Unlike casino gambling, which pits players against the house, poker functions as a pari-mutuel economy in which the losers pay the winners. Where, then, does the money come from? Says Jamie Capo, a Yale student who's playing online for a living during a yearlong leave of absence, "It's a sea of sharks and fishes, the way any sea works. The money feeds up from the bottom."
The money, put crudely, comes from people like Alex. An Indiana University junior who has lost $55,000 gambling, mostly playing online poker, he spoke on the condition that his real name not be used. Slumped in a booth behind a mug of beer and a basket of buffalo wings at Kilroy's, a grimy campus bar, he's itching for a game. He picks up his girlfriend's cellphone--he doesn't carry one of his own, because he owes two friends some $9,000 he's taken in cash advances on their credit cards and is ducking their calls--and inside five minutes has found a game at some friends' house. Alex says he has not played online since December; he regards this abstinence as controlling his addiction.
Alex belongs to one of the country's most vulnerable populations. "College is the riskiest demographic," says Jeffrey Derevensky, who directs the Youth Gambling Institute at McGill University in Montreal. "Students are at the highest-risk age. They think they're smarter than everybody else and invulnerable, and often a parent says, 'Here, take my credit card in case there's a problem.' There's still a strong stereotype of what a problem gambler is: the old horse player, the old casino player, the middle-aged male who's lost his family, his job, his home. Nowhere do you hear about college-age youth. We're very much aware that there's drug abuse on campus or binge drinking, yet we rarely hear about gambling."
Alex has a nightclub cast to him: thick frame, pitch-black hair gelled and spiked, five o'clock shadow and a stylish button-down shirt open to the chest. He jabbers, a little manic, in the heavy tones of the Queens neighborhood where he grew up, a half hour's drive on the Long Island Expressway from Manhattan. He began playing online as a high school senior, sitting alone in the middle of the night in the darkened ground-floor kitchen of his parents' house. He listened for the sound of his father, an early riser, waking up, so he could cut the monitor's power. "I had to play in secret," he says, "in what I guess you could call twilight hours."
He funded his gambling by scalping tickets to concerts and ball games online, collecting from the buyers through PayPal and transferring the proceeds directly into accounts on PartyPoker.com or UltimateBet.com; he never saw cash, nor did he provide proof of age. Though he lost consistently, his ticket business brought in enough to sustain him.
As an Indiana freshman, unsupervised and with 24-hour Internet access, he played and lost much more heavily. On his dorm floor, he says, "everyone I lived with was a crazy gambling addict. I had people watching me, cheering me on while I was playing." Danny, a classmate whom Alex has known since freshman year, regards him with awe. "I've never seen anything like it. I've never seen a gambler like Alex. Freshman and sophomore year, there was no stopping him." (At this, Alex smiles with wan pride.) By the end of the year he was overdrawn on several checking accounts and failing at ticket resales; he was forced to ask his father to bail him out, the only time he's done so. "He paid off everything," Alex says. "It's funny--we had always had kind of a friendship relationship, but then we became more like father and son."
On academic probation during his sophomore year, Alex limited his play, but by junior year, flush with cash from resales on the '03 Yankees-- Red Sox American League Championship Series and from investors in his ticket business, he resumed poker. Then, however, he began playing in isolation, the door to his room locked and the lights out, often a lugubrious album called Give Up by the indie-pop duo the Postal Service on repeat. He lost tens of thousands of dollars, without interruption.
"I played for 12, 15 hours straight, wouldn't do anything but gamble," he says. "Playing with friends wasn't the same rush, but playing alone was so intense, it was exactly what I wanted. Just thinking about it makes me want to do it. It feels like an insane rush. Like the best drug I've never taken, the biggest rush you could imagine. If I was up, everything was perfect, and if I was losing, I was mad, frustrated. It was hand to hand. Because when you win a big hand, that moment right before the cards are flipped, it's like that moment right before tickets to a big concert go on sale. It's like you're a manic depressive. You're scared, happy, nervous, anxious...."
The speed of his language ebbs, his words grind slow; he has lost interest. He picks at the plate of food in front of him. "You want to check out this game?"
Alex makes the short drive from Kilroy's with his girlfriend and steps into a large, bright living room where a dozen students have assembled around a kitchen table, a Nuggets-Suns playoff game buzzing in the background. Alex stations himself next to a friend counting chips out from a heavy silver case and peels two $20s from his pocket. He assembles two stacks of equal size, pushes them together and waits, expectant, for the first hand.