New York Times: My Son’s Gamble

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By Lucy Ferriss, www.nytimes.com

Just past dawn one morning last August, I pulled myself from bed, bleary from ragged sleep. I headed downstairs to make coffee and settle at my computer. There, I booted up Firefox and accessed an online card room, Full Tilt Poker, from which I downloaded a program to play Texas Hold 'Em and other games. Once the program was open, I tried to log on with the screen name my 18-year-old son, Dan, had shown me on a different site called PokerStars. Full Tilt Poker, unsurprisingly, rejected the name.

Following the plan I outlined as I lay awake in the wee hours, I opened up Dan's college e-mail account. Weeks before, he read his e-mail via my computer and asked Firefox to save the password. I clicked "Enter." There before me were all the e-mail messages from university officials, from his tennis coach, from teachers. Most prevalent were e-mail messages from Full Tilt Poker, addressed to a screen name I did not recognize. Grimly satisfied, I read none of these. I simply returned to Full Tilt, entered the screen name from the e-mail and clicked "Forgot my password." I expected the program to ask me the name of my favorite rock band, at which point my foray into the role of Internet spy would cease. To my surprise, the window on the screen read, "We have sent your new password to the e-mail address on record." I re-entered Dan's e-mail account, fetched the new password and entered it into the Full Tilt log-in window.

By now, my fingers were trembling. I had never invaded someone's virtual space like this before, never stolen a password, never found myself on such forbidden ground. But driven by the urgency of the moment, I pressed on.

We were having a terrible summer. Anticipating Dan's return from college, I set up "house rules" that I hoped would improve on the previous summer, when the fragile family life I had pieced together since my divorce four years before was on the verge of breaking apart. The new house rules called on all those who lived in the house to have some sort of activity or employment in the world; they set quiet hours for weeknights; they prescribed consequences for abusive behavior. Fairly quickly, Dan incurred the loss of car privileges, the loss of Internet privileges and the loss of the privilege of living in my home. From my point of view, my son's recalcitrance lay at the heart of the problem. He stayed up nearly all night, sometimes heading for bed just as the rest of the family was rising. He rarely ate with us, and he didn't relate to his older brother or to my partner, Donald, who had been living with us for two years, or participate in any way with the family. The stench of his room, with its unwashed clothes spilled out from his suitcase onto the floor, filled the upstairs even when the door was shut, which was most of the time. Dan spent some of his time with a shrinking number of his former high-school friends. Mostly, he logged onto his computer. He refused counseling, either for himself or with the family.

From Dan's point of view, the problem was my futile and suffocating attempt to control him - insisting that he get a job, that he conform to my idea of a sleep schedule, that he feign a family bond he did not feel. When I booted him out, he went at first to his father, who had disparaged my concerns over Dan's Internet poker playing. Thirty-six hours after Dan arrived, his dad called me. "My God, he is out of control," he said. He cut off Internet access at his home.

Dan spent part of a night on a park bench before he agreed at last to my putting a gambling block on his computer. I had researched such programs, which apparently no one could remove for the duration of the contract. On this understanding, Dan came back home. Five days after I installed the block, he had somehow managed to rid himself of it.

Thus we limped into August. Dan had not had the most successful freshman year at college, where he played Division 1 tennis and attended classes only when he had incentive to do so. Given his new lifestyle, which did not seem to include daylight, I could not see how he would make it as a scholar-athlete in the fall. I informed him that if he wanted to return to college, he would have to ice the poker playing or else pay for his own tuition from his winnings. To my shock, he insisted that, all this time, he had not been playing poker. He had been watching poker videos and movies.

"All night?" I asked. "Every night?" He nodded. He looked me in the eye. Though thin and pale, he was a lean, handsome young man, his gaze blue and intense. "Prove it to me," I said. "Show me all your accounts. PokerStars, European bank, American bank."

He fetched his laptop. He showed me the account on PokerStars, where I thought he had been playing. There was no balance. He showed me the European account - an option for players in the U.S., where banks are not allowed to process money for online gambling - and the American one, where he kept his regular checking account. He had $242 in his checking account. I was flummoxed. "Well, I can't ask you to pay tuition if you have no money," I said. "I can't ask you to stop gambling if you haven't been playing. But I'm still concerned. I can't see how you'll study or attend class or show up for practice."

"You need to have more faith in me," he said.

That evening he went over to a friend's house. Near midnight, I called him. "This isn't adding up," I said. "You're up past dawn. You've been spending money on restaurants. Other parents tell me you do nothing but gamble at their houses."

He had shown me everything, he insisted. I reiterated my concern and my determination to get to the truth. We hung up. I lay awake. Around 4 a.m., I remembered hearing Dan and a friend debate the merits of PokerStars versus Full Tilt Poker. He could be playing, I realized, on another site. Somewhere, perhaps in his e-mail, I could find a Full Tilt account; I could call his bluff.

So there I was, the sun just rising, logging onto Full Tilt Poker in the guise of my son. I clicked the tab for "My Account." The balance read $12,000. I clicked "Recent Activity." He had been playing hundreds of games and tournaments, all summer long. I went to "Contact information" and changed the password and the e-mail address. I logged off, returned to Dan's e-mail account, deleted the messages from Full Tilt and emptied the Deleted Items folder. My entire body shaking at this point, I went upstairs to tell Donald what I had done.

From the moment he could move puzzle pieces into place, Dan loved games. In preschool, entranced by Mario Bros. on Nintendo, he invented and acted out competitions with Mario and Luigi, whom he called "the Widgie." When he couldn't settle down for nap time in kindergarten, the computer teacher led him to the lab, where he spent the hour racking up magic coins. At home he discovered Monopoly; when everyone else was sick of the game, he played against his own imaginary opponent. At 6, when basketball grabbed his attention, he hung around the court across the street from our house and hustled free-throw competitions with older kids; if none showed up, he pretended to be Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman and played one on one against himself. By fourth grade, he spoke in terms of "winning the test" at school.

By then, too, Dan had shown himself a gifted athlete and switched from basketball to tennis, where he could fight it out all by himself and take home the prize. Eventually he would garner a national ranking and player-of-the-year trophies. Although tennis distracted him from college preparation, the physical fitness and confidence it gave him assuaged - just barely - a mother's worries.

Between tennis matches and on nontennis weekends, Dan and his friends played cards. They were part of a national craze set off by the televised World Series of Poker and its sudden elevation of poker players to media stars. Some parents worried about the $5 buy-in games of Texas Hold 'Em that were held in various basements, including mine. I countered that I was glad the boys were talking to one another rather than staring at a video screen; that those who lost would play Ping-Pong or foosball. I actually taught Dan his first casino game, blackjack. When he was learning arithmetic, we had a jar of pennies on the kitchen counter, and one day I asked Dan and his brother if they'd like to learn a game in which they counted to 21 - and if they won, they got to keep the other players' pennies. In short order, Dan owned the whole jar.

The college Dan chose to attend, Old Dominion University in Virginia, wasn't his first choice. While many schools wanted his tennis prowess and high SAT scores, they balked at his grades. Old Dominion, a commuter school in Norfolk with a crack tennis team, was willing to take him. To me, Dan seemed to be going to college for all the wrong reasons. There was nothing he wanted to learn. He wanted only to get away from home and to follow the same path that his tennis competitors were on. But when Dan would not consider a "gap year," even at a prestigious tennis academy, I stipulated that he take out a private student loan in the amount of the scholarship that he could have received from Old Dominion had his grades been better. If he finished the year in good standing, I would repay the loan.

By April, following a rough first semester, Dan had been suspended from the tennis team for missing study halls. He was unhappy at the school. Though he brought his grades up to the point where I would repay his loan, he spoke of wanting to transfer to a college where he might thrive. But when he came home in May, it was soon clear that he had no time to research and prepare any transfer applications. He was too busy with the activity that had replaced tennis: Internet poker.

After accessing Dan's online account, I spent the day in a welter of guilt. I reminded myself that someone had to confront my son, and I was the only one who cared enough to do so. Yet through the warm afternoon, I listened nervously for any sign that he was waking, was trying to log on, was discovering that he had been frozen out. Finally, around 5 p.m., three of my friends gathered in my driveway to drive to a dance performance in the Berkshires. As we packed picnic supplies into my trunk, Dan came barreling out of the house. "Give it back!" he shouted. "Give me back my money!"

"I don't have your money," I told him.

He called me names. I told him we would talk later. I invited my friends to get into the car. As I managed to get into the driver's seat and start the engine, Dan ripped the windshield-wiper arm from the back window; he banged on the roof, on the windshield. Finally he planted himself behind the car as I began to back out, shouting: "Go ahead! Kill your son!"

Gradually, using a 12-point turn, I managed to maneuver the car away from Dan and out of the driveway. My friends were white-faced. One, a psychologist, said as calmly as she could manage, "Is your son by any chance an addict?"

The question of addiction has moved through my responses to Dan's poker playing ever since it became a noticeable habit. His is a laserlike personality. When he was very small, his grandfather called him Mr. Focus. Years later, when I expressed relief that at least my son wasn't snorting or popping pills, one family counselor suggested that tennis was Dan's "drug."

After the explosion that followed my amateur computer hacking, Dan and I did negotiate, albeit uncomfortably. He had persuaded Full Tilt Poker to restore the account to him. We resolved the issue of his return to college by agreeing that he would use some of his poker earnings to help pay his tuition until he had proved himself capable of balancing poker, tennis and school. Then he went to Virginia, and I went looking for answers.

I started with gambling help lines and support groups like Gam-Anon. At first the addiction model they used made sense; the notion that a gambling win caused a brain-stimulus pattern like that of a cocaine high explained Dan's wild-eyed attack on the car when I locked up his account.

But when I consulted the much-used South Oaks Gambling Screen (SOGS), I felt less clarity than confusion. I imagined Dan's answers to, say, SOGS question No. 11, "Have you ever hidden betting slips, lottery tickets, gambling money, i.o.u.'s or other signs of betting or gambling from . . . important people in your life?" ("Yes, because she equates poker betting with problem gambling"); or to SOGS No. 15, "Have you ever lost time from work (or school) due to betting money or gambling?" ("I've lost time from school because this is the wrong school for me"). He might score as a "probable pathological gambler," but the questions, it seemed to me, centered on others' - on my - idea of a problematic life, not on Dan's. Other questions ("Have you ever borrowed from someone and not paid them back as a result of your gambling?") didn't apply to the player who was consistently in the money.

Dan's second year of college saw him losing out on things other than profits. His grades took another nose dive. Reinstated on the tennis team, he quit after a few months. Yet he was winning, consistently, at poker, amassing a big enough bankroll by December to fly himself and a friend to Aruba and have plenty left over to buy a car, support himself and start planning a life of international travel. Since he no longer valued being a scholar-athlete, the loss of grades and sports prowess were, from Dan's point of view, insignificant. In February, having paid spring tuition himself, he made the belated but rational decision to drop out of school. Were these the actions and decisions of a gambling addict or, as he now saw himself, of a poker professional?

The question was emotional for me. Confronted head-on by the gambling-addict camp, I felt desperate either to justify my son's course of action or to mount an all-out rescue attempt. So I did what any self-respecting, psychically torn professor would do. I went to the library. And I learned many things.

I learned, for instance, that what I thought of as the addict-versus-pro argument (what other people might call the chance-versus-skill argument) is working itself out now in our legislatures and courts, in particular around a 2006 federal law, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The U.I.G.E.A. prohibits Internet gambling businesses from accepting money for "unlawful" gambling. But this term turns out to be clear as mud; the definition of unlawful gambling varies according to state laws. An important concern for many opponents of the U.I.G.E.A. - which means most poker players - are those states that use the "dominant-factor test," wherein chance, rather than skill, must dominate for a game to be considered gambling. As one article I read put it, if "poker is a game of skill and thus not a game subject to chance," online poker sites would be free to do business with U.S. customers.

Thus went my rationalizing: If poker is a game in which skill predominates - like chess or Scrabble - then it isn't "just gambling." Perhaps it really does sharpen the mind, as Charles R. Nesson, a Harvard law professor, has argued in promoting the game as "an environment for experiencing the dynamics of strategy." My son is not being sucked into a zero-sum addictive game of luck that gives nothing back to society; he is benefiting from a challenging form of entertainment for which other rational adults are willing to pay.

Countering this nifty argument were the studies correlating compulsive poker playing with mood disorders, with substance abuse, with other risky or criminal behaviors. Even Charles Humphrey, a poker-law expert who has advised the Poker Players Alliance in its efforts to repeal the act, acknowledges the luck involved in poker when he observes that no one has ever repeated as Poker Player of the Year from one year to the next. "Indeed," he writes, "few repeat in the Top 10 of those lists."

I contacted Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. I wanted an answer, I told him - and at first, he gave me one. "Poker is gambling," he said flatly. "It involves the same three things all gambling involves - prize, chance and consideration." What's more, I learned as I perused The Journal of Gambling Studies, most of us tend to risk more on the outcome of a task involving chance when it also requires just a dollop of skill - a not-inaccurate description of poker.

For many nights after Dan withdrew from school, I lay awake considering the life he was choosing - a life in which he is reduced from a toned athlete to a pale ectomorph, in which his social life is sporadic and mostly virtual, in which the possibility of a liberal education may be forever lost, in which steady romantic relationships (not to mention family) will be extremely difficult to maintain, in which he lives mostly apart from a society based on employment, wages and the rest of the social compact. I prayed that he would win enough to stop, or lose enough to stop, or grow bored and stop.

Slowly I began to realize how my original disapproval was truly anxiety writ large. Dan's poker playing frightened me not because I condemned the game but because of where I feared it might lead. I was not going to be able to argue myself out of such fears. I remembered Keith Whyte's response when I told him I was educating myself about state and national laws regarding poker. "The legal lens is the least helpful way to view this issue," he advised me. "How and why you gamble - those are the important questions." How was clear, at least for the moment: daily, nightly, online, alone and with some success. The key to acceptance came to me in considering why.

"He needs to separate," a counselor once said of Dan - to separate, that is, from me, the person who had been there for him as an emotional and practical resource throughout his adolescence. This bond, for parents of college-age children, often takes the form of money. We are able to say to a son or daughter, "Yes, you are an adult now, but I pay your bills and so you must" - fill in the blank - "or I will reduce my support." The bills we pay are our last measure of control over young people who may not yet be ready to take control of their own lives, and our wielding of the power of the purse is a measure of our love.

Now Dan has taken that power unto himself. He was no longer a college student or my dependent. He was, for the moment at least, not only self-supporting but looking at six months' earnings that were more than my annual salary. Yes, he was playing poker because he loved the competition, because it had a bad-boy appeal, because his peers looked up to his success. (From The Journal of Gambling Studies: 92 percent of college students agree that gambling makes a person look smart.) But he was also playing poker because the financial independence it could yield allowed him to separate. Here, then, was something I could seize on: a small benefit, a morsel of sanity in what had seemed a feast of madness.

Nightmare outcomes still stalk my waking dreams:

Dan loses all his money; cannot quit playing; comes to me for funds; I tell him no; he borrows from the Mob and loses his kneecaps.

Dan makes millions; lives in a world of casinos, cocaine and one-night stands; wakes up one morning in middle age to discover his life is empty.

Dan is reduced to grinding online until it sets his teeth on edge; cannot bring himself to return to school or take a low-wage job; withdraws from human relationships.

I had these awful visions. Then, one by one, with boulder-heaving effort, I let them go. They will return, and I will push them away again. I feel I have no other power in the situation right now. Any railing against the evils of poker will only drive him into hiding and out of contact. Whatever my worries for my son, all I can do is love him.

As Dan has sensed the melting of my disapproval, the frozen sea that was our medium of communication has begun to melt as well. "Am I allowed to say I told you so?" I said when Dan called to say he had withdrawn from all his classes.

"It was a mistake to think I could play poker at this level and still study," he admitted. "But you know, it's not like I'm leaving college for poker. It's more that poker's allowed me to leave a situation that wasn't good for me."

On this, Dan and I wholeheartedly agree. Would he have been happier at a smaller school, on a team where he was a better fit, closer to home? Dan says he doesn't know. He talks of returning to college while he's still part of the traditional age cohort; he's convinced that he could put poker aside to write a research paper if he wanted to. But Mr. Focus has a good deal more poker to focus on before any such possibility becomes realistic.

Like anyone who has been through a personal cataclysm, Dan and I cling to shreds of normalcy in our relations, aware always that his fierce assertion of autonomy and my concern over his lifestyle are land mines. Two weeks after withdrawing from school, Dan took off with a group of poker buddies for the European Poker Tournament in Germany, a face-to-face poker round leading up to the World Series of Poker. Some players at these tournaments have sponsors, their fees paid by companies or individuals in exchange for a percentage of their winnings; but like most of the 667 competitors - 31 of them from the United States - Dan paid the 5,300-euro buy-in himself, along with all the expenses of the trip.

On the second day of the tournament, I found a report online. A third of the entrants remained in the draw, only six from the U.S., and Dan was among them. I couldn't help feeling a flash of joy, knowing how happy he must be, how confident and eager for the next round. Twelve hours later, he had lost. "But my friend Jake won the $2K event," he said over the phone the day he flew back.

"You mean he won $2,000?"

"No, Mom. That's the buy-in. He won like $140,000."

The idea of such a sum - $140,000! - dropping into the lap of a 19-year-old gave me the fantods. What's the relation between work and wage here? I wanted to ask my son - but this time I held back. He wasn't thinking of work or wages but of freedom.

These days I don't ask if Dan has won or lost. I do ask how he feels. He admits to loneliness. Rising from his computer after eight hours of playing between four and six tables of Texas Hold 'Em while I.M.-ing his friends and checking his opponents' stats, he feels drained. But he also finds life lessons in his new vocation. "I have learned more about people," he tells me, "sitting at my computer playing poker than doing anything else."

This insight is hard for me to fathom. By now, Dan has moved back to our Connecticut town, subletting a chic furnished studio. I've watched him play poker - the little icons sitting around the bright green "felt" on the screen, the numbers blinking, the cards flipping at lightning speed. "But you don't see any people," I say.

"And in life, I don't wonder if I have two aces," he agrees. "But the deeper processes apply. Like, what do I want this person to do, or what am I going to do because they're thinking this or that? When I'm dealing in real life with something I want to accomplish, I focus on what the other person's thinking and try to react positively to get what I want. Plus my whole outlook has matured. I keep better control of my emotions. I know how to combine factors to make the most levelheaded decision. That's what life is, isn't it? Using pros and cons to make the best decision you can?"

Well, no, I think. That isn't life. Life is more than winning, more than manipulating others. I remember another opinion Dan has ventured - that young men find poker more exciting and successful than young women because women think, Do I have cards that can win? whereas men think, How can I get this person to think I have the best cards? Not knowing anything about my cards, I step onto land-mined turf. What about relationships? I ask Dan. What about people you care about, people you don't want to beat?

He thinks a minute. Then he says: "Playing poker does help you focus more on what other people might need from you. You might not be right all the time, but that's where your thought process goes. If you care about someone else's goal, then you can help them."

As a parent accustomed to the narcissism of young men, this statement takes my breath away. I'm not yet ready to promote online poker as a straight path toward the compassionate life. Caring about someone else's goal is not the same as caring about that person. Still, in my eagerness for positive signs, I manage to glimpse a thin, frail line linking strategy and empathy.

We don't talk much about last summer. It's understood between us that if Dan returns to school and needs renewed parental support, he'll have to offer some evidence of a change in outlook. And it is understood, I think, that I can love him without accepting everything he does. When I ask Dan what he wants now, from his parents, he'll say only, "What I don't want is negativity."

Neither, I realize, do I. On the rare occasion when another adult learns that my son is a poker shark and says, "Good for him!" I feel a twinge of orphaned hope. Maybe his path is good; maybe it's foolish to second-guess all my decisions going back to that first day I pulled out the penny jar and explained blackjack, not just because nothing I could have done would have changed Dan's trajectory but also because Dan's trajectory may bend toward a free and happy future. Now and then I still consider trying to influence that trajectory. In the end I find the best I can manage is to hold steady. Even if, years hence, I can name and pinpoint the moment when I might have changed my son's course and did not, surely self-recrimination carries no purpose unless a way opens for positive action. I worry daily about the path my son has chosen. Daily, I remind myself that I can neither remove its rocks nor predict its forks.

Recently Dan stopped by my house. He was on his way to a tournament at Turning Stone casino in New York. "But my cellphone's not working," he complained. He's on my family plan, a last vestige of dependence, and would have been eligible for an upgrade, but he didn't have time to stop by the store.

"Why don't you just take my phone?" I said. "I'm not going on any trips. I don't really need it."

While I worked my SIM card out of my phone and slid his in, I asked casually if he was paying his own way into this tournament. "I'm in the first couple rounds on my own," he said. "After that, I'm backed."

"Sounds good," I said. I focused on replacing the battery, snapping the back of the phone on. "How's the money holding up?"

"I've still got some."

I didn't ask more. I waved him off from the driveway. I was glad to know that, whether he ran into trouble on the road or with the cards, he'd have a way to get in touch.

Lucy Ferriss is a writer in residence at Trinity College and the author of the memoir "Unveiling the Prophet."

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