Andrew Custer first began playing online poker casually in the summer of 2005. Within a year, his initial investment of $100 had quadrupled. He was hooked.
Now, the business junior is a professional poker player who sets his own schedule, usually allotting 15 to 20 hours per week to play.
“I don’t pit myself to a certain amount of hours a week because otherwise (I’ll) burn myself out. It’s much better when you play when you want to play, on your own schedule,” Custer said.
Although he has made about $6,000 since last August from playing, money is not the goal.
“In poker, money is just something that shows you have won,” Custer said. “I know that I can choose to raise my bet whenever I want.”
Ground rules, like no poker while drinking or making sure that he always has 10 times the buy-in amount in his account, help to “give (himself) an edge.”
“While I’m playing on my own schedule, it’s because I’m not playing for my rent. When you’re playing for your rent, it’s like, ‘I have to win today.’ You’re not going to make good decision, you’re just going to be forcing things.”
Custer is not alone, though. In total, about 1.6 million college student play online poker. Online poker is mostly a male phenomenon, said Mary Peracca, a marriage and family therapist with the Cal Poly Health Center’s psychological services.
At Cal Poly, the problem is exacerbated by the university’s proximity to Chumash Casino, Peracca said.
That is certainly the case for business administration junior Chris Molnar.
His gambling addiction began after his parents took him to an Indian casino for his 18th birthday; Molnar said gambling is an addiction that runs in his family.
“I hate it. But once I start playing, I can’t stop,” he said.
One night during the second week of his freshman year, Molnar won first place in a poker tournament at Chumash Casino, only to lose the $900 prize later that night playing three-card poker.
“It was fun at the time, but the next day, I felt terrible,” he said.
An addiction at a real casino can quickly turn into an addiction of the online variety as well. Social sciences junior Michael Hada began playing poker five years ago.
“(When I came to Cal Poly), it was hard to get good games going, and I could not go to casinos whenever I wanted since I didn’t have a car,” he said. So he turned to online poker instead.
Though he has cut back from the 30 hours per week he played his freshman and sophomore year to 20 hours per week now, still regrets his decision to begin at all.
“I really don’t think people should gamble. Whether it’s online or in a casino, it’s pretty much the same thing. . They (shouldn’t) lose all their money; it’s addicting,” he said. “I kind of wish I hadn’t started. I think that I was probably too young to start doing it. I didn’t have enough money; I couldn’t afford to lose it.”
But, as Peracca said, an addiction to online gambling is a vicious cycle.
The root of online gambling addiction – and really any addiction – is social anxiety, Peracca said. Playing online in particular gives those lacking social skills power and the ability to be whoever they want to be.
“Really, if you look at (all addictive behaviors), it’s about not dealing with uncomfortable feelings. It starts out as a fun pastime. But when it becomes addictive, it’s merely an escape. This is especially true with online gambling,” Peracca said.
As one of seven therapists at the Health Center, Peracca sees about five students with the addiction a year. These are usually students in serious debt (between $5,000 and $10,000) who are unable to break the vicious cycle on their own, she said.
But, like most things in life, moderation – as difficult or clich‚ as it may seem – is key.
“People fall into (addictions) by doing something for fun. (Online gambling) is designed to be addicting, to lure you in and keep you there. My caution would be to do it minimally. And if you’re having problems, ask for help.”
Ironically, though, most resources for help are strictly found online, she added.