When online poker stops being a game and turns into a compulsive habit, it can lead to addiction as powerful as alcohol or drugs. Winning gives poker addicts a rush, their form of getting “high.” They feel compelled to answer each loss with a win and follow each win with another, always striving for a higher high and affirmation of their abilities.
Time spent away from the online poker environment can be torturous. The addict must constantly return to the screen to get the next “fix.” As the lines between virtual reality and real life blur, the game takes over completely, overriding all deadlines, commitments and boundaries.
Warning Signs of Online Poker Addiction
Online poker addicts may not be aware of the huge dents they are making in their savings. Where they once played for real dollars, they now see only “credits” in a browser window. An addict can spend hours on end at the keyboard, losing track of time and forgetting to sleep or eat. Loved ones are ignored in the process. Nothing seems to matter but the game.
But online poker addiction does not happen overnight—one day fine, the next day dependent. It is a process that takes over a susceptible player gradually, almost imperceptibly, until certain signals emerge to announce trouble ahead. Interest is turning into obsession. Others begin to notice changes, such as the following.
• Unable to differentiate between money used for gambling and used for living.
• Inability to take a day or a weekend away from online poker rooms.
• Borrowing money from friends, relatives or financial institutions to play poker.
• Lying to family about amounts of time spent online and money lost playing poker.
• Loss of job interest and instead thinking about game strategies at the workplace.
• Mood swings characterized by sullenness, short temper, anxiety and/or depression.
Observing one or more of these symptoms, in one’s self or in someone close, should trigger concern. It could be time for an intervention. The situation may warrant immediate action to stop a growing compulsion from becoming full blown addiction.
Just as in cases of alcohol or drug abuse, the initial step is to admit there is a problem. Something is clearly not right. That step must be followed by a desire to get help. Only those who want to change will be able to take the remedial measures necessary to recover, which are several in approach and severity.
First, turn off the computer and stop playing. Take a break for at least a week. Get involved in other activities and monitor moods. Ask family and friends for support in going “cold turkey.” If the compulsion to play subsides, wait another week before going back online for a game.
If the time away becomes unbearable or the compulsion returns, cancel subscriptions to all poker web sites used. Withdraw any funds and pay off credit cards with them. Make it difficult to access games, using “parental controls” software to block connection to any site offering poker. Players can also ask to be listed in the “self prohibition” database of the poker rooms so that reregistering is not possible.
Then, join a self-help group, such as Gambler’s Anonymous in the United States or GamCare in the United Kingdom. The University of California at Berkeley also hosts a special Online Poker Addiction Forum (OPAF). There, players can learn more about their problem, join discussions with others who are recovering and find resources for further assistance.
Online poker addiction should not be taken lightly. It can ruin lives. Research indicates that at least 5% of all adult online players are compulsive, and as many as one in ten young adults who play will at some point succumb to addiction. None of them needs to face the problem alone. Help is there for anyone willing to reach out and accept it.