A Royal Flush
Nowhere is Texas Hold 'Em more popular than among the owners of the state's pari-mutuels. Amid falling attendance for horse and dog races and jai alai, poker's advent has been a boon. Card rooms brought $38 million to their 15 owners in 2004-05, with the Palm Beach, St. Johns County and St. Petersburg dog tracks leading the state. Pari-mutuels supply the table, legality and dealer and in return rake the pot.
Poker draws a younger crowd. Televised poker tournaments have made both online and tournament poker enormously popular with American college students. The University of Florida was recently featured in Card Player College magazine, which said poker in the Swamp is "just one more thing students come to college and learn." In the 2005 College Poker Championship, students from UF, Florida State University and the University of Central Florida placed among the top 10.
Poker also means good times for card dealers. Dealers make $8 to $10 per hour, but the real money is in tips from winners -- typically a dollar or two per hand. A good dealer can deal 22 to 23 hands per hour.
Not everyone is thrilled. "We have kids leaving college to play professionally, convinced they can do it," says Pat Fowler, executive director of the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, an education and prevention non-profit that works with some pari-mutuels and tribe casinos in Florida and is funded largely by the lottery. "It's hard to find a young teenage male who's not competing in Texas Hold 'Em at some level. It is very scary for those of us who know the issue and work in the field."
The group's help line -- the number is posted prominently at only some gambling venues -- took 2,768 calls for help and information in the 2004-05 fiscal year from people with gambling problems -- not just poker. A fourth of callers said they had broken the law to further their gambling -- with fraud, embezzlement and theft leading the list.
Fowler says expanding gambling in Florida will mean a growing number of problem gamblers. The Legislature ignored her request to use some slot tax revenue to fund treatment for problem gamblers. Many, after losing their money, can't afford private care. "It was a real blow," Fowler says. "This is a very expensive addiction, and it's not limited to the gambler. It's a very expensive disorder for societies, for families, for the communities, for the state. We'd better be looking at a way to minimize those costs."
(Cynthia Barnett also contributed to this report.)