-- Kevin figures about half the male students at his suburban high school are regular poker players. It's the latest teen rite of passage: Texas Hold 'Em with the boys, a little low-budget action on the weekend.
He started playing at age 15.
By the end of his senior year, the 17-year-old was hunting bigger games. He frequented illegal poker clubs on Long Island, where your birthday took a back seat to your bankroll. He dropped $2,000 betting during a family vacation in the Caribbean. When his job managing an ice cream shop conflicted with poker nights, he quit.
As his losses inevitably swelled, Kevin -- without hesitation or remorse -- started looting a $30,000 college fund set up by his parents. "I didn't care if I won or lost," said Kevin, who went through $7,000 in three months. "I just wanted to gamble."
He wasn't alone. This summer, while school was out, a growing number of America's teens were going all in as poker mesmerized a group that grew both larger and younger.
Experts fear the popularity of poker is putting America's youth at its highest risk ever for compulsive betting -- and they worry that assistance programs are lagging.
"I get calls from parents and kids, some as young as 14, every day," said Arnie Wexler, a counselor and former head of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling. "This thing has exploded. I've never seen anything explode like this has in the last year."
Poker, particularly the incredibly popular Texas Hold 'Em version played in the $56 million World Series of Poker, stands alongside hip-hop and video games as pillars of America's youth culture. And as schools reopen this fall, the pool of potential underage gamblers is spreading from the upper grades into the middle schools.
According to a study by the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, 15.9 percent of in-state students between the sixth and 12th grades admit to gambling-related woes or signs of addiction. Four percent reported they were stealing money from relatives to gamble.
A national survey showed a huge increase in card-playing among males ages 14 to 22, with the number of youths reporting they gambled in card games at least once a week jumping from 6.2 percent in 2003 to 11.4 percent last year -- an increase of 84 percent. The vast majority of poker players are males.
It's easier for a teenager to place a bet than to buy a six-pack of beer or a pack of cigarettes. And more teens are taking advantage of the easy access to gambling, with dreams of making easy money.
"Poker is huge," Kevin said.
There are no definitive statistics on the number of teenagers battling compulsive gambling problems nationwide. But Ed Looney, who followed Wexler as head of the New Jersey council, cites the 80-15-5 rule.
"Eighty percent of the kids who gamble, there will be no impact on their lives," Looney said. "Fifteen percent will have some problem. And 5 percent will become addicted."
It's a scary number. The risk of pathological gambling runs about twice as high among adolescents (5 percent) as it does among adults (3 percent), said Carlos Blanco, head of the gambling clinic at the Columbia University Medical Center.
As the number of young gamblers increases, so does the number of young gamblers saddled with a problem. Those odds, experts say, are unforgiving and indisputable.
Many teens pick up the game from television, with its endless permutations of professional gamblers and celebrity wannabes, with its explanations of intricacies of the seven-card game.
But there's more than television at work here. Online gambling is just a click away, accessible 24 hours every day, 365 days a year. A Google search of play and Texas Hold 'Em turned up more than 2 million results.
Serious gamblers often play multiple hands simultaneously, cranking up the endorphins and the risk.
"Everybody loves to win a hand," said Neil Capretto, medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pa. "It's really a high."
Capretto's facility treats drug and alcohol addiction, although within the past 18 months he noted an increase in younger addicts suffering from gambling woes. Cross-addiction is a fairly common problem; researchers at the National Council on Problem Gambling found that teens with a gambling problem were more likely to engage in risky behavior such as unsafe sex, binge drinking and skipping school.
Gamblers also have the highest suicide rate of any addicted group. A 19-year-old New Yorker lost $6,000 on the 1997 World Series, then killed himself and left a note citing his debt.
Of course, most of the consequences fall far short of death: A college freshman forced to drop out of school after turning into a round-the-clock Internet poker player. The teenage girl looting her mother's checking account. The teenage boy who graduated from neighborhood poker games to stealing his parents' credit cards.
"I know kids in the 10th grade right now who are gambling their brains out," said Andrew, 18, whose own gambling woes drove him to Gamblers Anonymous. "I see it in my town, I see it in the towns around us."
Even those who make a name and a living from professional poker wonder about the impact on adolescents.
"I shudder to think how many kids have dropped out of college because of us," said poker-playing celebrity Dutch Boyd in a Rolling Stone magazine profile. "TV makes it look glamorous and like something anyone can do, but it's neither."
Boyd, 24, mentions in his official biography that he "arrived in living rooms around the country during ESPN's 2003 World Series of Poker." Kids like Kevin, the Long Island high schooler, took notice.
"I thought I could quit my job and play poker for a living," he recalled. "I thought, 'I can do that.' "
When Denis M. walks into a Gamblers Anonymous meeting these days, the 15-year veteran of the self-help group can't help but notice the changing crowd.
"Particularly over the last five, six years, it's getting younger and younger," said the 50-year-old New Jersey resident. "We've seen more teens than ever before."
His early days in the program were spent among men -- almost exclusively older white men -- at the GA meetings.
On Long Island, there are now two GA meetings devoted exclusively to teens. Kevin, who started attending after his angry parents discovered the depleted tuition fund, is a regular.
"That was a big thing for me, to realize I was not alone," said the teen, who will start college this fall -- and start reimbursing his parents for the missing cash.
Many parents, while concerned about drugs, alcohol and sexual activity, view poker games as benign -- and typically, they're right. But experts warn parents to watch out for specific signs: sudden windfalls of cash, unexplained financial losses, a general preoccupation with betting.
Although the problem is national, education about compulsive gambling remains a mostly local concern. But local money is tough to find. Of the 48 states with legalized gambling, 22 devote government funding to help people with gambling problems, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
In California, with a teen population in the millions, there is no statewide educational program on teenage gambling. The same is true in New York, despite a prescient 1998 study by the state Council on Problem Gambling that found four of five students ages 13 to 17 had placed at least one bet.
A December symposium in New York hopes to illuminate the problem and develop some solutions. The state council reports a 42 percent increase in calls from gamblers 18 and under between 2003 and 2004.
Some schools are trying to find their own answers. In New Jersey, officials at the Tenafly Middle School arranged for a school assembly in May after students began showing up with poker chips and cards in their backpacks. Returning students at Ridge High School in Somerset will find that carrying a deck of cards is a violation of school policy.
Students in Orange County, Fla., will receive anti-gambling lessons this fall as part of the curriculum. The Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling ordered 50 copies of a video, "The Big Win," aimed at warning youthful poker players. Copies of the video were also sent to school districts in Wisconsin and Connecticut.
But it's difficult to find anyone who thinks the problem is fully addressed.
"Even if just 2 percent of kids become compulsive gamblers, that's a huge number," said Jim Maney, head of the New York council. "And we don't know who they are."