Student wins $120,000 by playing online poker

By Carly Needham

Faraz Jaka’s door looks more like a slice of Vegas than a University dorm room.

Playing cards and plastic poker chips cover the door, with Jaka’s favorite cards in marquis billing, spelling out his last name: Jack, Ace, King, Ace.

The array of cards continues on the inside, where for as many as 13 hours on a good night, Jaka sits with his laptop computer at a desk in the center of his room, tending to an online poker passion that he says has netted him $120,000 so far this year.

“I had never played in my life until last year,” the sophomore in LAS said, smiling.

Jaka’s success has made him something of a celebrity in Weston Hall, but not because he’s alone in his interest in online poker. Online gaming – poker in particular – has exploded in popularity at the University and around the nation as students – most of them men – place bets from $10 and up in pursuit of the big win.

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The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found an 84 percent increase in weekly card playing by young men aged 14 to 22 between 2003 and 2004. About 11 percent of weekly players said they placed bets at online poker sites, the survey stated.

The popular online site has about 70,000 active players, with about one in four of them between the ages of 18 and 25, according to Fergus Wheeler, chief of corporate communications for PartyPoker’s parent company, PartyGaming.

Cyndi Moriarity, the president of the Illinois Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling, said she used to get one call a year to treat teen and college gamblers. Lately she said she’s been getting three a month.

At the same time, the number of regular Gamblers Anonymous meetings in Illinois has grown from 15 sites to 60, including a regular Sunday meeting at 7 p.m. at the Pavilion, 809 W. Church St., in Champaign.

Players who know when to stop are in no real danger, provided they can pay their losses, Moriarity said. But she fears that young players are less likely to stop when they’re down.

“The high and the rush of gambling can be really lethal for kids,” she said.

Dan Romer, a senior research fellow with the Annenberg School’s Adolescent Risk Communication Institute, said addiction to gambling is like addiction to alcohol: not everyone who does it is going to get hooked.

But as the number of players increases, so does the number of potential addicts. The game is especially alluring in college dorms, Romer said, because there are large numbers of people, some staying up all hours, looking for something to do besides homework.

“All their buddies are there ready to play with them,” Romer said.

Students across campus hoping to emulate success like Jaka’s play almost religiously. Whether in the dorms, apartments, houses or frats and sororities,, and other sites are likely forms of entertainment in each residence, as the gambling obsession grows. Frequent visitors to these sites admit to spending five hours or more playing daily.

Serving as more than just a hobby for many young people, these gambling sites provide an accessible and convenient opportunity for income. Struggling college students have a new option when scrounging around for money-online gambling.

Brent Robbs, freshman in business, a steady PartyPoker patron and also a resident in Weston Hall, recently hit a High Hand Jackpot and won a hefty $7,000 in one game.

“It was like eight in the morning, but I jumped up and started yelling and waking everyone up when I won,” he said about his excitement.

As people hear of instances like this one, they are enticed by the thrill of the “big win.” Those who do not already play, start; and those who already do, play more frequently in the hope that they too will prove as fortunate.

“Before that day, though, I had won about $3,000 on my own,” Robbs said. “I usually play at least a few hours every day for fun.”

PartyPoker afforded one student, sophomore in ACES Ryan Gittings, enough cash to spontaneously go on vacation for spring break with his friends this year.

“I hadn’t planned on going with them, but at the last minute I won enough on ‘PP’ to go,” he said about his unexpected and well-timed earnings. Gittings said he plays regularly mainly just to win a little extra spending cash for the weekends.

Some students have used their winnings to help pay for their tuition, and a few others have said they don’t plan to look for summer work because they have already decided that they can make significantly more money just playing poker online all day.

All gamblers need to get in on the excitement is to be at least 18 and to present a credit card or personal bank statement information. Though the legal gambling age is 21 in the United States, one only has to be 18 to participate in Internet gaming. All of these gambling companies’ headquarters are located in other countries, such as Sweden or Antigua, because United States regulations will not permit the sites to have their businesses set up on U.S. soil.

Therefore, thanks to the the Internet, people under 21 can legally gamble since they are doing so “overseas,” right from the comfort of their own homes. There have been efforts to pass legislation to restrict online gaming sites based overseas, but the legal debate remains unresolved.

While the University of Illinois does not permit gambling on University property, as this activity would violate both state and federal laws, the virtual nature of online gambling evades this issue, according to Brooks Moore, assistant dean of students.

Ilene Harned, a McKinley Health Center health educator, said that she has not seen online gambling as a huge issue of concern here on campus yet, but that there are trained staff members at McKinley to provide counseling and guidance to those students in need. Few students come into Harned’s office seeking aid for gambling issues, but she said that when anyone does, there are always counselors available. Harned said she primarily specializes in alcohol and drug counseling, but is also trained for gambling, as it can also become an addiction.

Poker enthusiast Jaka brings the same exacting attention he pays to business into his poker hobby, recording his winnings in an Excel spreadsheet that shows him up as much as $170,000 at one point this semester.

Jaka said he started out playing $10 games with friends. Soon after he was down $70 and wondering if the game was too risky. He decided to play one more $20 game. If he lost that one, he said, he was done.

Jaka hit a $200 winning streak instead. He started learning more of the probability and math skills involved in the game, he says, thanks to a friend, University sophomore Ben Lefew. Today they’re good friends, in large part because of their shared love for the game.

“Whenever I learn a game I have ambition to get good at it,” Jaka said.

Jaka said he plans to invest some of the money, is in the process of buying a condo on campus to rent out to students and is even seeking out charities to help.

One week this year, Jaka said he and his roommate, freshman in engineering Mark Riley, got into an unusual cycle staying up all night – Jaka playing RoyalVegas and Mark playing another computer game called Command and Conquer – going to classes at 9 in the morning, coming home around 1 in the afternoon, sleeping until about 8 in the evening and then waking back up to repeat their cycle.

One night during their nocturnal schedule, his roommate exclaimed, “Yes, I just conquered China!” while Jaka then responded, “Yes, I just won $20,000 in that hand!”

Jaka said he won about $105,000 that week.

He plans to play professionally one day.

“I’m really big on living life to the fullest. I enjoy every minute of it,” he said. When asked how poker has changed his life, Jaka said, “It’s only helped me be what I want to be and follow my passion, and now I have a new passion, right? Poker.”