Jeff Coda was bit by the poker bug two years ago while watching the World Series of Poker on ESPN. Fascinated by the intricacies of the game and the high stakes involved, he bought a deck of cards and started teaching himself. Soon he and a group of friends started a regular Thursday night game of no-limit Texas Hold 'Em.
In an attempt to perfect his play, the 27-year-old Redlands man began playing poker online about a year ago. He made the rounds on the free sites for six months before upping the ante and playing for money.
"I'm not going to risk money that I can't afford to lose," the restaurant manager said, talking about his regular poker nights and online playing. "You should not be playing the game (for money) if you can't afford to lose some money, but I'm also trying to win and be successful at the game."
It's the convergence of Internet gambling, high-stake games on TV, and allure of the risk-taking competition that has caused the proliferation of poker playing whether it be the ultrapopular Texas Hold 'Em or the standard five-card stud. Gambling critics say it's all starting to have a negative influence on younger players, but proponents view it as wiping away the perception that poker is a seedy game.
Justin Marchand, managing editor of Card Player, an international poker magazine, said playing online gives people a chance to learn the rules for free and then enter low-stakes games before trying their hand at high-stakes contests.
"Online poker is proving to be safe and affordable, and learning in the comfort of one's home helps playing in the real games," he said. "This past World Series of Poker, the field doubled and many are learning from online poker."
Marchand said that younger players are starting to compete in poker tournaments, mentioning 21-year-old Nick Schulman who won the World Poker Tour event this past week at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. Schulman took home the $2.1 million prize.
While online poker has been a boon to the industry, Gary Thompson, operations director for the World Series of Poker, said the hole-card camera and increasing monetary prizes has especially spurred the growth.
"I'm not going to beat Tiger Woods at golf or tackle LaDainian Tomlinson, but I can play poker and win a fortune and that's heady stuff," Thompson said. "You can be young or old, man or woman, rich or poor and you still have a chance."
The entry field for the World Series of Poker tournament, which is owned by Harrah's Entertainment, has increased in the past three years from 839 in 2003 to 5,719 in 2005, Thompson said. In addition, prize money ballooned from $22 million in 2003 to $103 million in 2005 with the first-place winner receiving $7.5 million, he said.
Thompson said the television exposure including allowing viewers to see cards the other players can't see has led not only to fortune but also fame with endorsements sometimes doubling a winner's yearly income.
But it's the allure of being a star like those who play on ESPN, Fox Sports and Bravo's celebrity show, and the easy access of online gambling sites that worry gambling-addiction experts.
Mark Lefkowitz, director of training for the California Council on Problem Gambling, said the most dangerous trend surfacing is the age of poker players.
"We are starting to see it through gambler anonymous meetings with poker players who are getting younger and younger," Lefkowitz said. "They suck you in (online) by saying they are trying to teach you and then they have you."
The gambling addiction organization has seen an increase in callers seeking help on its hotline. The largest influx of calls come from the 909 area code, according to the group's annual statistics.
The annual report states that on average the person who needs help through the hotline spent $33,636 gambling in 2004. The bulk of those with a potential gambling problem are between 36 and 65 years old. But the percentage of those under 36 is slowly increasing from 31.7 percent in 2003 to 34.7 percent in 2004, the report said.
While the report doesn't break out all types of poker games, it does note the rise in Internet games as being the cause of potential problems.
Christen Reilly, executive director of the Institute of Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders, affiliated with Harvard Medical School, cautioned about rushing to judgment on the consequences of Internet gambling.
"The jury is still out on whether there is an increasing rate of online gambling disorders it's so new," Reilly said. "There are indications that there may be problems, but it's too early to tell."
But David Robertson, a board member of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, said the anecdotal evidence is frightening.
"We are beginning to see that poker is becoming the majority of calls received by major addiction hotlines," he said. "You see parents throwing their children poker parties thinking it's harmless, and now we are seeing young people who call who are in way over their heads."
But none of the opponents or proponents of poker see the popularity explosion stopping anytime soon.
"With the fame and fortune out there, it can be a life changing amount of money," said Thompson, World Series of Poker director of operations. "People love the competition."