Eric Froehlich was the son of a chemical engineer and smart enough to win admission to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County and then the University of Virginia.
And then he discovered online poker.
Long identified with saloons, cigars and Mississippi riverboats, poker in recent years has found an unlikely home: in dormitory rooms, on the computer screens of clever young men. Froehlich won a major World Series of Poker tournament in 2005 at 21, making him the youngest winner of a coveted poker “bracelet,” until he was eclipsed by three players who were younger still.
“Gamblers are no longer gangsters with guns,” said Justin Vingelis, 22, a poker player who graduated in May from James Madison University. “They are nerds with calculators.”
At many colleges, the campus culture largely embraces poker. Last November, engineering students at the University of Maryland hosted their fourth annual Casino Night, an evening of card-playing and networking. A student charity at U-Va. holds annual “Hold ’em for Hunger” tournaments.
But the federal government has been less indulgent. In April, the Justice Department shut down three leading poker sites and charged their owners with bank fraud and money-laundering. In a civil lawsuit filed last month, federal prosecutors alleged the owners of one site, Full Tilt Poker, pocketed more than $300 million in player deposits.
Full Tilt insiders “lined their own pockets with funds picked from the pockets of their most loyal customers,” Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said in a statement.
Among the losers is Vingelis, an online poker player from the Fairfax suburb of Burke. Vingelis joined Full Tilt at 18, when he got his first debit card. He bet a dollar or two at a time and reckons he made about $2,000 playing poker on the site before it shut down.
“From my conversations with some friends, we are all resigned to the fact that our money is gone,” he said.
Poker has become a game of the young. The last three winners of the annual World Series of Poker “Main Event,” poker’s top tournament, were 22, 21 and 23 years old, respectively, and males.
A 2010 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found 16 percent of college-age males — 1.7 million young men — gambled on the Internet at least once a month, primarily by playing poker. A 2008 Florida study found college students twice as given to gamble as older adults.
Poker sites cater to college students. One promises: “$30,000 guaranteed! You’ve been studying, this is the exam!” Another asks, “How would you like to have $10,000 shaved off of this year’s tuition?”
To those who study gambling as an addiction, this predilection for poker puts thousands of college students in peril. Students with gambling problems are more likely to run up credit card debt, take drugs, get bad grades and steal, studies have found.
“It doesn’t just mean money,” said Jeffrey Derevensky, a youth gambling researcher at McGill University in Canada. “It can mean time. It can mean theft. It can mean kids dropping out of school.”
Yet, a college gambling task force found in 2008 that only 22 percent of colleges have a written policy on gambling. “And in a lot of cases, that might be simply, ‘There shall be no gambling on campus,’ ” said Christine Reilly, senior research director at the National Center for Responsible Gaming.
Today’s inquisitive teens discover poker for the same reasons their parents played chess and pondered the Rubik’s Cube. Poker is a particularly cerebral form of gambling, one that rewards not luck but math and logic. For Froehlich, poker was like a puzzle, one “that’s very much not solved and very much never will be solved.”
Froehlich, now 27, started playing poker when he enrolled at the University of Virginia in 2002. His inspiration wasn’t Wild Bill Hickok or Steve McQueen’s “Kid” but rather Magic: The Gathering, a card game created by a mathematics professor and popular with the Dungeons & Dragons crowd.
Poker “was just something I did in the dorms,” Froehlich said. It wasn’t meant to be a career. But Froehlich didn’t much like school. When he took some time off to care for his ailing mother, he started spending his free time playing poker. By 22, Froehlich had won two major tournaments and a lot of money, and “it almost seemed selfish not to go the poker route.” He is now a successful professional, playing in live poker tournaments.
Froehlich and other young players trace the explosion of collegiate poker to the ascent of Chris Moneymaker, an accountant who won poker’s biggest tournament in 2003 after qualifying through an online poker site. Poker became a marquee event on ESPN, a network already popular with young men, who could now tune in to watch other young men win stacks of money.
“You’re talking about a group of people who are very impulse-prone, who can make poor decisions,” said Stephen McDaniel, a gambling expert at U-Md.
The past decade has seen an evolution of gambling to “gaming,” a triumph of euphemism amid a wave of legislation to legalize and destigmatize wagering. Forty-eight states and the District now permit citizens to gamble legally, according to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington. Utah and Hawaii are the lone holdouts. Poker, in particular, has become viewed as a sort of athletic event, although the U.S. government still views online poker as a crime.
“There’s been a massive cultural shift toward acceptance and accessibility and availability of gambling in America,” Whyte said. “And that certainly filters down to the kids.”
In this climate, some gambling experts say legalized online poker is inevitable. Supporters say legalization would cleanse an industry tarnished by scandal. Because online sites operate outside U.S. law, they are largely unregulated.
“Those people who got swindled by Full Tilt, they’d be much less likely to be swindled if it was legal,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a prominent supporter of legal gambling.
But some veteran players say online poker will never be safe. They point to the ease with which poker sites have been hacked and the outcomes manipulated.
“The poker sites up to now have not had the software capability to detect collusion,” said Robert Turner, a professional player and poker security expert based in Downey, Calif. Turner said he supports legalized poker, but not until the industry can catch cheats.
Many fewer students are playing poker online since the federal crackdown.
“Poker’s already risky,” said Matthew Baker, 22, a graduate student at Virginia Tech. “Now, whether you win or lose, you still might not get your money. And it’s really hard to say which site is going to be trustworthy.”
But Baker wouldn’t bet against the online poker industry. “I feel like somebody’s going to fill the void,” he said.