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For many teens, 'hold-em' is a draw

Some parents see plus in poker play

On a good night, Andrew Dominguez might bring home more than $100 after an evening of poker with his buddies.

That doesn't sound so unusual, except this card shark is just 17 years old. Dominguez, who is starting his senior year at Braintree High School, has been playing for more than two years.

"I love playing poker, and so do my friends," Dominguez said. "We play whenever we get the chance."

They are part of a mostly male trend reportedly sweeping the nation, and many players' parents seem to accept it as an innocuous social outlet, even if it is technically illegal.

"I don't see it as a concern, just as long as there's parent supervision," said Trish Baggott of Hingham, whose 15-year-old son has been playing poker with friends since last spring. "I like that they have something to do that keeps them occupied, something they enjoy and get excited about."

The teenage poker games of today don't resemble the stereotyped image of men chomping cigars and guzzling Scotch. These players are more likely to drink Diet Coke and scarf Doritos delivered by parents who stay nearby to supervise. Tournaments are often set up around the schedules of the moms and dads willing to play host.

While college poker appeals to both males and females, it seems to be largely a boys' game at the high school level. Girls might come to tournaments to hang out and socialize, but they rarely play.

"We usually watch for a while," said Alex LoPresti, 17, of Braintree, who said she only joined in a game once. "When it gets boring, we go in the other room and turn on the TV or something."

It's no surprise that the teenagers' attraction started with television.

"We've seen that teens are captivated with poker right now," said Margot Cahoon, communications specialist for the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. "It's been glamorized on TV."

Many teens are glued to the set when cable channels air the top-rated World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour, where players might ante up $10,000 toward winnings that can climb into millions of dollars. The high-stakes tournaments, and charity-linked versions starring celebrities, serve as teaching tools for kids attracted by the risk and excitement of the game on television.

David Traub, spokesman for Norfolk District Attorney William R. Keating, said state law considers a game illegal if someone wins $5 or more. "It appears that the potential penalty" is forfeiting double the amount lost in the game, Traub said. The law was first enacted in 1785 and renewed several times, most recently in 1902, he said.

Dominguez said Sunday is the official poker night for his crowd. The boys gather at someone's house for "Texas hold 'em" tournaments where one lucky -- or highly skilled -- player walks off with the pot at the end of the night. With the entry fees reportedly ranging from $5 to $20, it can add up to a considerable take in games involving as many as 10 players.

"Our parents are OK with it, as long as they know we're not getting into heavy gambling," said Dominguez, who admits that his mother was somewhat alarmed when she learned her 15-year-old was playing cards for money.

"She was dead-set against it at first," he said. "But when she realized that we were just having fun, she said, 'At least I know where you are. You're not out doing drugs, or drinking and driving.' "

Some experts say that's a valid point.

"If there's not a lot of money lost, and they're staying out of trouble and having a good time, is that a bad thing? Not necessarily," said Ken Winter, director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at the University of Minnesota. "Some of that is actually favorable, very prosocial."

Winter said some useful skills can be honed during poker games, including socializing, mathematical prowess, decision-making, and learning to control emotions.

"It's good to exercise all that," he said. "It's a lot better than sitting and watching TV. Your brain is getting strengthened, although it would get more strengthened by reading."

Winter, who studies teen gambling patterns, said there has been no noticeable increase in teenagers or adults seeking treatment for gambling addiction since poker-mania began on TV.

Cahoon agrees that bringing $10 to a poker game among friends is probably harmless, as long as parents are sure that dollar amounts aren't climbing when they're not looking.

"We know that many compulsive gamblers started out by playing poker with their friends at age 16, 14, or even 12," she said. "It can turn into an addiction with devastating consequences -- social, emotional, and financial -- that hurts both individuals and families," she said.

Still, parents justify their sons' gambling by saying it's preferable to other behaviors sometimes associated with adolescence, such as drinking alcohol.

Indeed, it seems that teenage poker and teenage drinking do not mix.

"You wouldn't drink when you're playing poker," said Jeff Bosworth, 19, of Duxbury. "It would be a definite disadvantage to alter your state of mind when your money is on the table."

Bosworth said he learned to play while in high school, and continues to play in college, where poker is also a wildly popular pastime. He and his friends are careful to keep the stakes low, he said. He considers his poker winnings "gas money."

But gambling for money -- even when it takes place in a suburban living room -- is illegal. Police don't seem to invest much time in investigating teenage poker outings, but some parents find the trend disturbing.

"There's something unsavory about it," said Amy McGuiggan of Hingham. "These kids are taking money from their friends."

She said she would not allow her teenage son to play. "The whole culture of gambling is something that kids shouldn't be exposed to at an early age," McGuiggan said. "How many of them will be willing to flip burgers and cut lawns if they've got this kind of money in their pockets?"

Winter said that it's important for parents to ask such questions, and to consider whether their children will eventually want to "rev it up and move onto something more risky and exciting."

It's also important, he said, that poker doesn't replace all other interests. "No one should spend too much time on an addictive activity," he said.

Studies show that roughly 1 percent of the population is likely to form a gambling addiction, although Cahoon said that statistics in Massachusetts are closer to 5 percent.

"Most people can gamble for recreation," she said. "But I still wouldn't suggest that parents promote it for kids."

Dominguez said he doesn't "look at poker at a source of income now. But sometimes I think that maybe I could be a professional poker player when I grow up. I would really like that."

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