The surge in the popularity of poker among young people also has a downside.
More and more young people are calling gambling helplines, turning up in gamblers anonymous meetings and seeking help at high school and college counseling centers.
Both gambling experts and child advocates are wary of this poker phenomenon, and they worry about the future effects it will have on the individuals and society as a whole.
"Kids playing poker is like kids playing with loaded guns because one in 10 will not be able to get up," said Jennifer McCausland, whose Second Chance Washington foundation promotes legislation to secure permanent funding for treatment and prevention of problem gambling.
"The country is not equipped for the addictions that are going to follow this."
Local high schools are trying to help prevent possible addictions from spreading.
"Our stance is very simple," said John O`Breza, the Cherry Hill High School East principal. "This is a place for study and poker is not part of the culture at East. It`s not appropriate and not permitted."
Ed Looney, the executive director of The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey (CCGNJ), said his agency`s rule of thumb is 80 percent of all gamblers will have no problems, 15 percent will have some type of problems and 5 percent will become compulsive gamblers.
McCausland and others are concerned because if you multiply Looney`s 5 percent figure by the astounding increase in poker players in recent years, especially among young people, the number of potential compulsive gamblers is significant.
Americans are playing more poker and spending more money playing it.
A 2005 study by the American Gaming Association (AGA) reports that 1 in 5 Americans played poker in 2004, a 50 percent increase from 2003. The study states that 1 in 5 of those who say they play poker said they started within the last two years.
The AGA study also says that Americans playing in casinos in Nevada and New Jersey spent $151.7 million on organized poker in 2004, up 45 percent from 2003 when they spent $105.1 million.
Another study, by the University of Pennsylvania`s Annenberg Public Policy Center, found an 84 percent increase from 2003 to 2004 in card playing among males ages 14-22.
This increase in playing and spending has resulted in phone lines lighting up at gambling help centers.
The CCGNJ reported 18,250 calls to its toll-free, 24-hour help line (1-800-GAMBLER) in 2004. Twenty-eight percent of the calls were for problem gambling related to cards and dice. In 2003, only 4 percent of callers reported cards and dice as their problem.
And calls placed to the CCGNJ hotline by those under 21 years of age have risen steadily in the last three years, from two percent of all calls in 2002, to five percent in 2003, to six percent last year.
Gary M., the public relations coordinator of the South Jersey division of Gamblers Anonymous who said he is not permitted by GA to disclose his last name, says his branch has seen "a substantial increase in younger, poker-related problematic gamblers."
Dr. Greg Nicholls, who directs the counseling center at Saint Joseph`s University in Philadelphia, said he observed "a sudden spike" last semester in calls and visits to his office relating to poker.
Looney said his office made trips to 75 New Jersey high schools last year to discuss gambling and warn about its potential problems, after visiting just 35 high schools in 2003.
Unanimously, those interviewed for this story point to television as a major reason for the increase in poker playing among young people.
"The ESPN poker phenomenon, that`s where it`s coming from," Shawnee High School principal Charles Fleischman said. "Kids see it on TV and think it`s OK."
McCausland feels poker on TV should come with a rating like movies. And both she and Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, point to the way poker is portrayed on television as problematic.
"TV depicts only one side of the story, the winners," McCausland said. "It doesn`t depict how much money hundreds of thousands of people are losing. It`s very biased and one-sided."
Said Whyte: "The perception on these shows is that skill is more important than chance and that`s a dangerous message. The more likely you believe you can influence chance, the more likely you can have a gambling problem."
The experts also contend that the poker programs on TV don`t do enough in the way of warnings to viewers about the potential downsides of gambling.
"There`s more responsibility in a 30-second beer ad than an hour-long poker show," Whyte said.
Television networks recognize the sensitivity of the issue, but defend their poker programming.
ESPN spokeswoman Keri Potts said the network includes a public service announcement in each broadcast, and points to a recent five-part series on SportsCenter that focused on the ills of gambling.
She also said ESPN did not glamorize gambling in its recent dramatic series on poker, Tilt, and negatively portrayed gambling in Hustle, an ESPN-produced movie about Pete Rose`s life.
"We believe that monitoring what younger viewers tune in for is best left for parents, not television," Potts said.
Experts feel one of the best means to curb future gambling problems among young people is good parenting. That means recognizing the downsides of watching and playing poker.
"Adults, whether educators or parents, should know that children playing poker is not just harmless fun," McCausland said. "This is gambling and gambling is an addictive activity. Poker is chance and kids aren`t learning decision-making skills there. And if there were any benefit to playing poker, the potential for a gambling addiction erases them."
Said Looney: "Parents think as long as their kids aren`t doing drugs, it`s OK. But they don`t know (the downside)."
Whyte outlines four things parents should know:
Know the risks of gambling.
Know how to gamble responsibly.
Know the warning signs of gambling addiction.
Know where to get help.
"Gambling is a serious addiction and every problem gambler starts as a social gambler," Whyte said.