Princeton University Students Online Gambling

Monday, March 14, 2005

Mike Sandberg, a Princeton senior, says he made $120,000 last year gambling online and in Atlantic City.

March 14, 2005 Ante Up at Dear Old Princeton: Online Poker Is a Campus Draw

By JONATHAN CHENG

PRINCETON, N.J. – For Michael Sandberg, it started a few years ago with nickel-and-dime games among friends. But last fall, he says, it became the source of a six-figure income and an alternative to law school.

Mr. Sandberg, 22, of Alexandria, Va., mostly splits his time between Princeton University, where he is a senior and a politics major, and Atlantic City, where he plays high-stakes poker in his black hooded sweatshirt and dark aviator shades.

Since September, he says, he has won $120,000, including $30,000 in Atlantic City and $90,000 playing at PartyPoker.com, a popular online casino that says it is "licensed and regulated by the government of Gibraltar." Those claims are backed up by his financial records.

Mr. Sandberg’s is an extreme example of a gambling revolution on the nation’s college campuses. Mr. Sandberg calls it an explosion, one spurred by televised poker championships and a proliferation of Web sites that offer online poker games.

Experts say the evidence of gambling’s popularity on campus is hard to miss. In December, for example, a sorority at Columbia held its first, 80-player poker tournament with a $10 buy-in, a minimum amount required to play, while the University of North Carolina held its first tournament, a 175-player competition, in October. Both games filled up and had waiting lists. At the University of Pennsylvania, private games are advertised every night in a campus e-mail list.

"It’s the TV programs that are driving it," said Elizabeth George, chief executive of the North American Training Institute, a nonprofit organization in Duluth, Minn., that specializes in the problems of pathological and underage gambling. "Young people particularly are drawn to it. There are superstars, then there’s advertising, plus the Internet. So with all of those elements, put that into a bag and shake it up and what you have is a remarkably dangerous situation."

Last year, Elliott Dorsch of Tampa, Fla., another Princeton senior, made $11,000 in two hours playing online blackjack, only to lose most of it in 15 minutes, he said.

"I was playing very recklessly," he said. "I was definitely very drunk."

Vik Bellapravalu, a Princeton junior from Phoenix, who plays poker with friends on campus, said, "Whatever amount you can think of, it’s probably been lost or won."

Drastic gains and losses have always been a part of gambling, but access to poker games has never been as easy as the Internet makes it, and undergraduates and students of youth gambling say that interest has never been so high.

Members of both groups point to ESPN’s frequent broadcasts of the World Series of Poker as a catalyst. The series has made heroes out of everyman champions like Chris Moneymaker, who started playing poker four years ago and won the $2.5 million grand prize in the 2003 series after entering for $40 through an online poker Web site.

Mr. Sandberg, from his narrow, atticlike room on the top floor of a Princeton dormitory, can spend up to 10 hours a day playing the game he loves most – Texas Hold’em, a popular version of poker that is simple to learn but hard to master.

With his well-worn baseball cap and bristly, blond goatee, Mr. Sandberg doesn’t look like a high roller, and his slapdash dorm room, bedecked with poker posters, bears no marks of a conspicuous consumer.

Sitting on a folding chair in front of his laptop computer and looking almost bored, he plays three online games at once, each for many hundreds of dollars, while distractedly listening to classic rock and instant-messaging his friends. He speaks in poker parlance as if everyone understands it and can innately calculate the odds of drawing pocket aces (two, face down), while casually sizing up his online opponents and divining what cards they may hold.

Thanks to a boom in tournaments and prize money, poker has become a career option for Mr. Sandberg, he says. Though he is graduating in May, he has not applied to graduate school or for any jobs.

"I’m playing this game, treating it like a job," he said. He predicts that he could make up to half a million dollars a year, just playing on his computer every day. "Even with the bad runs," he said, "I haven’t had a losing month or even too long of a losing session. I think I’m a pretty smart guy, and I’m only going to get better at cards."

Last summer, instead of getting a job, Mr. Sandberg set a goal of winning $10,000 at PartyPoker, where, he said, he clicked and bluffed his way to his goal by the time he returned to school in September.

"My parents said I should do something useful, and I made $10,000," he said. "I thought that was pretty useful."

His bank statement seems to support his claims, with a six-figure balance, large withdrawals for what he says were casino trips and even larger deposits from online winnings. His personal account on PartyPoker.com echoes his bank statement, with matching payments and deposits that are specifically for poker.

Mr. Sandberg credits his success to two simple principles: know the odds, and don’t play more than you can lose. "It seems simple, but it’s one of the biggest flaws of many poker players," he said.

His goal is to enter the high-stakes poker tours and compete with his heroes.

"I want to get to the point where I’m the best in the world and play against those guys on TV," he said. "I don’t want to tell stories about playing with so-and-so once; I want to be doing it all the time."

While Mr. Sandberg insists that he is not a compulsive gambler, and he seems to bet large amounts only when the odds are heavily in his favor, some experts fear that college-age gamblers are swallowing the hype of big-stakes poker without coming to grips with the dangers of addiction.

"With gambling on TV, there’s been lots of glamorization, but not much responsibility," said Keith S. Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. He called the gambling opportunities "almost ubiquitous" for the college-age crowd. "The administrations don’t do a good job of telling students how to get help," he said, "the same way they’re sending the ‘prevention and responsibility’ messages for alcohol, substance abuse and date rape."

At the University of Pennsylvania, Dan Kline, the president of the poker society, says that everyone is playing poker.

"When we started this thing in 2002, about 10 people joined," said Mr. Kline, a junior. "Now when we have a tournament, we’ll get 500 people responding in a half-hour to our e-mail."

A free tournament organized by the group last year attracted twice as many people as space would permit. This year’s tournament, however, which offered $2,000 in donated prize money, was canceled by uneasy administrators, who had also canceled a fraternity-organized charity poker tournament in November, fearing the legal implications of offering prizes for gambling.

Princeton has no explicit rules about gambling on campus, and has not taken steps to address it. "This is something we, the administration, need to sit down and decide if there should be a uniform policy about it," said Hilary Herbold, the associate dean in charge of disciplinary action at the university. She noted the formal policies devised amid concerns about file-sharing of copyrighted music in recent years.

Mrs. Herbold said problem gamblers were being dealt with case by case. The administration has broken up regular group games held in Princeton’s eating clubs.

"What we’re really primarily concerned about is the well-being of the students," she said. "Were I to discover that a student was gambling online, I would probably tell them to stop and give them a warning."

Mr. Whyte of the National Council on Problem Gambling says he is concerned that college-age gamblers, often susceptible to overwhelming stress and lacking a mature sense of money, are particularly susceptible.

"They’re not going to lose their house if they don’t win," he said. "Mom and Dad can still bail them out. It’s just not as realistic a view of money as adults, and it’s very hard to reach that age group. By the time they’ve gotten to college, they’ve already started gambling."

Mr. Sandberg says his parents in Alexandria are aware that he loves playing poker, but don’t know that he spends almost every weekend in Atlantic City, or how much he has earned. His mother, he said, "thinks I just don’t tell her about the times I lose."

He added, "She thinks I’m up and down, but I really do win almost every time I go."

Like video games and instant messaging, online poker has had its impact on academics. Mr. Sandberg said that he failed a midterm exam this fall because of his commitment to poker, and that he ranked in the bottom fifth of his class.

But, he says, "I’m not too concerned with what my G.P.A. is. You don’t have to hand your résumé to the casino when you walk in or anything."

And even during final exams in January, Mr. Sandberg’s poker hours did not diminish.

"It’s tough to battle the mind-set of, ‘I’m going to graduate, and this poker is pretty regular money,’ " he said. "I don’t think I can make $120,000 doing anything but poker. I was half-studying for my politics exam today, but I got bored and started playing poker on my computer instead."

If the experts are correct, though, Mr. Sandberg might want to focus on that exam.

"Gambling is a game of chance," Mr. Whyte said. "Some people can make a living doing it, but even in the long run, most people regress to the mean and wind up with zero or close to it."

Greg Winter contributed reporting for this article.

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