Hockey's back, but I want more than entertainment.
I can complain all I want, but inevitably the puck-chasers will continue to make tons of money. What if there were a sport where I could admire the players and still join in on the money-making fun?
Poker players may not be athletes, but they're featured on every major sports network. Card shark Daniel Negreanu is the current King of Cool.
Using skills picked up from poker tips on TV and in weekly columns in the papers, I logged on to Pokerroom. com. In a matter of days I'd tripled my $1,000 play-money buy-in, and soon afterward I told my editors here that I'd found my calling and was going into the gambling business.
It was fun, it was addictive, and, boy, was it easy. There was no blond, buxom babe backing my high-rolling behind, but with Pam and Paris a click away, how could I complain?
Predictably, I suppose, reality caught up with me. After piling up my courage, I went in with $100 in real money that I frittered away in less than five hours. First, I won big time, then lost even bigger.
Next thing I knew, I was spending hours at my computer drawing hand after hand in search of the elusive pocket aces, all the while wondering what had gone wrong. Surely, practice makes perfect, but if practice is perfect than how the hell did I screw up?
As it turns out, practising with play money is just the first of many problems that when piled too high can fall right into the hands of the law . ***
To understand a gambling addiction, one has to look deeper than at other activities that tend to induce dependence. Gambling works in much the same way as drugs and alcohol, causing the release of a natural pleasure-inducing chemical in the body, but with a much higher risk. Psychologist and neuroscience professor David Zald of Vanderbilt University in Nashville says the physiological reaction centres on the chemical dopamine, which gives you that feel-good feeling, and that the nature of gambling and winning makes it much more dangerous.
"Studies in animals have clearly shown that the amount of dopamine released by natural rewards is dependent on the level of predictability or unpredictability of the reward. That means gambling is a unique situation because of the unpredictability of the reward, which has a particularly strong impact on dopamine release."
In other words, it's not losing that'll kill you, it's winning. Zald says that while a win gives your brain a shot of dopamine, a loss will lower it, and when the dopamine level drops the brain starts craving it again. Unless you've lost your rent money, it's not necessarily money that you're trying to recover. So you play. It's the dopamine. And play. Repeat a hundred times and you understand how even Marge Simpson can turn from a gambling prude into a snarling slot-playing monster.
In his studies, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health gambling researcher Nigel Turner has spent hours playing online poker and says the problem is that play-money players generally fall into two categories, casual players and the fools who beat them. Casual players don't necessarily pay attention, because it's fake money. Wannabe pokies like me think that playing - and winning - is easy.
"If you have any skill at all in the play-money game, you can have a lot of fun taking down other people's stacks. If you have some modicum of skill, the play-money games are pretty easy to win." But Turner says it's impossible to tell when you've moved from having a "modicum of skill" to becoming a skilful player except by pulling in your play dough and starting to play with real money. It's here that newbies like me lose their shirts.
"You may be developing false expectations when winning is too easy, and that leads to trouble. If you watch how people play with play money, you'll find some really, really bad habits. A pair of twos is a really good hand at play money . Few people fold [with that hand], so you might be able to make money with an average hand."
That's not to say everyone who logs on is a loser. Two of the last three World Series Of Poker winners got in by doing the same thing I did, sitting alone playing opponents with fancy poker-themed nicknames as hand after computer-shuffled hand was dealt.
But Daniel Negreanu, the World Poker Tour 2004 player of the year, says just because online players make it to the top doesn't necessarily mean they're more skilled than those who play live. In an e-mail from Vegas he says Net poker types do "get lots of practice quickly. It's not that they're better, but there are so many more of them,' that it's statistically more likely they'll show up at the top. A lot of inhabitants of that virtual Vegas dream of winning big and moving on to multi-million-dollar jackpots. That's what drives advertising on poker sites.
With this in mind, it's easy to see why sports networks choose to air poker. As TSN's VP of marketing, Adam Ashton, says, poker shares too many similarities with sweaty-bodied "real" sports, including million-dollar paydays, for these networks to ignore.
"Poker is a competition [where] players vie for a championship title. There's a winner and there are losers, and viewers don't know the outcome of the event. Players competing in poker tournaments require skill, talent and a bit of luck, not to mention the composure to compete in front of a national television audience."
But Vanderbilt's Zald says that in addition to coverage of poker tournaments, there needs to be more publicity about how dangerous the game is. "With moves toward more gambling on TV, there needs to be more in the way of public service announcements so people having problems get directed to the appropriate treatment."
When I ask Negreanu whether he may be addicted to the game, he scoffs: "That's a silly question, really. It's akin to asking a stockbroker if he's addicted to the market, or asking a restaurant owner if he's addicted to the risks associated with opening a restaurant.'
Still, the networks do see a social responsibility angle. TSN has partnered with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to run public service announcements promoting responsible gaming in its coverage of the Canadian Degree Poker Championships later this fall. David Akande of Sportsnet, which will begin airing the Canadian Poker Tour this month, says he's put in a request for PSAs from responsible gambling groups. And Anthony Cicione of The Score, which airs the European Poker Tour, says the messages are "something we will implement once we get a better sense of what's out there."
What's also out there is gambling's legal problem. In North America it's illegal for the house to take in a rake, where the house skims a small percentage of the winning pot, except where special licenses permit. It remains to be seen if someone playing in North America and contributing to the rake can be convicted of the crime. Real-money sites have to operate from offshore locales like the Caribbean and Gibraltar.
Besides the legal ambiguities, there's also the problem of spreading awareness of responsible gambling on the Net. The Responsible Gambling Council's Jon Kelly says he's turned down offers by online gaming sites to link to his org for fear of associating with what is essentially an illegal undertaking in North America. Kelly also says the nature of the Net makes it difficult for someone in, say, Picton, Ontario, to get help.
Ironically, those who don't like gambling can still win in the relatively safer game of the stock market. Shares of Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which operates the World Series Of Poker, are at their highest point in the company's 15-year history.
As for the losers, they include credit card companies, which do not provide funds for online gambling purposes. But don't imagine it's for your benefit; it's a form of protection after a United States judge ruled that gambling debts are not legally binding. As a result, I had to pay for my losses through a third party that then turned my money over to the gambling site - after two days and a mandatory $5 fee.
That loss was minimal, as was my $100 buy-in. So I can still consider myself a winner. Odds are, however, that as online gambling gets more exposure, few will be as lucky as I was.