A Falls Church school gambles on poker as an educational tool

Jordan Robarge, left, Daniel Fletcher and David McAlpin enjoy a light moment at a George Mason High School poker club meeting.
Jordan Robarge, left, Daniel Fletcher and David McAlpin enjoy a light moment at a George Mason High School poker club meeting. (Dayna Smith)
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By Kevin Sieff
Monday, November 29, 2010

The two makeshift poker tables in William Snyder's math classroom at George Mason High School were buzzing as Daniel Fletcher, 17, debated what to do with his four of hearts and two of clubs.

Fletcher had been on a tear during the past few meetings of the high school poker club - part of a nascent effort nationwide to take the game from casinos to classrooms, applying card-table concepts to math and logical-reasoning lessons.

As Fletcher's pile of plastic chips grew last week, he smiled wide. "I don't know whether math class is helping me with poker, or whether poker is helping me in math class," he said.

George Mason's school-sponsored poker club, which was founded in September, has quickly become one of the most popular extracurricular activities at the Falls Church high school. But it also has anti-gambling groups questioning whether it encourages potentially unhealthy habits in children.

For years, the debate over whether poker can be stripped of its stakes - and used to teach probability and statistics - has been waged far from George Mason High, between leading academics and advocacy groups. But with gambling among teenagers a nationally recognized problem, the school-sponsored club represents something of a new frontier in the dispute.

"We know the kids could play outside of school, but when they're here, we have the opportunity to show them how to play responsibly and to show them how the game relates to their education," said Mason Principal Tyrone Byrd.

When Byrd approved the club, he made the ground rules clear: Real money could not be used, and the game's educational relevance must be made explicit. Several weeks ago, the club posted fliers that included cigarette-smoking dogs playing a hand of poker, and Byrd tore them down. "Those are the kinds of connotations we're trying to stay away from."

George Mason's club might be a rarity at the high school level, but some universities have long had classes that sought to deconstruct the game's "marvelous architecture," as Harvard Law School Professor Charles Nesson calls it.

"When you graduate from Harvard Law School, I want you to be a player," Nesson tells his students, who play in a section outside class. The lesson is about more than basic statistics. It's about understanding the anatomy of reasoning and human behavior - "about teaching them to contend in a contentious environment."

Nesson and his students formed the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society at Harvard in 2007. That club has opened chapters at a number of the country's top universities. Its members hope to drive home a simple point: Poker is a game of skill that, according to its mission statement, "can be used as a powerful teaching tool at all levels of academia and in secondary education."

But anti-gambling activists say those lessons might not be suited for high school, where teenagers, still unable to gamble legally, are growing up during a boom in high-stakes poker, with celebrity players and easily accessible gaming Web sites.

"We're playing with fire here. Poker can be a teaching tool, but it can also lead to abuse and addiction," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "The excitement that a win produces, whether or not it's for money, can have profound effects on decision-making in a young brain."

A study from the Annenberg Public Policy Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania released last month found that 15 percent of boys ages 14 to 17 gamble on card games at least once a month.

Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group, has been on the front lines of the battle against youth poker, lobbying against everything from Internet gambling to informal high school card games. The group says adolescents are more vulnerable than adults to developing addictions to gambling.

At George Mason, the club divides the room between two clusters of desks - one poker game for rookies and one for experienced players. Both games are punctuated by fist pumps and exasperated groans - the range of responses to bluffs gone right and wrong.

"The older kids realize that it's about odds and probability," Snyder said. "The younger ones just want to win."

Jay Rodock, a George Mason senior who is the club's co-founder, is intent on it being something other than a springboard to high-stakes gaming.

He and his friends play for small sums of money outside school, but he's clear that the poker club is about math, not winnings.

For a few minutes during each meeting, the 17-year-old senior teaches the group of 15 to 20 students about the game's conceptual underpinnings, jotting fractions on the chalkboard and working through basic arithmetic.

"What's the ratio of getting an out here?" he asked the group last week, pointing to a few cards he had drawn on the board.

One student responded quickly with the right answer: "11 out of 47."

"So, what would your next move be?" he asked. The group stared at him expectantly. Snyder, the club's sponsor, who teaches the statistics of blackjack and poker in his International Baccalaureate math class, also kept his eyes on Rodock.

"In this case, you could call, raise or fold. They're all acceptable options," Rodock said. Then he added with the laconic wisdom of a veteran: "You'll have your good days, and you'll have your bad days."

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