.?

Such innovations have proved the winning hand that has changed the demographics of gaming: YouGov research suggests that 40% of online gamblers are female, compared with only 5% offline. As PartyGaming derives 87% of its custom from the United States, there is huge room for growing its European market.

Listing on the London stock exchange makes sense as the company looks to expand, but the key reason for a UK share offer is that gambling sites are illegal in parts of America, because of fears over their impact on apple-pie family life. We have no such qualms, though perhaps we should.

“Only 16% of people who attend face-to-face counselling are gambling online, and 7% of those are playing online poker,? Poole says, “but those figures are creeping up. It takes a few years to grow really desperate — we will see more people coming in for counselling in future. The danger with online poker is that you’re gambling in isolation, whereas gambling should be a social and recreational activity. The fact that you don’t have to leave your home, and that gambling is available 24/7, is cause for concern.?

Gamcare and Gamblers Anonymous (www.gamblersanonymous.org.uk) both offer advice for avoiding the pitfalls of addiction: set a limit on how much time and money you spend gambling, they say, and stop if expending either commodity starts to interfere with your other responsibilities.

Played in the right spirit, online poker makes for great interactive entertainment — pure and simple — and you would expect to pay for any pastime. The key to enjoying a flutter is to view your stake as you would an entrance fee to a theatre or sports event. In all likelihood, your money will be gone after an hour or two, but you’ll have experienced a thrill and exercised your mind. Best to view any winnings as an unlikely bonus.

 

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