Now every college kid with a chip case and a working knowledge of the term pot odds aspires to shake his Moneymaker. It is not uncommon for college students to spend 30 hours per week on one of the 250-plus Internet poker sites -- probably more time than they spend studying.
"I'm not going to lie and say I'm not addicted," says Grayson, the Florida student. "But then it's hard to say that anything you [can] make money at is an addiction."
That may be true, says Lou Krieger, author of Poker for Dummies, "but it's also easy in college to lack the perspective to be in touch with reality."
"ON A TYPICAL NIGHT ONLINE I'LL START OUT WITH $100. I'LL PLAY UNTIL I LOSE. I'LL LOOK AT THE SCREEN, TEARS IN MY EYES, AND THINK OF ALL THE THINGS THAT I NEED MONEY FOR. SO I PLAY AGAIN, PUT IN ANOTHER $100." -- TOM, JUNIOR, INDIANA
Tom, who has lost more than $100,000 (and is currently down $55,000) since his senior year in high school, has a ritual. He plays alone in the bedroom of his off-campus apartment. The lights are off. The door is locked. He does not eat, does not answer the phone, does not even go to the bathroom. He plays one song, Such Great Heights by the Postal Service, over and over. And he loses. "Ridiculous amounts," he says. "I'll gamble $400 a day, play 12 hours a day."
For Tom, hold 'em is a symptom, not the disease. He once lost $600 in one afternoon playing H-O-R-S-E. He lost $1,500 the very first weekend he signed up at Paradisepoker.com, a site from which he is now banned. He even lost $500 one day at OTB (Off Track Betting), "and I don't even know anything about horses. I just need to gamble."
"I'm compulsively addicted to making money," Tom says without a trace of irony. "That's where it all stems from."
But where has it all led? His credit rating shot, Tom cannot even open a checking account. He is maxed out, not only on his own plastic but also on five credit cards belonging to two "investors" in his ticket-scalping business. "I'm not taking their calls," he says, "because I can't pay off their cards.
"The hardest part?" he adds. "I'm always scared, always depressed and sad. I ruined my life. I messed up my life, my academics, my friendships. Just don't gamble. Don't do it."
Students obviously are ignoring that message. "With gambling on TV, there's been lots of glamorization but not much responsibility," Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, told The New York Times. "The administrations don't do a good job of telling students how to get help."
Oddly enough, that's because many administrators consider no-limit hold 'em a harmless diversion rather than a sinister scourge. "My office is O.K. with it," Larry Moneta, Duke's vice president for student affairs, told the school paper, The Chronicle. "I don't see us taking a stand to prohibit fun, entertaining activities."
Two hours after my interview with Tom, he sits down with the Poker Crew for a $40-buy-in game of no-limit hold 'em. Within half an hour his chip stack disappears. Tom buys in again for another $40. The losses mount, and he plays badly and imprudently, trying to recover from a bad beat all at once. Within 15 minutes he is busted.
Tom sighs heavily and pushes himself away from the table. "I lost everything," he says. "That's the end to every gambling story."
"YOU CANNOT BE DUMB AND BE GOOD AT POKER." -- KEITH, STUDENT, CENTRAL FLORIDA
Tom may be one of campus hold 'em's biggest losers, but plenty of students win. Big. And the players sitting behind those tall stacks of chips all have one thing in common, it seems: brains.
Grant Coombs, a Washington and Lee senior, won $15,000 in tuition money last year in the inaugural College Poker Championship. Coombs, who is already on an academic full ride, plans to use the money for law school. Then there is Alabama's McClure, who earned $18,000 playing poker online in the first two months of this year. Despite being on a full academic scholarship, McClure dropped out of school in February. "Every hour I spend in class is $70 I'm not making playing poker," McClure, who was a sophomore, told the school paper, The Crimson White.
John Stolzmann understands that sentiment. In January, Stolzmann, a Wisconsin senior with a 3.5 GPA, won $1.4 million after finishing first at a tournament in Tunica, Miss. He turned pro.
"By winning I got invited to a lot of World Poker Tour events, with my buy-in exempted, for the next three years," says Stolzmann. "I couldn't really justify missing that much school to play in those events, but I couldn't really justify missing those events, either."
At the head of the class is Williams, who like McClure and Stolzmann is no longer in class. "My biggest fan base is college and high school kids," says Williams. "I wish them all the luck, but I don't want to be a bad influence, either. Most people cannot make a living playing poker."
"I'm not a genius," says Stolzmann, who played thousands of hands on a computer program (Turbo Texas Hold 'Em) before he ever played with cash at stake. "I just studied the game. I know so many college kids who think they can play -- and they can't."
Yet it isn't called "smart luck," is it? "I like to believe there is a direct correlation between intelligence and success at poker," says Penn's Kline, "but there's this one kid in our club who constantly seemed to be losing. Then he won $87,000 on Partypoker.com."
Which is why, when it comes to wagering on whether campus poker is a fad or a fixture, all bets are off.
Sites to See
Poker Shark? Chum? here are several useful web destinations
Partypoker.com, Paradisepoker.com and Bodog.com are three of the hottest sites where you can ante up. Check out the following six sites, though, to learn more about the game and the people who play it.
Homepokergames.com: Sets up prospective players with existing games, such as the Saturday night $50-buy-in game in Palmer, Alaska. Also includes profiles of major professional players as well as card-friendly celebs like Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire.
Twoplustwo.com: Home of perhaps the most popular message boards in all of poker.
Pokerpages.com: You can spend more hours on this site than you would playing nothing but $2 games online with 10 grand in your account. A royal flush of poker articles, book reviews, interviews and profiles of the alltime greats await you.
Chrisferguson.com: The man they call Jesus (one look and you'll know why) hosts a divinely designed site, with tips from the 2000 WSOP champ and explanations of the miracles he performs, such as slicing a carrot in two with a tossed card.
Pokerpulse.com: This site is to online poker casinos what the Nielsen ratings are to television networks. Track the most popular sites and discover just how many people are playing (and how much money is being wagered) at any time of day.
Cardplayer.com:Card Player is the definitive poker publication, and its online incarnation does not disappoint. Three-time WSOP bracelet winner Daniel Negreanu's blog is one of many useful links.