While I should have been glad something was drawing my teen’s attention away from screens, I was wary of his interest in the game. Poker is intrinsically linked to gambling, even when you’re not playing for money. Did I really want to encourage that? On the other hand, knowing how to play poker comes with a solid skill set — the ability to quickly calculate odds, develop a strategy and, most of all, read other people. And I’d rather be the one to teach it to him.
So I emailed with experts, including Rina Gupta and Alissa Sklar, both of whom worked as researchers for several years at McGill University’s Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High Risk Behaviours. They said that while the teenage years are not the ideal time for a developing brain to be exposed to activities like gambling, context matters. And in the right circumstances, a friendly game of poker could be a valuable learning experience.
One of the issues is the introduction of gambling at a time when the brain isn’t fully developed. “The teenage brain is primed for risk-taking and pleasure-seeking while the problem-solving part of the brain (the frontal lobes) remain undeveloped,” Gupta said in an email. “It’s what accounts for the ‘what were you thinking?’ phase of life.”
But neither said playing with my son was wrong. Gupta and Sklar agreed that the context, and the person, make all the difference.
“We have pretty convincing evidence that early exposure and normalizing gambling can be risk factors,” Sklar said in an email. “But if a parent explains the risk and that it is fundamentally a game of chance (even with skill involved) it may mitigate some of those risks. It can be a good way to demonstrate independence of events — if you lose several times, you aren’t ‘due’ for a win. Each game is independent of the others. It’s a way to challenge our kids to think critically about things.”
A few weeks ago, the stars aligned, and a friend put together a game. I asked if I could bring my son, just for the first hour. She said sure and asked if he’d be buying in.
My doubt resurfaced. I had somehow overlooked the money aspect. Of course, it was wrong to gamble with my son. Or was it? My friend had asked about it without a trace of judgment. She even suggested I front him the money.
I decided to let him come to the game, watch for an hour, and then maybe buy in for a few hands. “Listen,” I said. “You can’t buy in for more than $20, and you have to understand that you won’t see that money again. Think of it as an evening’s entertainment costing you $20. Only bet what you’re comfortable losing.”
He came. He watched. He played. And he took our money. I texted my husband, Come pick up your son. I didn’t know about my friends, but I’d certainly had enough.
My son felt pretty good about his win, but I was uneasy. I asked Gupta if parents should be concerned about teenagers learning the game, and whether it was on the same level as scratch tickets or roulette.
“That’s like asking if a glass of wine is the same level of drinking as a shot of tequila,” she says. “Both are alcohol, and exposure can result in a desire to reach for more, due to the fun effects. However, the social context of how wine and tequila are consumed are different. Like a poker game, a glass of wine is usually embedded in a social situation and extended over time. In contrast, that shot of tequila is consumed in a matter of seconds with likely no social context. It’s the same thing here — if poker is being played on a machine, and it’s being played quickly and for the thrill — it’s not a good thing.”
But what if the attraction is the game itself, not the idea of winning money? “It makes a difference that the money is secondary,” Gupta says. “But not in the way you think. Getting caught up in beating the system and believing it is skill-driven can place someone at a higher risk. If that’s the case, play without money. Use tokens.”
Sklar agrees. “I’d be concerned if someone came to identify themselves at a young age as an especially skilled player. It may lead to them ignoring the element of risk,” she says. “They may play more impulsively, especially if it earns social props with friends. And early wins are, ironically, a risk factor. Kids who win right away may start to think of themselves as particularly lucky or skilled.”
The important thing is to know your child, and whether there’s any history of addiction in the family. There are signs — weekly games, hiding their playing, having trouble getting through daily life, impacts on their school and friendships — that indicate a problem. If you see any of this, it’s time to sit down and have a talk.
I recently picked up a set of poker chips on sale. My son saw them and asked if he could host a game with his friends — no money involved. He told me which kids he wanted to invite and I checked with their parents, all of whom were fine with the idea. Only two knew how to play, so I taught them the rules and then settled in to deal.
I’m relieved to report that at the age of 14, they were still much more interested in being teenage boys than they were in the game. There was much laughter, eating and teasing, though as soon as one of the boys took the lead, that boy became much more serious. They were all pretty good at keeping count of the betting, too, something I often struggle with.
What troubled me came much later. After everyone left my son came into my room to debrief, and he listed each of his friend’s tells and betting strategies. I initially had doubts that he’d be able to read people at all, and here he was able to glean all this information in a mere three hours of play. I banned him from playing future games with my friends for money. I said it with a smile, but I was dead serious.
I’m going to have to keep an eye on this kid.
Julie Matlin is a freelance writer living in Montreal. Find her on Twitter @jmatlin.