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February 20, 2004

Dorm gamblers hold their poker faces

Late last fall, second-year in the College Brian Ebling sat across the table from Steve Tang to decide the winner of the Wallace House poker tournament. It was early in the morning and the pair had been playing for almost five hours, withering down the field of almost 40 competitors until only the two remained.

In front of them both were stacked a mountain of chips, neither possessing a significant advantage. But in no-limit Texas Hold'em, a game where players can bet any amount at any time, fortunes can change in an instant.

On their final clash, Ebling held a seven-high straight, the best possible hand at the time, but refrained from betting to give his opponent the impression that his cards were weak. It worked: Tang, a founder of the University card club, pushed in all his chips and Ebling quickly called his bet, flipped over his cards, and won the contest.

Over the past year, poker, a game traditionally associated with cowboys and riverboats, has become enormously popular among college students across the country. The intellectual intrigue and complex strategy of the game has attracted many at the University—home games have become common and the semi-weekly tournament in Max Palevsky draws large crowds on Thursday nights.

"Poker is special because it's an analog to chess," said Philip Ascher, a frequent poker player. "You have a game, without humans, that would be pure analytical computation, and with humans, a rage of psychological warfare."

But although the student body has embraced poker as an acceptable new pastime—the card club has an email list with over 150 names—questions regarding the legality of the game's obvious relationship to gambling have raised problems with University administrators. The card club, despite its popularity, has been denied Resident Student Organization (RSO) status because the legal department asserts that the activity is against the law.

"The way that the club was presented, both in the written forms and the e-mails they sent to us, made it apparent that it was against state laws," said Diana Doty, RSO resource coordinator for the Office of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities. "There was no way we could give them resources given what they wanted to do."

Tang, now a fourth-year, started the card club more than a year ago as a small, informal group of friends held together by an e-mail list. After hosting a booth at the RSO fair at the beginning of the year, the club's membership has skyrocketed. Some tournaments start with 60 participants and have prizes in upwards of several hundred dollars.

These prizes, pooled from the $10 entry fees of the participants, are the core of the problem, according to Bill Michel, assistant vice-president for student life and associate dean of the College. Michel said running games with cash or cash equivalent prizes is illegal in Illinois and therefore cannot be sanctioned by the University.

Sharlene Holly, director of ORSCA, said similar issues often arise when student organizations propose to hold ‘casino night' fundraisers, a commonly accepted practice for many churches and charities in some parts of the country. In the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois, however, such practices are illegal, according to Holly, and the University withholds the use of school resources from such events.

Yet in the face of these issues, the Housing office at the University has not taken a stand against the poker club, a group that routinely conducts activities very similar to those that Holly describes as illegal. Oscar Gonzalez Rosas, the resident head of Wallace House, said housing officials are aware of the club's operations and he views it as a fundraising venture, not illegal gambling.

Tang said he remains unsure why the two parts of the administration are treating the club differently, adding that he believed the Housing office considered it as a healthy house fundraiser.

Katie Callow-Wright, director of housing, said she was unaware of this particular situation, but had heard of students holding game nights to raise money for their house. Though she added that such fundraisers were legitimate, Callow-Wright voiced concern over the fact that cash prizes are being offered to the winners.

"If it is an organized house activity, and its been approved by our office, then its something we have to look into because I don't think that we would continue that type of activity," Callow-Wright said.

Since the tournaments are not University sanctioned events, the school considers these games the actions of private individuals who are personally responsible for complying with city and state laws, Michel

A similar poker club began at the University of Pennsylvania last spring, but it has received considerably more support from the school, even gaining funds to purchase chips, cards, and felt. The club at UPenn avoids legal barriers by holding free events and gaining sponsorships for it prizes, holding its cash games in private property and never in university buildings.

Alex Graeffe, a founder of the UPenn club, said that in the state of Pennsylvania, home games are legal as long as no one collects a fee, no one cheats, and contests are conducted in private.

Holly said that if the University card club was to alter their bylaws to include stipulations forbidding the use of cash prizes and entry fees, much like the UPenn club, than ORSCA would reconsider their petition to become an RSO.

Although state and local law considers poker a game of chance, many avid players are strongly adverse to this notion, arguing that poker involves more skill than luck. Poor players who receive great hands can win occasionally against experienced card sharks, poker enthusiasts maintain, but over the long-term, better players will triumph over the lesser experienced.

"I like to make an analogy to the World Series of baseball. Why do we play seven games? Because we are tying to minimize the luck factor," Tang said. "Thus, in baseball, we acknowledge an element of luck, yet clearly we do not consider baseball to be a luck game at all."

This attitude leads some to consider poker as a profession—a career romanticized by the 1997 film Rounders starring Matt Damon. Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Counsel on Problem gambling, cautions against the idea of using gambling as a living, saying that many people believe, due to such movies, that their chances are much better than they actually are.

"If it was truly only a game of skill, in the long run, there would be a lot more people making a living playing poker," Whyte said.

While most players interviewed for this story admitted to playing only a few times a week, others said they played sometimes as many as 8 to 10 hours a day, several days a week, and had won thousands of dollars during that time.

Fueled by media coverage of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and the World Poker Tour (WPT), poker has shed its shady reputation and emerged on the popular culture stage. An episode of the WPT that aired before the Super Bowl earned ratings only exceeded by pre-game coverage of the football game itself, catching the eye of over 10 million viewers.

Poker's recent explosion in popularity has put casinos in a difficult position because, though public demand for them has increased, the actual profits that poker tables produce are less than that of other games. As opposed to most games where players compete against the house, in poker, casinos take a small percentage out of each player's winnings, a portion called the rake.

In the fiscal year 2002, poker and related tables in 52 casinos in Nevada produced only .7 percent of total gaming revenues, according to Las Vegas Business Press.

Only one casino in all of Illinois, Hollywood Casino in Aurora, even contains a poker room. Hollywood declined to comment for this story.

Some casinos have taken notice of the trend and have attempted to use poker as a means both to make money and lure players to other games. Trump Casino in Indiana, only 20 minutes east of Chicago, just opened a poker room in November and players there said the attendance has been increasing dramatically.

The number of users playing online poker has also seen a dramatic increase in the past year. One of the largest of these sites, PartyPoker.com, boasts over 5,000 tables and over 30,000 players at any given moment.

As the country submerges itself in poker, University students believe that the game has taken on its own identity here consistent with the friendly, intellectual atmosphere of the school.

"Poker is definitely alive here, and better than at most east coast colleges," Ascher said. "I've made friends in the club and enjoy going sometimes without the intent of winning because its just fun to play and joke around with the guys."

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