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Why we're hooked on internet gambling.

Online poker sites are mushrooming and more and more converts – women as well as men – are being drawn into the game and becoming hooked on internet gambling. Investigator Matt Born reports

I'm sitting at a table on a tropical island (location unknown) playing poker with seven strangers. We're a pretty cosmopolitan bunch - two Swedes, a Scot, someone from the Philippines and three Yanks.

hooked internet gambling

Feeling flush: 'Internet gambling is immediate,
anonymous and you don't have to dress up'

A club sandwich is sitting uneaten on the cocktail table beside me and, although I don't smoke, I have a cigarette burning in my ashtray - the same one, I should point out, that I lit two hours ago.

As a rule, I don't touch alcohol when gambling. But having just been raised $30 by WherWulf8 from Stockholm (not, I suspect, his real name), I click open the menu, order a margarita (which appears instantly) and sit back to contemplate what to do.

Why has he bet so much? Was that a hesitation I noticed? Is he bluffing?

Finally, after 18 seconds, still gripped with indecision but with an ever more insistent beeping indicating that I'm almost out of time, I announce: "Raise." And pray.

As if by magic, WherWulf8 mucks his cards. And as the pile of chips is shoved in my direction, to the heartwarming sound of a cashier's till ringing, a crowd I wasn't aware of breaks into spontaneous applause. What a player! The letters "NH" appear in a voice box above WherWulf8's head and then fade into the ether. He means, I think: "Nice hand."

If this sounds a bit dream-like, I can explain. None of it - not the cocktail, the cigarette, the applause of the railbirds - is real. None of it, that is, apart from the money.

For this is online poker, the country's fastest growing "leisure pursuit". Five years ago, online poker and internet gambling barely existed; now it's a global industry that turned over £15 billion last year - a sevenfold increase on the previous year. What's more, of the £40 million being staked on poker sites every day, almost 10 per cent is being placed by Britons - a fact that has helped make the British gaming industry the third biggest in the world behind America and Japan. That, in turn, has persuaded the Government to push through a sweeping liberalisation of Britain's internet gambling laws, which will bring some of the big Las Vegas casino chains to Britain - and those of the online operations that want to be based here, rather than offshore.

This week, the owners of Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, announced plans for a £320 million hotel and casino complex at Wembley, while plans are also being drawn up for similar mega-casinos in Blackpool and the Greenwich Dome.

The boom in online poker and other internet gambling has been helped by television shows such as the World Poker Tour, Celebrity Poker Club and Late Night Poker, which have drawn thousands of new players into the game. Even Radio 4 had an internet gambling programme this week hosted by amateurs Simon Singh and Raj Persaud, trying to discover the psychological prowess and flair for numbers that make a top poker player.

But the biggest single advantage of internet gambling online is the sheer convenience of it. When I started playing poker 15 years ago, it required dedication and a thick skin. First, you had to find a casino with a card room - the Victoria Sporting Club, near Marble Arch was one of the few - and negotiate the "24-hour rule", the law designed to stop impulse gamblers by requiring newcomers to the club to register as members at least a day before they were let inside.

"The biggest single advantage of internet gambling online is the sheer convenience of it"

An evening at "the Vic" meant putting on a suit and driving across town - often to find you had to wait an hour for a seat to become available. I was often the only person under 50, and it was hard not to be intimidated by the chain-smoking car dealers, Middle-Eastern jewellers and "businessmen" for whom "the Vic" was home.

Online is immediate (there are thousands of games to choose from), anonymous (you make up your own on-screen ID) and you don't have to dress up. The cards are never misdealt, there are more hands per hour, and it's social, too (there are "chat boxes"). Hooked on internet gambling? No, its more like a social club.

Women – a rarity in real-life poker rooms – have taken to the online version. Ladbrokes.com estimates that they account for 20 per cent of the 350,000 people who play on its site every hour - a 100 per cent increase on last year.

"Online poker is a great thing for women who wouldn't necessarily like live poker - which is quite a tough, male-dominated environment and where games tend to happen at night," says journalist Victoria Coren, who is one of the country's most accomplished female players and a creative consultant to ParadisePoker.com. "The internet allows you to play from the comfort of your own home and you can't be intimidated by aggressive language or staring. There's also the freedom of being able to express aggression or competitiveness, which women are often reluctant to do face to face."

Yet while it may be less daunting, the secluded nature of what was once a social activity - coupled with the ease of access - is causing concern among experts. Mark Griffiths of Nottingham University, Europe's only professor of gambling studies, recently warned that the number of adult gambling addicts in Britain - currently estimated at 300,000 - could double in the coming years, thanks largely to the internet.

It is an issue the online poker rooms take seriously. Gaming, they say, should only ever be a bit of fun, and 97 per cent of those who gamble do so within their means. For the three per cent who don't, the websites say they do what they can to help them help themselves. Customer support staff at PokerRoom.com, one of Europe's biggest online card rooms, spend almost a week a year being trained on how to deal with problem gamblers. "So if the wife calls up, we take it seriously and shut down the husband's account," says Patrik Selin, the chief executive. Other websites, such as 888 and PacificPoker, limit the value of chips a player can buy in any 24 hours to around $600.

If you're after the thrill, internet gambling allows you to play very cheaply, with $1 tournaments lasting hours.

Yet others say poker online is less dangerous than the real thing. "If all you're after is the thrill of gambling, internet gambling and internet poker allows you to play very cheaply, with $1 tournaments that can last hours," says Coren. "Go to any casino and it may cost £50 to sit down in the cheapest game."

If playing poker is a high-risk game, the same can't be true for running an online game. The online "rake" (the small percentage of each pot that poker rooms charge as commission for hosting the site) is expected to increase to $1bn this year from about $100m in 2001. Ladbrokes recently announced a 45 per cent increase in profits, thanks largely to the rise of e-gaming. Little wonder, then, that sites are proliferating almost as quickly as players. According to PokerPulse, an independent website which monitors the online industry, there are now 209 sites worldwide.

While many are registered in places like Costa Rica and Curacao, the people behind the majority of the online sites, apart from the established bookmaking brands such as Ladbrokes, William Hill and Victor Chandler, are little different from other dotcom entrepreneurs.

PokerRoom was started in 1999 by two Swedish students who had dropped out of medical school to play blackjack and had an interest in computers, while 888.com and its subsidiary PacificPoker are owned by an Israeli dentist. He had a client who told him about a business idea and asked if he'd like to invest. The dentist agreed, bought him a laptop and paid his air fare to Antigua - close enough to the American time zone but outside its regulatory control.

Eight years later, 888.com claims to be the biggest internet casino in the world, with 11 million members and 700 staff. Even online, it seems, the house always wins.

Are you hooked on internet gambling? Discuss in our online gambling forum.

Reproduced with the permission of the Daily Telegraph. Publishers wishing to reproduce this page should contact the Daily Telegraph for syndication permission.

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