For most of the kids anteing up for red-hot poker games these days, the pastime will probably amount to nothing more than a little innocent fun with their friends. But experts on problem gambling are keeping a wary eye on the fast-moving fad because statistics have shown that in the past boys and girls who gambled before age 20 were three times as likely to become compulsive gamblers as those who didn't.
The card game - and the betting that generally accompanies it - took the country by storm last year after ESPN began airing a series that features high-stakes poker games among professionals. The craze has been fueled by other television poker shows, a $1.8 billion Internet poker industry, and the proliferation of legal gambling, which has become engrained in US culture over the past two decades.
As Americans of all ages rush to try their luck at Texas Hold 'Em, parents of teens often don't seem overly worried when their kids wager on the outcome.
Instead, many feel that a poker gameamong friends in the family living room is a benign alternative to drinking, using drugs, or engaging in other types of risky adolescent behavior.
In Rowley, Mass., for instance, Gary Machiros wasn't concerned when his 12- and 14-year-old sons switched from collecting hockey cards to collecting straights and flushes after watching ESPN's "World Series of Poker" last year. After all, he played poker for $15 pots when he was 16, and he liked seeing poker bring out his boys' competitive instincts. So rather than raise objections, he jumped into the game with them.
"As long as they're not doing a lot of it, it's just one more thing they're doing," Mr. Machiros says. "You can compare it to a video game, although maybe it's a little better because there's some interaction" with friends.
Such an attitude is fairly typical in the United States, where 80 percent of adults say they've bet money at least once in the past year, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.
But whether youngsters enthralled by poker are learning to play responsibly or are taking a big risk with a seductive game is a point on which some parents and researchers disagree.
"Youth gambling may very well be an indicator of a lot of other risky behaviors to come," says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
Mr. Whyte hypothesizes, based on youth gambling data, that children who begin gambling in middle school might become inclined to seek bigger thrills with each passing year through higher stakes gambling, underage sex, illicit drug use, or other high-risk activities.
Other research confirms a correlation among risky behaviors, but youthful gambling isn't necessarily the root culprit. "It's hard to make the case for a causal relationship [between youth gambling and other risky behaviors]," says Dan Romer, research director at the Adolescent Risk Communication Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. "We know the vices go together; people who do one will do another."
But whether gambling triggers other types of risk-taking, or if it simply attracts those already inclined to be risk-takers, is not fully understood, according to Mr. Romer.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, federal and state laws tightly restricted gambling. Today's youthful generation has had lifelong exposure through state-advertised lotteries, poker shows on television, and Internet gambling.
This dramatic shift over just a few years has left researchers grappling with a previously unasked question: What happens to children who grow up gambling in a society where gambling is almost ubiquitous?
Research indicates that young people, especially boys, like to gamble. About 80 percent of those age 17 and younger have gambled at least once within the past year, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. Ten to 15 percent of youth in the same age bracket demonstrate early signs of a gambling problem, while another 1 to 6 percent experience severe problems. In sum, people under 17 were twice as likely to develop a gambling problem as adults were.
Horror stories include one of a high school student who last year lost all his money on a poker game, then wagered his laptop computer in a bid to get it back. He lost the computer, too.
But more common might be the experience of Brett Scialdone, who graduated this year from high school in Beverly, Mass. Excited by watching the multimillion-dollar poker games on TV, he and some friends started playing. Soon, he says, "we got hooked." But since enrolling at Marshall University in West Virginia this fall, he hasn't played a single game.
"Some of my friends [back in Massachusetts] like to play a lot, and I'm sure it'd be hard for them to stop, but I'm sure they could," Mr. Scialdone says.
In the youth party business, planners say poker and casino themes rank among top requests from those in their early teens and slightly younger. And kids are playing on their own: A University of Pennsylvania survey in 2003 showed 20 percent of 14- and 15-year-olds bet on cards at least once in an average month, while the percentage climbs to 28 percent among 18- and 19-year-olds.
Few adults seem aware of possible dangers, however. In 1997, a survey of Minnesota parents found just 9 percent said they would be "very concerned" if they knew their children were gambling.
In 2004, little seems to have changed. Case in point: Although the National PTA is working closely with other groups to provide thorough education about drugs and other safety issues, the group has not put problem gambling on its agenda.
"People don't think of gambling as a potentially addictive behavior," Romer says. "There's always been an attitude that a little bit of it is OK."
Gambling experts are concerned that education about the risks of gambling for youth might not take hold in the universal way drug education did in the 1970s and '80s. Tight state budgets make any sort of new education curriculum a hard sell.
But a deeper problem lurks: State-run lotteries routinely finance public education, and any school-based campaign to reduce gambling could eventually threaten the coffers of the schools themselves.
Churches have historically led campaigns to limit gambling, but they're "much more about antigambling," says Whyte, "than about treatment, recovery, and health promotion messages," which might be necessary to reach a culture already smitten by games of chance.
Still, modest efforts to acquaint parents and children with the risks of gambling are taking root. A program from the North American Training Institute has reached 55,000 Minnesota students, and Georgia educators are considering it as well. And the National Council on Problem Gambling is developing a new pamphlet to highlight warning signs for youths and identify resources for help.
For its part, ESPN airs public service announcements on responsible gambling during its poker programs. Announcers go one step further, says Keri Potts, spokeswoman for ESPN, to highlight not just the multimillion-dollar wins but also the consequences of defeat, such as the tale of one professional player whose losses forced him to live in his recreational vehicle.
Ms. Potts thinks that the network gives a "realistic portrayal" that shows clearly poker is a game of chance.
Yet with government, churches, and parent groups largely sidelined from today's gambling-education efforts, teens and their younger siblings seem likely to keep wagering without hearing too much about the risks.