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Gambling Wave Sets Stage for Addiction

Glamorization of gambling may create a new generation of addicts.

WebMD Feature

For Christmas this year, Austin Fox, age 13, got exactly what he asked Santa for -- a tabletop casino-style poker set. Like growing numbers of children and adults, the Philadelphia youth has been seduced by the lure of poker.

In fact, Austin plays poker about three times a month. His mother, Susan Hewitt, thought long and hard before deciding upon his Christmas gift. "I decided to let him play as long as it is in moderation and supervised by myself or another parent," she says. "They are not playing with exorbitant amounts of money and I see it as more of a social gathering," she tells WebMD. Still, she admits, "the day I taught him what a poker face was, I thought what am I doing?"

Ante Up Anyone?

Buoyed by the popularity of television shows such as Celebrity Poker Showdown, World Poker Tour, and the World Series of Poker, this card game is more popular than ever. World Poker Tour officials estimate that 100 million people in the U.S. at least occasionally play poker and that's up from 50 million about 18 months ago, according to an article in the Washington Times. Other casino games, too, seem to be experiencing a rebirth of sorts. Las Vegas is once again a preferred vacation destination, online gambling is on fire, cell phones have downloadable blackjack and casino-style gifts are flying off of store shelves.

But does this new generation of gamblers really know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run (as Kenny Rogers would croon)?

"Poker is the new rage among adolescents, and kids as young as 9 are now playing," says JoAnn White, PhD, a therapist who specializes in addiction in Cherry Hill, N.J. "More than 8% of new gamblers may end up having some type of gambling addiction, but we don't know how to identify then in advance," White says.

"You could have bars all over a city and it doesn't mean you should close them down because some people are alcoholics," adds Debra Mandel, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist. But "certainly for people who are hooked on gambling, this new wave can and will have negative consequences," she says.

"If it's not going to be a problem, you won't make it one by playing a game," she says. The converse is also true. "People who are prone to addiction will find something to get addicted to," Mandel says.

With most addictions and addictive personalities, the younger the behavior starts the more likely it will continue because they lack inner resources, Mandel says. Risk factors include family history of addiction, depression, or anxiety. "A lot of times addictions are a way to self-medicate an anxiety disorder or depression," she says.

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