"I've got a straight," said Matt Smith with a grin as he flipped his cards for the other players to see. Combined with three of five community cards in front of the dealer, the two cards in his hand were in consecutive order – 5-6-7-8-9.
One player at the table had matched Smith's bet. Justin MacDougal smiled as he too turned his cards.
"What?!" Smith stood up and looked at all the cards on the table. "Oh my God. You have the bigger straight." Accepting the loss, he took his seat. He lost the hand, and over 20 dollars, to MacDougal's higher straight – 6-7-8-9-10.
"Sorry," said MacDougal as he gathered his winnings.
Smith and MacDougal are freshmen at Penn State University and this is how they spend their free time. And they're definitely not alone. Thousands of students are poker enthusiasts on some level. Some play on the internet, others play with friends. Smith and MacDougal are regulars at a daily poker game in the freshman dormitory complex, East Halls. Each night between 25 and 50 people meet in the activity room of Findlay Commons to gamble.
One player in particular stands out among the many gamblers in the activity room.
"I am the greatest player!" he said, his voice carrying throughout the room. "Kabam!"
The player is Danny Cherlow, a freshman from Virgina. He is unofficially the leader of the poker players. Tall and thin with bleach-blonde hair, Cherlow runs the show. He admittedly spends about 10 hours a day playing poker, seven days a week. Most other students would find it difficult to balance a major in astrophysics with 70 hours a week at the poker table, but Cherlow said he has no trouble at all.
"I do ok," he said. "I had good grades in high school and I pass all my exams now, so that's all the matters."
Even when he meets with a group to study or do homework in the computer lab, Cherlow just ends up playing poker online. All conversation revolves around poker. His unique look and his voice draw attention, especially in the quiet computer lab.
In the lab, more people recognized him and a group of spectators soon crowded around the computer station on which he was working.
"Danny, when are we playing for real?" said one spectator who seemed interested in starting live play in the activity room.
"Dude, I'm in the final table," Cherlow said. "We'll go start when I'm finished here."
The future, other than the next poker game, doesn't concern Cherlow. With overflowing confidence that everything will be alright, he doesn't really know how it will end up that way. He is just sure that it will. With his first semester at PennState drawing to a close, the first test will be his report card.
"I'm sure my grades are fine. I mean, I don't really go to class, so I don't know for sure, but I go for exams and I seem to be passing," he said.
Since Cherlow is essentially the ringleader of the pack of gamblers, he keeps an eye on the players and makes sure they don't break the rules of the activity room. That way the poker game won't be shut down for damaging the tables or annoying other students.
Penn State Residence Life is in charge of the facilities in the commons and has placed restrictions on the poker games. The rules are posted on bright pink paper near the entrance:
o All card games are restricted to 8 people per game.
o No one activity should prohibit other students from using this space for its other functions.
o Equipment in the game room should be used for its intended purposes only.
o Individuals found in violation of university or residence hall policies will be referred.
o If the room is vandalized or misused, it may be closed without notice.
The players don't have a problem with the regulations. In fact, some players are happy to know that they are allowed to play at all.
"It's better than not being allowed to play here," Matt Smith said. "It would be hard to find another place to play around here."
When Smith came to PennState from his home in New Hampshire in August, he didn't know anyone. He played a little poker in high school, so he knew the game. He just didn't expect poker to be such a popular evening activity.
"I was pretty surprised by the number of people that are constantly there," Smith said.
The ceaseless influx of players on any given evening includes more than just residents of East Halls. Some seniors, juniors and even alumni have heard about the game. Smith said they come expecting the young players to be easily hustled..
"After we take their money from them they change their minds about that," he laughed.
Smith keeps a tab on all of his winnings. He plays only the smaller 20 dollar tables.
"I'd say I'm up about one eighty, maybe two hundred," he said.
Cardplayer Magazine, one of the most popular magazines for the game, sponsored several poker tournaments in East Halls throughout the Fall 2005 semester. About every two weeks the representative for Cardplayer Magazine organized a $50 buy-in tournament.
Brett Freeman has been working as the Penn State Cardplayer representative since August and has run a total of seven tournaments in East Halls. From the magazine's perspective, the primary purpose of the tournaments is to get more young people to subscribe.
Freeman has been impressed with the popularity-over 40 people have entered six of the seven tournaments. In light of the success, he is planning to coordinate at least 10 more tournaments during the spring 2006 semester in East Halls.
"It's the place where I spent most of my time playing poker, and to be honest, it's where the best games are," Freeman said. "I have tried to find other locations to hold these tournaments since it is quite crowded at East, but so far I haven't had any luck in securing a larger location."
For now, he is content with the venue in East Halls, but the games are sure to grow. Since the activity room is a finite space, he may have to expand the tournaments over multiple days.
"Our first tournament was a 3 day event, and that was pretty fun, though quite time consuming," Freeman said. "But since right now we are the only campus running these tournaments on a regular basis, we'll probably stick to the current
format for now."
Jane Koskie lives in nearby Stone Hall. She is surprised at the consistency of the poker games.
"They're there pretty much every time I walk past," she said, "which is about twice a night."
Although she has never even set foot in the activity room, she does have a little experience with card games. She grew up playing card games like UNO with her family. She even has tried some poker online.
"I actually got sucked into that internet poker," Koskie said. "My brother got me into PartyPoker."
PartyPoker.com is one of the most popular online poker rooms with at least 30,000 players logged in during any evening. The site boasts more than $4 million in prize money available every day. Other popular sites include UltimateBet.com, EmpirePoker.com, and FullTiltPoker.com. Poker-based websites are flooding the net. A Google search of "online poker" yields over 8 million results. A broader search of "poker" yields nearly 40 million results. To put that number in perspective, a search of another popular collegiate activity, "intramural sports," yields only 1.4 million results.
The online game is legal according to the Department of Justice because there is no law restricting online poker. And since most online poker sites are located offshore, like PartyPoker.com in Gibraltar, the legal age to play is 18.
Matt Smith turned 18 just a few months ago, so he only recently had the opportunity to try his hand at online poker. But he found that he prefers playing against people he can see.
"I tried it and hated it," he said. "It's hard to read people based on how quickly they click. It's just not the same as live poker."
While poker has increased in popularity across the country since 2002 with the ESPN coverage of the "World Series of Poker," the Penn State family is embracing the game more than most.
In fact, Penn State was the first-place winner of last year's second annual College Poker Championship. Sponsored by RoyalVegasPoker.com, the tournament includes players from 2400 schools across 55 countries. PennState won by having the largest number of successful players. University of Florida was a distant second.
In September, PennState hosted the opening ceremony for the third annual championship.
"PennState is no longer just a linebacker university – it's a poker university," said Lou Krieger, College Poker Championship host, as he presented the trophy for the 2005 victory to the Penn State Gaming Association in the HUB-RobesonCenter.
Even one of Penn State's recent football players has caught the poker bug. Zack Mills, quarterback from 2001 to 2004, joined more than 5600 hopeful winners in the 2005 World Series of Poker Main Event at Harrah's Las Vegas Casino in Las Vegas, Nev.
He came in first in an online tournament and won an all-expense paid trip to the most prestigious of poker tournaments. Mills was unable to speak to the media while playing, so his girlfriend spoke for him to Daily Collegian reporters.
"He won an online tournament sponsored by Pokerstars.com," Mills' girlfriend, Alexandra Hill, said. "There were 300 or 400 people who entered online. He played for about 12 hours straight, made it to the final table and ended up winning."
Mills gave a strong effort and made it past nearly 5000 other players before he finally lost late in the second day of the event. Only the top 560 finishing player win cash – $12,500, but Mills was satisfied with his performance.
"He was disappointed [after losing], but he was happy with how he played," the 2004 PennState graduate Hill said. "He mentioned that a lot of the hands he had to go all-in on, or bet a certain amount that he couldn't match up to."
Although he didn't place in the tournament, Mills isn't ruling out a future in poker. But he isn't jumping to conclusions.
"I'm sure he'd like to," Hill said, referring to the prospect of Mills participating in future poker tournaments. "I guess he was hoping some of the media attention would open some eyes, just from being an amateur… Maybe if the right person reads something he might get a shot."
Not every gambler has the luck that Mills has had. It's the nature of gambling that not everyone can win, and many young people may not be prepared to lose.
Ryan Steinberg is the area coordinator for Residence Life in East Halls at PennState. The goal of Residence Life is to provide a safe, comfortable, secure, and nurturing living-learning environment that is conducive to students' academic pursuits and personal growth. With this mission in mind, Steinberg and the staff in East Halls are concerned about the popularity of gambling among the young, impressionable students that live there.
"Our big concern is people losing money," Steinberg said. Inevitably some students lose money and Steinberg is worried about students that lose large amounts of money, up to $500. "I'm sure its happening."
With statewide concern over the rising costs of tuition and textbooks, Steinberg questioned students blowing money when they and their parents are spending exorbitant amounts of money on their education.
"It's one thing to call home for money because you're in the hospital or something, but to call home and say you just lost $500 to another students is something else," he said.
Steinberg is also concerned that the poker players could take up space that other students would use for other activities. The rules do address the issue and he said that there haven't been any complaints from other students.
Owen Smith, another freshman living in East Halls, loves music and even writes his own tunes. The piano in the activity room allows him to stay fresh with the keyboard.
"I just come in here and play piano," he said. "[The poker] doesn't inhibit me. It doesn't bother me at all."
Although there is no specific rule against playing poker, even for money, the games in the commons building of East Halls causes problems with the facilities. In the past, students played poker on the pool tables. There was considerable damage done to the felt and it had to be replaced, which led to previously mentioned rules concerning the equipment in the activity room.
According to Steinberg, all of the poker games are simply organized by students and not official organizations. This means that Residence Life has no knowledge of the seven tournaments organized by Brett Freeman and Cardplayer Magazine. Steinberg confirmed that he has not been contacted and, therefore, he believes that they haven't taken place.
"We'd probably have to kick them out for soliciting," he said.
The Penn State Police second that motion. Tyrone Parkhan, spokesman for the University Police, said Cardplayer Magazine is very unlikely to get permission to run poker tournaments on campus due to soliciting rules. The University doesn't even allow Papa John's to offer free pizza to students on move-in weekends because it violates the soliciting rules.
"Penn State's real strict on any outside folks coming in," Parham said.
However, the campus police are fully aware that gambling is growing in popularity on campus. Parkham said the activity the police have witnessed isn't illegal or against school policy so they have yet to have any problems with it.
"We have not disciplined or arrested anyone under the law," Parham said. "The problem with the law is its very vague."
Pennsylvania statutes say people running "unlawful gambling" operations could be prosecuted for various misdemeanors and felonies depending on the case. But defining the term "unlawful gambling" proves to be a difficult task for the Penn State Police.
According to Parham, gambling for money isn't illegal unless a "house" is profiting. For example, if someone runs a poker game and takes a percentage of each pot that is played, that would illegal. Also, a game of blackjack would be illegal because the house, or the person supplying the money to back the game, would be profiting from the loss of the players.
Even in those cases, the games aren't necessarily against the law unless the profit exceeds expenses such as cards, chips, and other miscellaneous equipment. Since the law calls such specific activities illegal, the police aren't spending much time investigating gambling.
"I'm not sure there is much of a priority there," Parham said.
Even if they decided to make it a priority, there isn't any assurance that anyone would be convicted for such activities.
"We haven't charged anyone, so it's just speculation to see what the courts would say," Parham said.
Parham also put the behavior in perspective.
"Would we rather have kids playing cards on the weekends or downtown drinking," he said.
With the drinking culture in college, especially at PennState, it's hard for the police to complain about quiet card games going on on-campus. They do keep an eye on the nightly games in East Halls by occasionally sending plain-clothes officers to assess the situation.
The issue of college gambling has attracted the attention of many, including Penn State President Graham Spanier. This past January, Spanier broadcasted an episode of his radio talk-show "To the Best of my Knowledge" (TBOMK) devoted to the problem of gambling addictions in mainstream college institutions.
The program consisted of both psychologists and problem gamblers. According to the show, nearly 75 percent of Americans participate in gambling, a $73 billion industry. While Spanier acknowledged that there is a chance for people to lose control and become addicted to risking money on card games or betting on sports, he said that it is a choice everyone must make for themselves. He asked Dave, a TBOMK panelist and a member of Gamblers Anonymous, to give advice to students who are poker enthusiasts.
"They should be careful of their behavior and their parents should watch out," Dave said. "Gambling isn't going away. It's growing and it's getting larger and the danger for new addicts exists no matter what the game is."
Although many young people are getting caught up in the fun of risking money on games of chance, it comes down to personal responsibility. Owen Smith, the piano player in East Halls, is an example that, while gambling is wildly popular, people must make their own choices.
"I don't gamble so I wouldn't choose to play," Smith said. "It's just a personal choice."