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Students ante up

Internet gambling taking in more than $12 billion a year

It's illegal, but it is also a big-money industry.

Internet gambling is taking in more than $12 billion a year, and analysts expect that figure to top $24 billion by 2010.

More and more college students are falling prey to this trend, especially men. In the past year, the number of college-age males who gambled online — once a week or more — quadrupled, according to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Research says the games are addictive. Players admit it, too. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill to ban it, and it's already prohibited under Utah law.

But Utah higher education officials say it's not on their radar screen.

Stayner Landward, dean of students at the University of Utah, said he was not even aware that online gambling existed.

"If we do (have a problem with it), I don't know about it," he said. "I guess if there is a way we could check, we would."

At Utah State University, John DeVilbiss, executive director of media relations, said, "I have not heard of anything. We don't have anything we are officially monitoring."

He said that he is in contact with the information technology department, which hasn't seen any red flags. DeVilbiss also sits on USU's Executive Board, which would address such problems.

Administrators, however, who wouldn't dream of allowing beer on campus have made high-speed Internet access available to all students. This puts every student within clicks of 24-hour, high-stakes gambling. An estimated 1.6 million of 17 million U.S. college students gambled online last year.

Jason Wilkin, 25, a local community college student, had a friend who was losing about $2,000 a month playing online poker.

"No one could convince him to quit," he said. "Your reality is a little bent. It's all on a computer. It's all virtual."

Wilkin also gambles online but said he tries to play within his means — taking wins as they come.

Sheldon Kirkham, a 28-year-old U. graduate, said he lost about $4,000 playing online poker before he enjoyed his first winning hand.

In the poker world, players who keep playing despite their losses are on "tilt" — the term for a spell of insanity that often follows a run of bad luck. Tilters blindly continue to bet away whatever money is left in an effort to recoup their losses.

In the online game, there are no chips, no cards and no greenbacks. Everything becomes a number on a screen that can be lost with clicks of a mouse.

"I have played at (live) casinos before," said a Utah State University student, who requested anonymity. "It was just more convenient to be able to jump online and do the same thing."

At one point he was playing eight hours a week, but he has recently quit for personal reasons. At first the entertainment and the chance to get something for nothing were what drew him in to play, he said.

Many students hope to emulate Chris Moneymaker, who won the World Series of Poker in 2003.

Because he would have had to drive four hours to sit at a legal table, Moneymaker turned to the computer. A $39 satellite tournament sent him all the way to Las Vegas with a $10,000 buy-in and eventually to a purse of $2.5 million.

Lane McBride, a 22-year-old U. graduate, thinks maybe he will try to make it to the World Series of Poker tournament, too.

"I wouldn't be surprised if I played in an event," he said. "In some ways it motivated me."

McBride plays about 20 hours a week, knocking out 300-400 hands an hour. Because he still lives at home, any money he makes from playing is put away and invested.

Tye Smith, a recent U. graduate, estimates he has "invested" $500 into playing Internet poker in the 2 1/2 years he and his wife, Stacy, have played online.

"We put in $1,500 and won $1,000 back," he said. "I believe that's a totally reasonable commitment for entertainment."

In fact, they budget money each month for poker.

"It's something we have in common, and it definitely adds to the relationship," Tye Smith said. "She's an accountant, good with numbers, and I am crazy."

McBride envisions paying for graduate school with his winnings and maybe even buying a house one day.

"At first, it was gradual," McBride said. "It's nice because I sit there, watch TV, listen to the radio, pet my dog and make money."

He also operates two Web sites with a partner called UtahPlayers.com and NickleChip.com. The sites are designed to teach the ins and outs and educate players about online poker.

While his sites might remain legal, the federal government wants to make online gambling and gaming altogether illegal. The House recently approved a bill introduced by Rep. Bill Goodlatte, R-Va., to update the 1961 Federal Wire Wager Act. The update, which would apply to online gambling, now awaits a vote from the Senate.

"It's lame duck," Kirkham said in reference to the legislation, which would outlaw electronic transmission of funds to pay for gambling bets and give law enforcement agencies authority to block such money transfers. "They think that they are going to be able to do it, but they don't understand how big of a deal they are really dealing with."

Credit card companies have already regulated themselves by not allowing people to make electronic transfers. Players have to use online pay services such as PayPal to start an account online, Kirkham said.

Wilkin, not fearing the law either, began playing at free sites when he was 16. He met McBride when he was 17, and they became good friends through playing poker.

While he, too, prefers to play online, he does not spend as much time as McBride does, nor does he have long-term plans for his winnings.

"It's hard to rely on something you could lose at," he said. "I do have a chance of losing, and that is what keeps me working my job. There is always a chance you are going to lose."

E-mail: blee@desnews.com