USA Today ran a front page story about teens playing poker -- an emerging hobby that the subheadline declares is "Not just another teen fad". That certainly remains to be seen, but I hardly think it's the beginning of a new gambling craze that's poised to ruin the next generation.

Now kids as young as 10 are being dealt hands, often with parents' approval. Poker paraphernalia is being hawked everywhere from supermarkets to kiddie emporiums such as Toys R Us. All of which rings alarm bells for gambling addiction experts who warn that poker could be a slippery slope into other high-risk activities.

I play poker, often with teenagers, and we rarely play for any money at all and never more than $5 or $10. Among the people I play with no one really cares about money, they care about winning, beating their friends, and the excitement of making a good hand. Even when you lose you can get the satisfaction of knowing that you played your cards the best way possible.

Barry Shulman understands the game's siren call. “It's so fun it can consume you,” says the real estate developer turned tournament player and publisher of Card Player magazine. “I get e-mails from kids all the time. I'm impressed at how focused they are, how much they ask about statistical aspects of the game.”

Shulman says poker offers teens five things: social interaction, especially for the socially awkward; help with math and other numbers-related skills; an understanding of risk/reward scenarios; lessons on how to read looks and gestures; and insights into your own limits of self-control.

“Gambling is a part of life, at the card table or in business,” Shulman says. “That said, poker is a stupid way to make a living. The correct way for a kid to be taught poker is to learn that it is a very difficult game with a high degree of risk.”

I think that's about right. Kids that learn how to play early are likely to realize early that you lose far more often than you win -- and winning depends largely on luck, no matter how good you are.

Plus, I think the social aspects of the game make it far more beneficial than watching television or playing video games. People get together to socialize and snack, and playing poker is really just an excuse to hang out.

What's interesting to me is that women appear to be much less interested in the game than men are. Most of the time I play it's all-male, and the women really couldn't care less about being included. I guess they're off sewing or cooking or something.



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