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By John W. Kennedy

Not that long ago the notion of a television series showing people sitting around playing cards seemed ludicrous. Of course, a few years ago the scene likely would have featured balding middle-aged men puffing on cigars in a smoke-filled back room.

Now, thanks to revolutionary camera angles, expert editing, youthful celebrity players, edgy humor and tournaments with huge payoffs, televised poker is trendy.

The craze started a couple of years ago when the Travel Channel achieved the highest ratings in its 17-year history by televising the World Poker Tour. Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million, advancing to the finals by paying just a $40 qualifying fee in an Internet game. The storybook ending of an unknown amateur walking away with the top prize motivated thousands of young people to learn the game.

The network developed new technology to show what cards players hold in their hands, effectively transporting viewers into players’ seats as part of the action. The crucial element to hold viewer interest is tiny “lipstick” cameras attached to the table showing the hidden hole cards.

These days channel surfers have a tough time avoiding gambling shows spawned by the success of the Travel Channel’s poker tour. Next month ESPN has continual coverage of the World Series of Poker. Only football and NASCAR draw higher ratings on the network.

Bravo runs Celebrity Poker Showdown with stars such as Brad Garrett, Lacey Chabert and Malcolm-Jamal Warner playing for charity.

A makeover of the Game Show Network, once known more for Family Feud reruns, has produced The World Series of Blackjack and Poker Royale: Battle of the Sexes.

Various televised card-playing programs draw 2 million viewers a week. There are multiple versions of poker, the most popular being a No-Limit Texas Hold’Em event in which each player is dealt two cards. Whoever can make the best hand of five additional “community” faceup cards wins.

Televised poker offers glamorous views of tension-packed tournaments, elements of stardom, instant wealth and respect by peers — all of which especially draw young people, according to Elizabeth M. George, chief executive officer of the North American Training Institute in Duluth, Minn.

Poker on TV is portrayed as a game of skill and strategy rather than its real main determinant: chance. The message conveyed is that with enough practice one will learn how to win, just as an aggressive investor intuitively knows how to play the stock market.

“The popularity of gambling generally doesn’t come with the message to young people that it isn’t a harmless activity,” says George, whose company trains casino employees how to notice the symptoms of problem gamblers.

An estimated 2 million young people have some form of gambling problem, according to Keith S. Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C. Whyte has been trying, unsuccessfully, to convince the networks carrying the programs to run public-service announcements (which his organization would provide for free) detailing the warning signs of compulsive gambling and phone numbers for help.

“Impressionable youth watching these shows receive no countervailing messages of responsibility, including the fact that it’s probably illegal in their state,” Whyte says. The legal betting age is 21 most places, and no company is allowed to operate a Web-based gambling site within U.S. borders.

Last Christmas, stores and Internet bidding sites couldn’t keep enough poker tables and chips in stock to meet consumer demand. Now a second-grader with a TV set in the bedroom can learn how to play Texas Hold’Em.

Whyte is also bothered by the use of celebrities as players. “Certainly you would not see a televised drinking tour to see how many shots of tequila a celebrity can down,” he says.

Whyte cites a study last year that showed 55 percent of high school students had watched a televised poker show, and 82 percent of those had gambled themselves.

A survey by the Crestwood, Ill.-based organization Gambling Exposed reveals that 32 percent of teens from Christian schools and church groups have bet on sports.

“We hear parents say, ‘I don’t care if my kids gamble because I know where they are,’ ” says Gambling Exposed co-founder Ken Darnell, a licensed Assemblies of God minister. “But down the line they have a greater risk of developing negative social consequences because of the habit.”

A multitude of researchers agree that youth who gamble early are three times as likely to become problem gamblers. In addition, students who gamble are more likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and use illegal drugs.

“Christian parents need to be alarmed by their child playing poker, whether it’s in someone’s basement or on the Internet,” says Chad Hills, gambling research analyst with Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. “It’s a gateway to gambling addiction.”

Darnell compares casinos hosting televised poker programs to cigarette manufacturers pushing candy replicas of their labeled products for children half a century ago. George points out that most people who smoke started as adolescents.

Those ages 12-17 gamble at the same rate — 70 percent — as adults. Whyte notes that this is the first generation to grow up with widespread state-sponsored legalized gambling, as well as implicit parental endorsement. Fifty percent of young people gamble with a family member, ranging from playing cards for money to an older adult buying a lottery ticket for them.

“We need to think about gambling the same way we think about exposing kids to alcohol and tobacco,” Whyte says. “Although it may start innocuously, you don’t know what problems are going to develop once they get started.”

Several high schools have banned gambling activities on campus. But potential gambling fixations aren’t on the radar screen of most school officials, according to George. In fact, it’s more likely that a high school will sponsor a “casino night,” in which parents dress up to look like dealers, oversee games on green-felt tables, dispense play money and distribute prizes.

“Parents and teachers would never have a kiddie cocktail night to teach youngsters how to shake a perfect martini,” George says.

Despite the fact those ages 18-24 have the highest rate of gambling problems, most colleges have no formal gambling policy.

With television and the Internet serving as gateways to addiction, it’s bound to grow worse, according to Hills. Odds are, there is a Texas Hold’Em poker game going on in the majority of college campus dormitories every evening of the week.

A few college students, lured by the temporary success of poker winnings, have even dropped out to become full-time players. “It’s almost like believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy to think you’re going to be able to make a living by gambling,” George says.

Gambling Exposed co-founder Jerry Prosapio can relate to gambling temptations facing today’s teens.

Prosapio began playing penny-ante poker with his third-grade friends. Sometimes the excitement of the game made him late for supper, but his parents considered it a harmless activity because they knew his whereabouts. As a teenager, however, Prosapio’s small-time betting progressed to high-stakes poker and horse racing.

Prosapio crossed the line into compulsive behavior when he gambled away his college tuition funds. Prosapio missed his college graduation ceremony; he spent the day at the racetrack instead.

In his 20s, craving more action, Prosapio placed sports bets with a bookie and gambled in casinos. In Las Vegas, two days after marrying his wife, Pat, he squandered the thousands of dollars they received as wedding gifts.

Prosapio says his gambling obsession opened the door to other sinful behaviors including alcoholism, drug abuse and pornography.

By age 31, Prosapio had gone bust in two businesses because of his addiction and maxed out 17 credit cards. In desperation, he took out a mafia loan — which he frittered away in three days. When an enforcer came to collect the missed payment — and threatened to kill his infant son — Prosapio realized he needed help.

In anguish he cried out, “God, I am so sick! Please help me.”

At a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, a Christian led Prosapio to a salvation relationship with Jesus Christ. He spent the next 15 years as an active GA member. For the past six years, Prosapio, now 53, has been in a Christian-based recovery group at The Stone Church, the Assemblies of God church he attends in Palos Heights, Ill.

The popularity of televised shows has helped propel gambling into a $73 billion a year industry in this country. Those energized by the prospects of winning as seen on television are inclined to visit a casino or sit down at their computer, where they can participate in a live poker game 24 hours a day.

Besides an increase in younger players, Whyte says there has been another huge demographic shift in the past 15 years. In 1990, men accounted for 80 percent of gamblers; now it’s only 50 percent.

Hills maintains that more women are becoming addicted to gambling either as a means to escape loneliness or in an effort to placate the chaos or monotony of daily life. Elderly widows fit the first category, stressed out business executives and bored housewives, the second.

Jeanie Clark started playing table bingo at age 14 at the local fairgrounds in Batesville, Ark. While other girls rode the Ferris wheel or bumper cars, Clark spent the entire evening monitoring her bingo cards. The thrill of possibly winning prizes such as drinking glasses and silverware kept her glued to her seat.

“It controlled my whole thought process,” Clark recalls. “Even if I won I wanted to stay and try to win big.”

As a young adult Clark managed a real estate office in Russellville, Ark., but the gambling passion remained strong. She went to bingo halls virtually every night, plunking down as much as $200 in hopes of winning $1,200. She left her four children at home with her husband, Paul.

As the compulsion took control, Clark began stealing money from her employer. Although she intended to pay it back, the pilfered amount continued to climb in an eight-month span.

Paul regularly took the children to church while Jeanie kept gambling. Two-and-a-half years ago, her then-7-year-old son Anthony convinced Clark to put her faith in Jesus. She confessed to her crime.

Upon being convicted of forgery, her first criminal offense, Clark received a nine-month prison term. Assemblies of God Chaplain Bob Holyfield and his wife, Betty, discipled the incarcerated Clark. “I don’t think I would have made it without Betty,” Clark says. “Knowing that a complete stranger cared and understood was very supportive.”

Clark is still repaying the $22,000 she stole from the real estate firm. She now works a third-shift factory job, no longer in the running for higher-paying office work.

About a month after Clark’s release from prison, a bingo hall opened less than 100 yards from her Pottsville, Ark., mobile home. “It’s amazing what Satan will put right in front of your doorstep,” she says.

The Gambling Exposed ministry is designed, in part, to reveal the spiritual toll the addiction can take. Darnell and Prosapio visit churches by invitation, presenting a clear, biblical perspective on gambling, as well as offering hope and healing for those in the throes of the addiction.

They face an uphill fight. A recent Barna Research poll reported that 45 percent of born-again Christians polled believed gambling is “morally acceptable.”

“Many church people take the position If you don’t get addicted to it, a little bit here and there is fine,” Darnell says. “But the very act of gambling is morally wrong. It’s not about the amount.”

A strong spiritual dimension is essential for recovering gamblers, Hills says. “They need to know the Holy Spirit is in their life to help them overcome that temptation when they drive by that casino every day,” he says.

Most compulsive gamblers don’t realize their habit is out of control until it’s too late: they are fired from their job; their car is repossessed; their spouse leaves; they try to commit suicide.

“No one is going to show up if a church starts a ministry for gamblers because they don’t think they have a problem,” says Jimmy Ray Lee, an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary who is president of Turning Point Ministries in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Addictions can make criminals out of people who never thought of committing a crime before, including Steven Shanholtzer.

Shanholtzer started gambling after he graduated from law school in 1993. As a result of a promising high-paying career, credit card companies began sending $10,000-limit preapproved applications in the mail. Backed by a line of credit, Shanholtzer trekked to riverboat casinos near his Kansas City, Mo., home. As he and his wife, Angie, expected the arrival of their first child, Shanholtzer had racked up more than $50,000 in debt. He filed for bankruptcy.

“I thought I had made some really bad choices,” Shanholtzer says. “I didn’t think I had an addiction.”

The Shanholtzers moved to Springfield, Mo., believing a three-hour drive to the nearest casino would deter cravings to place bets. Shanholtzer became a successful lawyer in a firm. Yet that success contributed to a return to his gambling pattern. He schemed to receive credit cards in only his name at his work address. He took business trips to cities with casinos, using travel advance checks to bet. The unethical pattern proceeded to illegal activities when he took kickbacks on cases and forged signatures.

Deep down Shanholtzer felt guilty. He had, after all, been raised in a Christian home and even attended Christian schools. Shanholtzer started gambling the same year he became a Christian — at age 9 — when he bet his brother Craig on basketball game outcomes. That led to dog track bets, and later blackjack, craps and video poker at casinos.

The tipping point came in 2001 when his wife and brother demanded he seek professional help. Shanholtzer spent three weeks in an Indianapolis treatment center. He confessed his wrongdoing to his firm and lost his law license.

But Shanholtzer didn’t realize the spiritual ramifications of his addiction until he joined Living Free, an addiction recovery program at James River Assembly of God in Ozark, Mo., under the auspices of Turning Point Ministries.

At Shanholtzer’s sentencing a year and a half ago the judge saw a courtroom packed with church friends and members of Shanholtzer’s support group. Instead of jail, the judge placed Shanholtzer, 36, on probation for five years and ordered him to repay $70,000, which he has done.

Thanks to reliance on God and their churches, Shanholtzer, Prosapio and Clark all survived their gambling nightmares. Their spouses staying with them through the ordeal was another powerful force for recovery.

At one point all three had successful careers, but they trace their addiction to what they considered innocent wagering as youth.

In today’s society gambling will continue to be portrayed as fun and games. If the current spate of televised shows isn’t enough, an around-the-clock casino and gambling television network featuring programs such as Indulgence and Who Wants to Be a Showgirl? is gearing up to go on the air.

With unprecedented accessibility and acceptability, how many young gambling addicts will be hooked this week?

John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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